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5G Begins to Take Shape as Mobile Vendors Make Strides

February 25, 2015

When it comes to what’s next for wireless, most people are still talking about rolling out LTE-Advanced, or layering on apps like Voice over LTE (VoLTE). In many parts of the world, the 4G rollout remains nascent. But already, engineers are starting to focus on what’s collectively known as 5G—a collection of nebulous guidelines meant to address the next generation of mobile communications.

5G wireless networks will support 1,000-fold gains in capacity, connections for at least 100 billion devices and a 10Gbps individual user experience capable of extremely low latency and response times, to support applications like multiuser UltraHD telepresence, real 3D, virtual reality and augmented reality services and so on.

It may sound over-aspirational, but it’s no secret that operators are facing exploding requirements for carrying rapidly escalating amounts of mobile data and video—requirements that will drive big network changes going forward.

4G Will Soon Be Inadequate

From its infancy in the dial-up days of the early 90s, the modern World Wide Web has become a great unwieldy beast that consumes resources at an alarming clip: By 2019, global mobile IP traffic will reach an annual run rate of 292 exabytes, up from 30 exabytes in 2014, according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index. Global network users will generate 3 trillion Internet video minutes per month—the equivalent of 6 million years of video, 1.2 million video minutes every second, or more than two years’ worth of video every second. Most of it from mobile connections.

And the scope of the connectedness is escalating too: More than a third of the world population is now online, and smart mobile devices are growing ever more popular. There will be 5.2 billion global mobile users, up from 4.3 billion in 2014—and 11.5 billion mobile-ready devices and connections.

So what does all of this mean? For one, everything will screech to a jarring halt without the floodgate networks required to carry all of that traffic. On the wireline side, operators are trenching fiber to support 100Mbps—it’s a slow process, but it’s happening and the technology is understood. On the wireless side though, there’s much work to be done to evolve today’s 4G networks to meet the challenge of what’s coming and to interface with what’s happening on the wireline side.

There’s also the fact that the amount of spectrum available now is not sufficient to carry exponentially growing mobile traffic—it’s widely feared that even with LTE, capacity will be tapped out in just a few years, unless more than twice the spectrum currently available is freed up. That can be done either through relicensing or, preferably, through optimization and driving efficiencies into the radio access network (RAN). It’s the latter that 5G is meant to address.

Image via Shutterstock.

5G Leadership

Unsurprisingly, designing the future networked society is a key goal of the European Commission’s Europe 2020 Initiative’s Digital Agenda. It envisions a next generation of communication systems that will likely be the first instance of a truly converged network where wired and wireless communications will use the same infrastructure. This future ubiquitous, ultra-high bandwidth communication infrastructure, also known as 5G, will drive everything else, in the EU’s view.

According to Huawei, one of the vendors providing early thought leadership on the subject, 5G will enable networks capable of providing “zero-distance connectivity between people and connected machines.” The Chinese powerhouse is one of Europe’s biggest telecom suppliers, and has pledged to spend $600 million through 2018 to develop 5G.

Deployment of these networks will likely emerge between 2020 and 2030, driving economic and societal growth in entirely new ways, especially in emerging areas such as machine-to-machine communication (M2M) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

“The average 10-year time cycle between two generations of communications infrastructures is quickly shrinking,” the EC explained in its Digital Agenda brief. “Therefore, now it's time to kick-start 5G investment and position European industrial players in order to seize the first-mover advantage.”

Individual countries are stepping up too: the UK for instance has given a $56 million-dollar grant to the

Communication Systems Research Centre, spearheaded by academics at Surrey University. The Centre is working with a range of vendors, including Samsung, Huawei and AIRCOM International.

Technical Underpinnings

5G may represent an entirely new era of communications, but its air interfaces will be built largely upon evolved existing wireless technologies (LTE, HSPA, GSM and Wi-Fi). The idea is to boost the efficiency of the radio signal through advances in radio transmission and reception technology, as a starting point.

Of course, there will also be breakthroughs in wireless network innovation when it comes to new radio access technologies (RAT). Dr. Wen Tong, Huawei’s head of wireless research and head of the company’s communications-technologies labs, said that the industry needs to overhaul the way that devices themselves connect to the network with “a new radio access protocol,” he said.

Commercial-ready 5G network solutions will require multiple access and advanced waveform technologies, combined with coding and modulation algorithms; interference management; mass-scale MIMO; and single frequency full duplex radio technologies. An adaptive network solution framework will also become a necessity for accommodating both LTE and air interface evolution, encompassing cloud, software-defined networking and network function virtualization (NFV) technologies.

There are some early signs of progress. Chinese powerhouse ZTE for example recently conducted pre-commercial field testing of multi-user and multi-stream transmission on a Massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output) base station, setting new records in single-carrier transmission capacity and spectral efficiency. Peak data throughput was three times higher than traditional base stations, and average data throughput that exceeds conventional systems by at least five times.

ZTE’s calls it “pre5G multi-user/multi-stream spatial multiplexing technology,” with user handsets based on existing 4G standards.

“Being a pre5G technology, ZTE’s Massive MIMO solution is delivering exponential advances to 4G networks without modifying existing air interfaces, making it possible for carriers to provide a 5G-like user experience on existing 4G handsets in an accelerated timeframe,” said Xiang Jiying, chief scientist at ZTE. “ZTE successfully overcame the challenge of doing multi-user and multi-stream spatial multiplexing in a scattered-signal environment, clearing the main hurdle in the development of Massive MIMO technology.”

Vendors and researchers are still hashing out what 5G ultimately will look like, but they are working against a bit of a deadline: Later this year, the 2015 World Radio Communication Conference (WRC)—which meets once every four years in Geneva—will begin negotiating how to standardize technical specs. It’s a process that could take years. But after that happens, operators will begin upgrading existing cellular and antenna towers, and companies will begin to roll out new 5G-enabled devices.

"We're bringing all the major stakeholders together and we are going to decide on the advanced technologies and test them end-to-end," said Rahim Tafazolli, director of the University of Surrey’s 5G Innovation Centre. "Once we are happy with the set of technologies that we have developed, in terms of performance, then we will push that particular technology towards standardization."

For now, 5G remains a technology vision, even though 2020 is only a mere five years away. “5G is an evolution of existing standards and arise of new complementary technologies,” Ericsson said in a brief on 5G last year. “5G solutions will not consist of a single technology but rather an integrated combination of radio-access technologies. Smart antennas, expanded spectrum – including higher frequencies – and improved coordination between base stations will all be crucial to fulfilling the requirements of the future.”

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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