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5G at Mobile World Congress

Sam Fenwick looks back at the highlights from this year’s Mobile World Congress, with a focus on 5G, both in terms of the technology and the challenges surrounding its deployment

Mobile World Congress (MWC) continues to be a monster of a show. With 108,000 visitors from 208 countries making the annual pilgrimage to Barcelona, and with more than 2,300 exhibitors, its scale can be somewhat daunting, especially given the colossal size of many stands (Huawei’s seemed to be the size of an aircraft hangar).

However, as readers of my piece on the retail sector last month may realise, many of the most interesting things to see at the show belong to small companies looking to make a name for themselves, making it well worth investigating the humbler and less glitzy stands.

None of the handsets and consumer devices being launched at the show were using 5G technology, but for those looking to the future talk of 5G was everywhere, partly due to a flurry of press releases announcing 5G products (or rather pre-5G products, given that the technical specifications have yet to be finalised) from the big network infrastructure vendors.

One of the highlights for me was on Qualcomm’s stand, where Ashmin Sampath, senior director, technology, explained how the company sees 5G working for mobile devices, with the use of intelligent beam tracking and large antenna arrays to deal with non-line of sight scenarios. He explained that while the device is being served by a beam, candidate beams are constantly being calculated using searching algorithms, so that if the first beam is blocked for some reason they can take over seamlessly. Qualcomm has trialled this beam-switching approach with a 5G millimetre wave prototype for in-vehicle (up to 30mph) and office use cases.

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Qualcomm’s stand provided some interesting insights into how 5G’s Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) service will work on the move

I saw some demonstrations on the Nokia stand showing network slicing, seamless handovers from 5G to 4G, the fixed wireless access equipment being trialled with Verizon in the US, a virtual reality gaming low-latency demonstration and a 360° virtual reality stadium use case. The seamless handover demo (shown below) involved an Airscale Cloud RAN module running 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G, an Airframe data centre solution running the virtualised baseband for all four networks, and a 28 GHz 8x8 MIMO antenna with 200 MHz channel bandwidth. The 5G path between two of the antennas was blocked by a robotic metal paddle, causing the data transfer rate to instantly drop from 2.6 Gbps down to 4G speeds and then seamlessly recover when the paddle was removed. The company is also collaborating with AT&T on the use of 5G at 39 GHz.

The stadium use case mentioned above involves 360° footage being captured via a Nokia OZO VR camera, delivered to TV producers over 5G, before being transmitted via the internet to 5G antennas that in turn beam the transmission to domestic access points, allowing viewers to see the footage using VR headsets. I wonder how popular this service will be given that it requires sports enthusiasts to tear themselves away from their smartphones (for live tweeting), snacks and beer, while also removing the social element of watching the match in the company of others. The VR sports game (running at 0.7 millisecond latency on 28 GHz with a channel bandwidth of 400 MHz) showed how much 4G-style latencies affect play once an in-game 5G power meter expired. I was told that exposure to latencies can lead to nausea, a problem eliminated by running VR over 5G.

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Over at Cobham Wireless’ stand Li-Ke Huang, the company’s research and technology director, showed me its software-defined 5G user equipment simulator, which can test downlink throughput of 10Gbps, running at sub-6 GHz, together with an IoT proof-of-concept solution that can emulate up to one million 5G IoT devices. Huang highlights the fact that 5G’s inherently low latency stems from the fact that its Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) service’s physical layer’s frame structure is one fifth that seen with LTE, but to make use of this low latency two other layers will need to be significantly reduced and the applications will need to be adapted. He added that the fact that Cobham Wireless’ customers are starting to use software-defined architecture and virtualised solution architecture means their development cycles are becoming much faster, but the company and its competitors as their enablers need to be faster still, hence its interest in a fully software-based test solution.

Huang also discussed the work being done by the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey, including its implementation of Massive MIMO technology, which has achieved an incredibly high spectral efficiency of 172 bit/s/Hz. The need for speed The headlong rush to 5G implied by the huge number of announcements made at this year’s Mobile World Congress kicked up another notch shortly after the event with an announcement from 3GPP that the completion of the technical specification for non-standalone (NSA) 5G new radio (NR) mode for the eMBB use case has been brought forward to the end of 4Q2017, with the work to be finalised in March 2018 – an acceleration of around six months.

