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Why 4G still reigns supreme

The UK 5G launch season is in full swing, but Nick Sacke, Head of Products and IoT at Comms365, believes that it is a pale shadow of what we need.

At the time of writing, EE, Vodafone and Three have announced the availability of the UK’s first 5G networks, and O2 has announced launch plans. The new services are surprisingly limited in geographic coverage, performance and features, focusing on broadband only applications. With a significant challenges to overcome before 5G can become a business reality for UK companies it is time to set the ‘glass half empty’ promises of 5G to one side and leverage the proven quality, consistency and reliability of existing wireless networks, especially 4G, to support business communications infrastructure and growth.

Land grab

From businesses looking to achieve widespread IoT deployments, to those seeking a viable broadband and leased line replacement alternative or companies struggling in areas of rural connectivity deprivation, on paper, 5G appears to have all the answers.

The reality today is that 5G – where it is available – is providing enhanced mobile broadband and no more. For those with compatible devices, 5G will enable voice calls and broadband internet access. Even then, the promised speeds are not being delivered – customers can expect 150-200Mbps at best – this falls short of the gigabit speeds promised with both speed and coverage variable within the launch city locations.

The impact for businesses that want to make investments in high speed wireless technology, leveraging the value of repeatable, consistent, widespread and easy to use services, is that 5G is already a significant disappointment.

5G dissected

While the Tier 1 network providers are promising to rapidly expand the 5G network range – with EE planning to upgrade more than 100 sites to 5G every month – this is very much a work in progress. On the plus side, the 5G network will address the capacity issues facing overloaded 4G networks, enabling millions of additional connections on existing spectrum.

5G has been touted as a viable alternative to leased lines and a chance for companies to avoid expensive fibre or copper-based Ethernet connections. Unfortunately, the promised Fixed Wireless Access based on ‘millimeter wave’ (FWA) – essentially very high speed connections between two points – requires significant infrastructure change. Rather than towers, FWA demands very high antenna density, with small cells (antennas) deployed on buildings, street furniture and lamp posts 10 metres apart. Network providers have overestimated the willingness of local authorities and building owners to provide the planning permission required to install antennas on lampposts and buildings. Without antenna density, FWA is not a viable, scalable option for business connectivity; at best companies will have to wait three years or more before 5G offers a viable wireless leased line alternative.

Mature 4G services

5G is disappointing but companies cannot afford to postpone network investments in wireless primary and backup services indefinitely. The good news is that 4G networks are now mature – and that means both widely available and reliable. The arrival of 5G will address the burgeoning capacity issue for 4G, which is great news, and recent market price adjustments have taken 4G out of the last resort category and into a viable option for primary and resilience connectivity.

4G is proven to support VoIP and unified communication streaming. It can also be used for machine-to-machine communication. Software Defined Networking (SDN) enables 4G to be blended with other networks to deliver primary connections that deliver a reliable and affordable leased line alternative. Furthermore, although the entire IoT aspect of 5G has been shelved for now for both EE and Vodafone, with 4G, IoT is deliverable today using the unlicensed spectrum and other standards, including NarrowBand IoT and LoRaWAN, to enable mass IoT deployments.

Critically, all of these services come with SLAs; networks are reliable and accessible. Essentially, it is possible today to meet business needs for affordable and consistent primary and secondary connectivity services with the existing 4G network infrastructure.

While waiting for the promise of 5G to be realised, businesses can extract significant value from 4G today. And with further price disruption expected within the market, the cost model will become ever more compelling, for primary, secondary and IoT connectivity.

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