5G is a big letdown and took a “back seat” at CES 2022; U.S. national spectrum policy in the works

It’s Not Just You: 5G Is a Big Letdown,” is the title of a Wall Street Journal on-line article published today (January 11, 2023).  Author Joanna Stern writes:

I turned off Verizon’s red down pointing triangle 5G on my iPhone—and barely noticed a difference. The 4G LTE performance and coverage felt just about the same.

Three years since the U.S. cellular carriers lit up their next-generation networks and promised to change the game, the game hasn’t changed. And if you’re among the millions of Americans who recently upgraded, you probably already know that. In 2022, 61% of U.S. cellular customers accessed 5G networks, according to Global Wireless Solutions, a network testing and research company.

On Verizon’s Ultra Wideband network, I got 500 Mbps down. But I didn’t notice a difference when streaming Netflix, watching TikTok, loading websites or sending messages. You don’t need a fire hose to extinguish a candle.

Where you might see a difference is during commuting hours and other times of heavy congestion, Chetan Sharma, a telecom-industry analyst, told me. A Verizon spokesman said that 5G’s higher data capacity helps at concerts, sporting events and other crowded areas where everyone is trying to download or upload photos or videos.

“As cars, smart home standards, and so many screens took center stage at this year’s [CES] show, 5G took a back seat,” concludes  a Verge article titled, “Where was 5G at CES?” “After years of hype, 5G was seemingly a no-show at CES 2023.”  The Verge article continues knocking 5G (and for good reason):

For starters, we’re all sick of hearing about it. And CES has a unique way of rallying around a technology one year and then leaving it for dead the next.

And there was always a time limit on 5G’s newsworthiness — at a certain point, when it becomes the prevailing wireless technology, it’s not going to be “5G the new thing;” it’ll just be “the internet you use when you’re not on Wi-Fi.”

More than any of the above, the time has passed where wireless CEOs feel they need to sell 5G to the general public (and, of course, their shareholders). It’s not a niche new service anymore; it’s the default option (in the U.S. at least). Basically every new phone sold on their shelves is 5G compatible, and mid-band 5G finally exists on all major carriers in large parts of the US. The next time you walk into a wireless store to buy a new phone or sign up for a new service, you’ll have a very hard time leaving without a 5G device and plan, regardless of whether you really wanted them.

So now we have 5G phones in our hands, 5G networks are here, and… not much has changed. Maybe web pages load a little faster — hardly robot surgery. What gives? The thing is, rolling out 5G is a long ongoing process. The hype made it seem like all the good stuff was just around the corner, but truthfully, it was (and still is) years and years away.

So yes, you may have a 5G icon on your phone, but the most transformative aspects of 5G are supposedly still in the works. That’s a tough message to sell in a flashy keynote, especially when everyone in the room has access to the technology you’re talking about.

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The IEEE Techblog in general, and this author in particular, have been pounding the table for years that 5G would be a colossal tech train wreck for these reasons:

1.  3GPP Release 16 URLLC in the RAN spec and performance testing have not been completed.  Hence the URLLC in 3GPP Release 15 and ITU M.2150 recommendation do not meet the critically important URLLC ITU M.2410 performance requirements for ultra high reliability or ultra low latency. Here is the latest status of URLLC in the RAN in the 3GPP Release 16 specification as of 6 January 2023:

–Physical Layer Enhancements for NR Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communication (URLLC) NR_L1enh_URLLC 1 Rel-16 R1 6/15/2018 12/22/2022 96% complete RP-19158

–UE Conformance Test Aspects – Physical Layer Enhancements for NR URLLC NR_L1enh_URLLC-UEConTest 2 Rel-16 R5 12/14/2020 12/22/2022 90% complete RP-202566 RP-221485

2.  There is no implementation standard for 5G SA Core network– only 3GPP reference architecture specs which list alternative implementation schemes, most of which are “cloud native.”  That resulted in a lot of telco confusion that delayed the roll out of 5G SA networks such that most 5G deployed today is NSA which uses 4G LTE core network and functions.  Dell’Oro Group’s Dave Bolan wrote in a white paper:

The 5G Core is the key to monetizing the 5G SA network bringing MNOs (Mobile Network Operators) into the modern cloud era, allowing the MNO to (1) offer new services quickly with Cloud-Native Network Functions, (2) add Network Slices on demand for mobile private networks, and (3) address latency-sensitive applications with MEC. These new opportunities cannot be addressed by 4G or 5G NSA networks, and the sooner an MNO embraces 5G SA networking, the closer it will be to reaping new revenue streams.

