5G networking was all the rage this week at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Despite all the sound and fury emanating from providers of carrier services and manufacturers of processors, such as Intel, very little has changed in terms of delivery of actual 5G networking services as far as most managed service providers (MSPs) are concerned.

Anticipation of 5G networking is running high because 5G networks employ millimeter waves operating at frequencies ranging between 30 and 300 gigahertz, compared to existing 4G networks that operate using bands below 6 GHz. However, millimeter waves don’t travel as far existing 4G radio signals. The fundamental difference between millimeter and radio waves is that millimeter waves vary in length between one to ten millimeters. In contrast, the length of a radio wave typically exceeds tens of centimeters. 

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Unfortunately, millimeter waves, originally employed in applications such as radar systems and satellites, can also be easily disrupted by foliage and don’t tend to travel well through buildings. To overcome those limitations, carriers have been augmenting existing cell towers with small cell stations that can be installed in things like a light pole. This allows them to create a denser wireless network capable of delivering network services on a more granular targeted basis. The goal is to not just make more wireless bandwidth available, but also deliver new classes of applications spanning artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality applications, and self-driving vehicles that are all enabled by the ability to process data locally in a couple of milliseconds.

To help fuel that transition, Intel previewed an instance of 10-nanometer processor technology, dubbed Snow Ridge, that Intel expects will be employed in base stations to process data coming in over millimeter wave connections. Navin Shenoy, executive vice president for the Data Center Group at Intel, says what makes Snow Ridge fundamentally different is that IT carriers will be able to prioritize the processing of the most latency-sensitive applications trying to access compute and networking resources.

Delivering 5G networking services requires carriers to invest in a rage of software-defined networking and virtualization technologies to make it possible to deliver 5G networking services in more granular slices. Carriers are also investing in open source networking technologies deployed on a variety of classes of commercial processors, along with modern management and orchestration (MANO) applications to drive 5G networking services.

What the developments in 5G networking means for MSPs

In general, MSPs should be excited about 5G networking because these services will drive new applications. For example, Mariah Scott, president of Skyward, spoke this week at CES and described how 5G networks will enable fleets of drones to gather data using what amount to aerial robots.

Chris Morley, CEO of Medivis, a provider of medical applications that incorporate virtual reality software, detailed how 5G networks will make it feasible to employ virtual reality to improve surgery, by providing a map of a patient’s body in real time. To help drive the development of more innovative 5G applications, Verizon announced it will make $1 million available for grant funding to organizations developing innovative 5G applications.

Despite all the excitement surrounding those applications, MSPs would be well advised to temper their expectations. Gartner forecasts that beginning in 2020, nearly two-thirds of the organizations surveyed expect to be employing 5G networking services for select use cases involving applications at the network edge. However, Gartner says most communication services providers will not achieve a complete end-to-end 5G infrastructure on their public networks until sometime between 2025 and 2030.

That fact is not getting in the way of carriers telling a good story. Carriers such as AT&T are already unapologetically rebranding what many consider to be a 4G service as being a 5G service. Marketing hype notwithstanding, it’s clear that 5G networking services are about to transform what is possible using IT. The challenge MSPs now face is determining where to place their bets on the applications that will have the biggest impact, hopefully sooner than later.

Photo: Sweet Ice Cream Photography / Unsplash

Mike Vizard

Posted by Mike Vizard

Mike Vizard has covered IT for more than 25 years, and has edited or contributed to a number of tech publications including InfoWorld, eWeek, CRN, Baseline, ComputerWorld, TMCNet, and Digital Review. He currently blogs for IT Business Edge and contributes to CIOinsight, The Channel Insider, Programmableweb and Slashdot. Mike blogs about emerging cloud technology for Smarter MSP.

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