It’s been only seven years between first LTE smartphones becoming available and today, as 5G slowly takes-off. So I was musing a bit if the move from 4G LTE to 5G NR is similar to what we had in 2012 when the world slowly moved from 3G UMTS to 4G LTE.
Back in 2012, the mobile Internet was still in its very infancy. The year before, the Samsung Galaxy S2, the far distant ancestor of today’s Galaxy S10 saw the light of day. A few experimental variants had LTE on board but the mass market LTE smartphone introduction only came with the Samsung Galaxy S3-LTE. As the name suggests, there was an S3 without LTE support.
Things look very similar today. There is an LTE-only version of the S10 in several flavors that probably outsells 5G variant by a wide margin. Also, back in 2012, most people had no need to buy the LTE version of the S3, UMTS was still fast enough and there was still ample capacity in 3G networks. But usage was rising fast, data prices were dropping and by the time the Samsung Galaxy S4 was released there was no 3G variant anymore.
If one extrapolates from this then the S10 is like the S2, and thus, speculatively, the S11 might be like the S3, i.e. there might be 4G and 5G variants. The S12 might then be like the S4, i.e. there might only be 5G variants. That would be mid-2021 if history repeats itself.
Also, from a network capacity point of view I can see today that in most places there is still ample capacity in 4G networks. But not everywhere. When I was in Vienna recently I could only get 15-20 Mbit/s in the city center in the evening in most places, despite the use of 3-Carrier Aggregation (CA) with a combined bandwidth of 50 MHz. So by the time there are only a 5G variants of flagship models, people in many city centers will likely feel the ‘4G slowdown’ due to rising use. But like back in the days of the S3, I expect that even in mid-2021, many devices in the sub-300 Euro range will not have 5G on board yet. Not that I can tell the future, but that’s what I expect when I look back 7 years.
So the move from 4G to 5G might indeed be very similar to the move from 3G to 4G was seven years ago. On the other hand there is one big difference: Back seven years ago, most networks used 5 MHz or 10 MHz of spectrum for 3G, which, compared to the 60-80 MHz used in city centers by many network operators today, is not that much. Put on top that 5G, in the best case, will ‘only’ add 100 MHz. While back in 2012 it was no problem at all to make a clean break and just disregard the 3G spectrum, this won’t work for 5G as it doesn’t add an order of magnitude of additional spectrum. So I expect that 5G will be used in the current Non-Standalone Mode for quite some time to come. Long enough, at least, until a significant portion of the devices out there have migrated to 5G and network operators dare to re-farm the LTE spectrum for 5G. And this is where my crystal ball really gets hazy. I have no idea, when, let’s say 90% of the spectrum will be used for 5G and only 10% remains for LTE, and perhaps some for 2G and 3G. Will GSM ever die? Probably, but when? Yes, In the US, for example, AT&T has already discontinued service. But I don’t see a move like that in most European countries. Too much GSM-only machine to machine hardware in the market.
It will be interesting in 2022 to look back to this post and muse about which predictions turned out to be right and which ones did not.