3.  ALL of the 3GPP defined 5G functions and features, require 5G SA Core network.  Those 5G functions include 5G security, network slicing, and automation/virtualization.  MEC also needs a 5G SA Core network to work efficiently with a 5G RAN.  There are relatively few 5G SA Core networks deployed and for those that are, there are few of the highly touted 5G functions available, e.g. T-Mobile is a case in point.

4.  There is no standard for roaming between 5G networks, especially not when there are different versions of 5G SA core networks- each requiring a different software download for 5G endpoint devices.  Hence, 5G is not truly mobile in the sense of portability.  5G is probably best used for FWA or local M2M/IoT communications where there are no roaming requirements.

5.  There is no standard for 5G Frequency Arrangements (ITU M.1036 revision 6) which are critically important for all the mmWave frequencies specified at WRC 19 for 5G, but frequency arrangements not yet agreed upon by ITU-R WP 5D.

6.  5G base station and endpoint device power consumption is very high, especially for the mmWave frequencies which deliver the fastest 5G speeds.

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5G in India:

Mike Dano of Light Reading writes that the U.S. is working on a national spectrum policy, presumably for 5G (and later) 6G.

The White House is working through the NTIA to develop a national spectrum strategy that would cover 5G, 6G and other spectrum users.

According to FierceWireless, National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) chief Alan Davidson said that work would continue throughout this year.  Speaking at last week’s CES conference in Las Vegas, Davidson reminded the audience that the NTIA manages federal spectrum use and serves as the President’s advisor on spectrum policy.  That  means that the NTIA works together with the FCC to manage spectrum when a federal user is involved. From a practical perspective, the Department of Defense has historically held a lot of valuable spectrum for national security use, making the DoD an incumbent user in many spectrum bands.

 

Spectrum auction

The NTIA manages federal spectrum use and serves as the President’s advisor on spectrum policy. (Image Credit: Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

In 2023 NTIA will be working with federal agency partners to develop a national spectrum strategy, which will provide a long-term plan to meet both commercial and federal spectrum needs.

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Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) said they’re taking stock of the agency’s spectrum usage in order to potentially release some for commercial uses, according to SpaceNews.  “It is an ongoing challenge.  We expect to have to fight for maintenance of spectrum. But at the same time, we realize we’re not going to win every fight,” said Steve Volz, NOAA Satellite and Information Service assistant administrator on January 11th at the American Meteorological Society meeting.

Spectrum for 5G and 6G is a critical national policy topic:

“Continuing to meet increasing consumer demand and expectations, ensure continued growth of the US economy, bridge the digital divide, and facilitate global leadership on next-generation technologies requires sufficient spectrum resources,” wrote the CTIA, the US wireless industry’s main trade association. “Accordingly, it is imperative that the commission continually replenish its pipeline of spectrum allocated for commercial mobile and fixed broadband services.”

“America needs a national strategy to make sure there is enough spectrum to build out 5G networks and not fall behind China,” wrote Mike Rogers, a former Congressional representative from Michigan who authored a report critical of China’s Huawei, in The Hill.

Joel Thayer, of the Digital Progress Institute, agreed. “If we cannot get our act together and follow an all-of-the-above spectrum strategy, we cede the race to 5G and even 6G to China. Full stop,” he wrote in The Hill.

Such arguments strongly echo the “race to 5G” rhetoric that was ubiquitous in policy circles in the early days of 5G.

