What to Expect from 5G

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, TMC  |  January 16, 2017

We’ve been hearing a lot about 5G lately. But the fact is that this newest iteration of cellular technology has yet to even be defined.

What we do know, however, are the basic tenets of what 5G is expected to deliver; that rather than being a replacement for LTE, 5G is likely coexist with 4G technology for years to come; and that development and deployment of new LTE technologies will continue alongside 5G development.

“3GPP is still developing LTE, and we are not waiting for the 5G standard to be developed to address certain markets,” says Chris Pearson (News - Alert), president of 5G Americas, an industry association dedicated to the progress of LTE and 5G in North America, Central America, and South America. For example, he says, the 3GPP’s recent Release 13 addresses more efficient power usage, which is particularly important for Internet of Things applications.

Mike Murphy, CTO for North America at Nokia, agrees with Pearson’s assessment, commenting: “LTE still has quite a bit of gas left in the tank in terms of capabilities coming out.”

But while the latest iterations of 4G already address important aspects of the IoT, 5G will address other requirements of it, while allowing for connectivity speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second ­– providing parity with wireline speeds, notes Murphy. For example, 5G will include the ability to support a larger number of devices (like millions or billions of them), and will allow for ultra reliable low latency communications.

Ultra reliable low latency communications is what will make 5G truly unique, opines Murphy, and is the feature that service providers expect will enable them to generate new revenues. This capability, he says, could help cellular service providers support things like the connected car and remote surgery via robotics. What both of these example applications have in common is their need for extreme reliability and performance, as the ability for a vehicle to communicate with what’s around it to make the right decisions at the right time, and the ability for a doctor to move the robot at the right time and in a timely fashion, can be the difference between life and death.

Ericsson (News - Alert) recently came out with the results of its 5G Readiness Survey, which sought input on 5G from 50 executives at 29 global operators that have announced their intentions for 5G.

“While the traditional focus has been on the consumer, the vast majority of those interviewed agreed that to monetize 5G, operators will also need to provide industry-specific services and find new revenue-sharing models,” according to the report. “High-potential revenue growth areas are third-party collaboration and the Internet of Things.”

However, not all IoT applications will be a good match for 5G, says Murphy. That’s because 5G networks are expected to run on millimeter wave spectrum. This spectrum operates at higher frequencies than existing cellular technology, which means the signals can’t travel as far and don’t penetrate things like trees and walls. So if the IoT use case at hand needs the ability to penetrate such barriers, says Murphy, 5G is probably not a practical choice.

Millimeter spectrum also will require cellular service providers to employ a greater number of cell sites for coverage. That will require smarter networks with better network management capabilities between those cells. That said, even in the long term, 4G LTE is expected to provide blanket coverage, while 5G will be deployed to add density in select geographies and/or to support specific applications for which 5G technology is the ideal match.

Speaking of spectrum, it hasn’t even been auctioned off yet for 5G. The good news is that the Federal Communications Commission has announced it plans to allocate 28GHz, 37 GHz, and 39 GHz spectrum for 5G use. But the FCC has not yet shared a date for the so-called Frontier Spectrum auction.

In the meantime, the cellular community (3GPP and then ITU) is working on two phases of 5G standards. The first, called Release 15, is expected to be frozen by June 2018. The second, referred to as Release 16, should come out 15 months after that.

However, in June the 5G community agreed to accelerate work on the lower layers of Release 15. Delivery of that work, which will define lower layer protocols used to connect customer premises equipment to base stations, is scheduled for December of next year. Pushing up part of the Release 15 effort, Murphy explains, will allow chip makers to begin work on standards-based 5G solutions, and that could bump up schedules in the 5G value chain further down the line.

In the meantime, companies like Nokia have been doing a large number of lab and limited field trials with cellular companies. For example, Nokia has done trial work with AT&T, Bell Canada (News - Alert), CSpire, Sprint, T-Mobile, US Cellular, and Verizon.

Speaking of Verizon, the company recently released pre-standard specifications for lower layer protocols targeting CPE and interoperability, as did KT (News - Alert). But while the carriers have been working together on 5G, Murphy says, KT of Korea’s spec has a mobility component while Verizon’s spec addresses fixed wireless implementations.

“The main use case for 5G through 2021 will be enhanced mobile broadband services, although fixed broadband services will also be supported, especially in the U.S.,” says Mike Roberts, Ovum (News - Alert) practice leader covering carrier strategy and technology. “Over time 5G will support a host of use cases including Internet of Things and mission-critical communications, but Ovum does not believe those use cases will be supported by standardized 5G services through 2021.”

Broader trials, including hundreds or thousands of base stations at a time, are expected to start in 2017, according to Murphy, who notes those will be pre-standard trials because the 3GPP standards will not yet be out at that time. Standards-based trials could possibly commence toward the end of the second quarter of 2018.

In the meantime, Murphy says, network operators need to be thinking not only about cellular technology, standards, and wireless spectrum, but also about how they can ready IP and optical networks to carry the added load of 5G networks.

Edited by Alicia Young