Amid all the attention 5G is getting, it’s often easy to forget that it isn’t an all-new, magical technology that does what nothing has before. It will do it so much better.

We have 4G networks to thank for setting the stage for the evolution and migration to 5G. And it’s not like 4G networks are going away. The continuous and boundless connectivity that 5G networks promise will rest on a foundation of coexistence with 4G networks – and other network technologies.

The idea is that they will all work together harmoniously to deliver a high-speed, reliable, and secure broadband experience, and support a vast menu of use cases for enterprises and users.

To paraphrase Shakespeare, 5G hasn’t come to bury 4G, but to enhance and integrate with it. Unlike voice-oriented 2G and 3G (primarily circuit-switched networks trying to accommodate packet-switching principles), 4G is a fully packet-switched network optimized for data services.

Because 5G builds on this packet switching capability, 4G and 5G networks can happily coexist for the foreseeable future, since the migration from 4G to 5G does not imply or require a major shift in the underlying technology.

From the start, 4G was envisioned as a futuristic project, which is why the acronym LTE (Long Term Evolution) was attached to it. LTE laid the foundation for future iterations of a packet-based mobile network

What 5G does is truly and finally move the design model from voice-oriented to data-oriented. And these networks are multi-access – via 5G New Radio, 4G, Wi-Fi, or the fixed broadband network. At the radio level, progressive and advanced designs provide massive MIMO and simultaneous transmission of 4G and 5G from the same radio mast.

It follows that 5G networks will be flexible and modular, with technologies such as network slicing; software defined networks (SDN); network function virtualization (NFV); and cloud radio access network (cloud RAN). A flexible architecture enables overall network capacity increases by adding small cells to complement macro networks. In addition, completing the standardization of APIs towards the underlying infrastructure will be the key to automating connectivity to these heterogeneous networks.

The question of identity

This new network model will pose some challenges around identifying users, devices, and the various associations formed between the two. For example, a device may need to be associated with a manufacturer (for lifetime maintenance), an owner (who pays for the services consumed by the device) and a user.

These challenges aren’t new, but have been mostly solved in previous generation systems by third party service providers, resulting in closed environments and little interoperability. A standard identity and management framework (for access and privileges) will become increasingly important in order to simplify interworking between different solutions.

Lessons from the enterprise

Providers can look to enterprises for guidance in this new environment, since enterprises have been deploying virtualization technologies for more than 30 years. Virtualization has helped organizations manage and shift IT resources from mundane tasks to strategic projects that create value for the business.

For instance, network slicing – enabled by NFV and SDN – allows creation of two or more virtual networks with different performance parameters over a single physical network infrastructure. Each of the virtual/logical networks can serve a specific purpose. Conceptually, it can be depicted as slicing a physical network into many networks for specific use cases that address varying client requirements.

Network slices and the software-centric nature of 5G offer a clear separation between functionality and infrastructure. Network slices were introduced to support the diverse requirements of 5G applications and provide traffic isolation and a design that supports the mix of applications running within the slice.

5G migration opportunities

There are tremendous opportunities for both enterprises and providers in the 5G era. One is the enhancement of the traditional core business of communications and data services between provider and enterprise, which extends to consumers and partners. Enterprises will evolve their current commercial models and use cases accordingly.

There are opportunities in ecosystem innovations or partnerships that presume a more-connected world. Pull-through innovations such as augmented or virtual reality entertainment will encourage customers to upgrade and migrate to 5G. Where 4G ushered in innovative applications and companies (Uber would not have been possible without 4G), 5G is sure to yield significant enhancements.

To meet these opportunities requires new domain expertise, including data science, analytics, and machine learning, and an architectural re-envisioning of how a network is deployed and run. Enterprises will either develop these competencies in-house or source them externally.

With more than five billion unique mobile users at the start of 2019, mobile has a greater reach than any other technology, making it the most important consumer or enterprise technology product today. In that sense, 5G is a necessary upgrade, ensuring relevance to consumers, enterprises, governments, and society in general.

The trick, as always, will be to understand what consumers and enterprises really want and then meet those demands.