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References:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/its-not-just-you-5g-is-a-big-letdown-11673441300

https://www.theverge.com/2023/1/7/23541118/5g-ces-2023-qualcomm-iot-wireless

https://www.lightreading.com/6g/amid-5g-gloom-wireless-industry-starts-rallying-for-6g-spectrum/d/d-id/782663?

https://www.fiercewireless.com/wireless/ntia-develop-national-spectrum-strategy-2023

NOAA takes stock of spectrum amid ongoing challenges

Another Opinion: 5G Fails to Deliver on Promises and Potential

Cheerleading from 5G Americas contradicts disappointing financial results from 5G telcos

Ericsson expects RAN market to be flat with 5G build-out still in its early days; U.S. cellular industry growth to slow in 2023

Ookla: State of 5G Worldwide in 2022 & Countries Where 5G is Not Available

5G Core – The Key to Monetizing 5G Standalone Networks

SDx Central: 5G Disappoints at MWC 2021

Performance analysis of big 3 U.S. mobile operators; 5G is disappointing customers

 

Strand Consult: What NTIA won’t tell the FCC about Open RAN

by John Strand, CEO and Founder of Strand Consult (see company profile and bio below)

Introduction:

In “NTIA Comments on Promoting the Deployment of 5G Open Radio Access Networks,” (Docket Number: GN-Docket No. 21-63) the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) makes many claims about Open RAN [1] and states what appears to be official U.S. Executive Branch policy promoting that technology.  In particular:

As stated in the Implementation Plan of the National Strategy to Secure 5G, the U.S. Executive Branch agrees that “close coordination between the United States Government, private sector, academic, and international government partners is required to ensure adoption of policies, standards, guidelines, and procurement strategies that reinforce 5G vendor diversity and foster market competition.”  One promising solution in line with these objectives is open, interoperable networks, including Open RAN. While this response focuses on Open RAN, the Executive Branch’s policy is to promote the development of Open RAN alongside other policies, technologies, and architectures that support 5G vendor diversity and foster market competition.

Strand Consult analyzes these claims, their references, and the assumptions underpinning them from security and economics perspectives. Strand Consult’s report also includes an appendix fact checking 35 claims by NTIA and well as 133 additional references to help investigate the technology.

OpenRAN (open radio access network) is an evolving topic. It is an industrial concept, not a technical standard. Stakeholders, including NTIA may define OpenRAN differently, provide different definitions, ascribe different purposes to it, and have different expectations.

Editor’s Note: 

There are two Open RAN spec writing bodies- the O-RAN Alliance and the Telecom Infra Project Open RAN Group. Neither of them have a liaison with either 3GPP or ITU-R WP 5D which have produced specifications/standards for 4G-LTE Advanced and 5G RAN/RIT specifications (3GPP  Release 10 and Release 15 & 16, respectively) and ITU-R standards (M.2012-4, and M.2150, respectively).  The O-RAN Alliance does have a liaison arrangement with GSMA which this author claims was an Ultra-Oxymoron.

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Strand Consult’s research question is to determine if, when, and how OpenRAN and O-RAN will replace conventional RAN on a 1:1 basis without compromising network quality, security, energy efficiency, and other important factors. Mobile operators have little ability to raise price, so operators must compete on network quality coverage and other factors.

Executive Summary:

We don’t believe NTIA’s comments provide insight to answer our questions. Strand Consult has found that most of the comments in NTIA’s report restate talking points from the OpenRAN industry and present policy arguments as if they were fact or technical analysis. As advisor to the US President and policy lead for the Executive Branch on telecommunications, NTIA is considered an authority and is expected to produce serious, objective policy. Indeed it would be welcome for an objective report from NTIA on OpenRAN with an authoritative list of critical references and information from test installations of the technology. Unfortunately NTIA’s report falls short of this expectation.

In our opinion, the main shortcoming of the report is that NTIA has either overlooked, ignored, or is unaware of the role of Chinese vendors in the OpenRAN industry. The separate but related ORAN Alliance has 44 Chinese vendors, many which are explicitly state-owned and military-aligned. At least 7 of these entities are on the US Dept of Commerce Entity List and others have lost their Federal Communications Commission operating license.  NTIA has not conducted a security assessment of OpenRAN and yet it blesses the technology and pronounces that it is Executive Branch policy to pursue it.  Strand Consult investigates NTIA’s other comments about the infrastructure market, competition, prices, and innovation and finds that many of them are either unevidenced or proffered by self-interested OpenRAN actors.

O-RAN Alliance Reference Architecture:

Image Credit:  O-RAN Alliance

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Strand Consult’s Analysis:

In an effort to lift the level of policy discussion, Strand Consult reviewed “NTIA Comments on Promoting the Deployment of 5G Open Radio Access Networks” from July 16th to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) a part of the Inquiry in the proceeding on open radio access networks (Open RAN). The highly respected NTIA is chartered to advise the President and represent the Executive Branch view on telecommunications, and there is an expectation that NTIA’s reports are objective, authoritative, and empirical, particularly with its roster of employee scientists and technologists. The document submitted to the FCC appears to be written by staff lawyers and makes many debatable claims which are either unsupported or based on advocacy materials from the OpenRAN industry.

NTIA’s OpenRAN document does not live up to expectations for the following reasons:
 Its lack of objectivity and empirical support
 Its overlooking role of Chinese vendors in OpenRAN ecosystem
 Its misunderstanding of the economics of infrastructure and innovation
 Its unfounded assertions about competition and the role of OpenRAN.

Lack of objectivity and empirical support. Citing of interested parties as experts. The OpenRAN document published by NTIA offers very little empirical, or even academic policy, evidence for its assertions. Most of references cited, 55%, come from OpenRAN advocacy groups or companies with a financial interest in OpenRAN, for example self-described OpenRAN vendors. The main part of the document’s references are not technical studies but rather policy arguments.

Moreover, NTIA fails to disclose that its preferred sources are advocacy organizations. While there is nothing illegal about citing advocacy organizations, government agencies like NTIA are supposed to be above touting advocacy as fact, science, and official policy.

The O-RAN Alliance [2] develops technical specifications for 4G and 5G RAN internal functions and interface, not for 2G and 3G. The O-RAN Alliance is not a standards development organization (SDOs) [3] like ITU-R and ITU-T. The O-RAN Alliance does not satisfy the openness criteria laid down in Word Trade Organization Principles [4] for the Development of International Standards, Guides and Recommendations.

The O-RAN Alliance is a closed industrial collaboration developing technical RAN specification on top of 3GPP specifications and ITU-R standards for 4G and 5G.

While industrial cooperation is important, there can be no mobile networks without the basic work of organizations like ITU-R WP 5D, 3GPP (which is NOT a SDO) and its seven regional members (which are SDOs) [5].

OpenRAN concepts include: cloudification, automation and open RAN internal interfaces do follow some elements of 3GPP specifications.

It appears that NTIA is attempting to elevate the O-RAN Alliance, essentially a closed association, with established WTO compliant SDOs (e.g. ITU and IEEE) and global consortia like 3GPP. Such an elevation is false and deceptive, and NTIA should clarify why it promotes a closed association that doesn’t meet openness requirements in WTO.

NTIA could have balanced this shortcoming by referencing some the widely published critical reviews of OpenRAN. Unfortunately, it does not. For example, U.S. federal documents can create credibility by objectively stating competing views and discussing the merits, similar to the Congressional Research Service [6].

Because NTIA appears only to provide favorable views of OpenRAN from interested parties, its document is tainted with bias. It reads like a set of talking points from the OpenRAN Policy Coalition, the a front for the OpenRAN industry’s interests.

Overlooking the role of Chinese vendors in the OpenRAN ecosystem:

Another shortcoming is the apparent ignorance of the role of Chinese vendors in the OpenRAN ecosystem. NTIA forgets to name the 44 Chinese companies that make up the second largest national group in the O-RAN Alliance. It failed to disclose that seven of these actors are either on the U.S. Entity List [7] and have lost their FCC license to operate [8] . Those companies include: China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom, ZTE, Inspur, Phytium and Kindroid, companies
which are integrated with the Chinese government and military.

Nor does NTIA disclose that the European telco Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) [between Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, TIM, Vodafone and Orange] that OpenRAN should be built on top of Kubernetes [9], which is  a software
technology platform that has been infiltrated by the Chinese.

While it began life in 2014 as a Google project, Kubernetes currently is under the jurisdiction of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation, an offshoot of the Linux Foundation (perhaps the world’s largest open-source organization).

By late 2017, Huawei had gained a seat on the Kubernetes Steering Committee. Huawei claims to be the fifth-biggest contributor of software code to Kubernetes.

According to the “Report on the 2020 FOSS Contributor Survey” [10] from The Linux Foundation & The Laboratory for Innovation Science at Harvard, the open source community spends very little time responding to security issues (an average of 2.27% of their total contribution time) and reports that it does not desire to increase this metric significantly.

It appears to be a problem that Huawei and ZTE are increasingly involved in the leading open source technology 11 used by OpenRAN developers. It is not clear how this acceptance of Chinese involvement in OpenRAN is consistent with President Biden’s tough stance on security vis-à-vis China and other threat actors [12].

Conclusions:

NTIA’s document appears to endorse the O-RAN Alliance for the security of OpenRAN. However, NTIA doesn’t provide technical analysis or a security assessment of O-RAN Alliance specifications. It is not clear from the document whether NTIA had access to these specifications to conduct an assessment. In any event, ORAN Alliance members exchange specifications on OpenRAN every 6 months. This means that the 44 Chinese companies in the O-RAN Alliance get fresh OpenRAN “code” at least twice a year, NTIA provides no threat analysis, risk assessment nor potential mitigation of these processes.

–>This is a breathtaking omission that alone warrants further attention by the NTIA.

NTIA could have strengthened its credibility by providing an authoritative, empirical document to inform policymakers objectively about OpenRAN. Instead NTIA offers a document which merely restates the talking points of OpenRAN advocacy groups and industry. This fails the U.S. Executive branch and the American people who expect quality information and impartial judgement from an expert agency.

More importantly, the NTIA document mis-informs readers about the security risks of OpenRAN which greatly extends the cyber security attack surface with its many “open interfaces.”

Hopefully, NTIA will review the empirical information and update its assessment in a new report.

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Readers who know something about OpenRAN are welcome to weigh in with their comments in the box below this article.

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Notes & Hyperlinks:

1. https://www.ntia.gov/fcc-filing/2021/ntia-comments-promoting-deployment-5g-open-radio-access-networks

https://www.ntia.gov/files/ntia/publications/ntia_comments_-_open_ran_noi_gn_21-63_7.16.21.pdf
2. https://www.o-ran.org/
3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standards_organization          4. https://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/tbt_e/principles_standards_tbt_e.htm
5. https://www.3gpp.org/about-3gpp

6. Disruptive Analysis Report: Telecom & 5G Supply Diversification A long term view: demand diversification, Open
RAN & 6G path dependence

https://www.linkedin.com/postsdeanbubley_disruptive-analysis-5g-supply-diversification-activity-6763038817348808704-jaAY

https://www.lightreading.com/open-ran/verizon-t-mobile-outline-their-open-ran-fears/d/d-id/769201  https://www.lightreading.com/open-ran/open-ran-has-missed-5g-boat-says-three-uk-boss/d/d-id/766258?
7. https://www.bis.doc.gov/index.php/policy-guidance/lists-of-parties-of-concern/entity-list
8. https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-denies-china-mobile-telecom-services-application-0 
https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-china-telecom-idUSKBN2B92FE  9.https://www.telefonica.com/documents/737979/146026852/Open-RAN-Technical-Priorities-Executive-Summary.pdf/cdbf0310-4cfe-5c2f-2dfb-c68b8c8a8186
10. Page 5 of: https://www.linuxfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2020FOSSContributorSurveyReport_121020.pdf
11. https://merics.org/en/short-analysis/china-bets-open-source-technologies-boost-domestic-innovation
12. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-biden-cyber-war-idUSKBN2EX2S9

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About Strand Consult:

Strand Consult is an independent consultancy with 25 years of telecom industry experience.  Strand Consult is known for its expert knowledge and many reports which help mobile operators and their shareholders navigate an increasing complex world. It has 170 mobile operators from around the world on its client list.

John Strand (photo below) is CEO of Strand Consult.  He founded Strand Consult in 1995.

The mobile industry exploded in the 1990s, and Strand Consult grew along with its new clients from the mobile industry, analyzing market trends, publishing reports and holding executive workshops that have helped telecom operators, mobile services providers, technology manufacturers all over the world focus on their business strategies and maximizing the return on their investments.

References:

https://www.ntia.doc.gov/fcc-filing/2021/ntia-comments-promoting-deployment-5g-open-radio-access-networks

ntia_comments_-_open_ran_noi_gn_21-63_7.16.21.pdf (doc.gov)

https://www.o-ran.org/

OpenRAN MoU Group

Ultra Oxymoron: GSMA teams up with O-RAN Alliance without liaison with 3GPP or ITU

Strand Consult: The 10 Parameters of Open RAN; AT&T memo to FCC

Strand Consult: 5G in 2019 and 2020 telecom predictions

Strand Consulting: Why the Quality of Mobile Networks Differs