According to a blog post from Lorenzo Casaccia, Qualcomm’s vice president of technical standards, “NSA 5G NR will utilise the existing LTE radio and core network as an anchor for mobility management and coverage while adding a new 5G carrier. This is the configuration that will be the target of early 2019 deployments…” While this move will help reduce the risks of fragmentation caused by those looking to move as quickly as possible onto 5G, it was still reassuring to hear that during the Global 5G Test Summit (which was co-located with MWC), AT&T, China Mobile, NTT DOCOMO, Vodafone, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Keysight, MediaTek, Nokia, Qualcomm, Rohde & Schwarz, ZTE and Datang released a joint statement “promoting unified global 5G standards achieved through 5G testing, trials and co-operation between telecom operators, vendors and vertical industry partners to build a unified end-to-end ecosystem.”

Speaking of speed, a survey of 31 network operator executives by the Telecommunications Industry Association last Winter found that almost a third are planning to launch pre-standard 5G products, and a third expect their companies to be offering commercial 5G services by the end of 2020. While at MWC the GSMA announced the results of a new study that predicts commercial 5G networks will begin to be widely deployed at the start of the next decade and by 2025 will provide coverage to a third of the world’s population, with 5G connections reaching 1.1 billion.

During a press event hosted by Ericsson, Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s CTO, focused more on what could be done with LTE today rather than what will be possible with 5G tomorrow. He highlighted T-Mobile’s desire to retire 2G and 3G at “a furious pace” and its strong push towards an all-LTE network through driving VoLTE adoption – already two-thirds of T-Mobile customers’ calls are made using VoLTE. Ray noted that 5G will use LTE as a foundation, adding that “the capabilities of networks today are not where they need to be for that smooth transition of the consumer from the 2G/3G/4G world into the 5G space… 4G is far from dead and the investment opportunities that exist globally are phenomenal over the coming years.

5G is not ready yet and it’s maturing quickly,” he continued. “But it’s not real today and I can’t go and deploy a 5G radio to serve my customers and give them a handset, but my goodness can I deliver tremendous network experience with LTE… LTE has great legs and will be out there for a long time to come. The world of 2G and 3G is very rapidly fading away.”

This point seems to be supported by the Telecommunications Industry Association survey’s finding that: “While the respondents were bullish in terms of the timing of 5G CAPEX, they also stressed that they did not expect 5G CAPEX to ramp at nearly the same rate as 4G. Instead of large-scale network rollouts many of the respondents anticipated making targeted 5G deployments for several years until 5G use cases can be commercialised with mass-market scale.”

One issue that complicates matters for European MNOs is the region’s relative lack of consolidation compared with other markets. Stéphane Richard, Orange’s chairman and CEO, pointed out during a panel discussion on ‘building the 5G economy’ that China has three operators for 1.3 billion people while the US has four [for a population of nearly 323 million], adding that: “no-one can consider the current state of the industry in Europe as the best possible one in terms of fragmentation. It is easier for a company to get some return out of huge investments that we have to make on the networks when you have that critical size. “We are still not at the optimum level in terms of the capacity to invest and Europe is still lagging behind in terms of 4G rollout, fibre to the home etc., so let’s be realistic,” he added.

“I would be very pleased to see the European Union slightly change the way it sees our industry, not only [viewing it] through the consumers’ eyes by ensuring the lowest possible prices for services, but realising that there are additional challenges to [consider], especially for investment.” While 5G will be costly because of the use of short-range millimetre wavelengths and the resulting need for network densification, it looks as though it will provide a great deal of bang for its buck.

During a Mobile World Live panel discussion, Dan Warren, head of 5G research at the Samsung Electronics Research and Development Institute, said: “The statistic that was bandied about for 5G around 50 to 90 per cent reduction in total cost of ownership (TCO) is kind of achievable if you look at it on price per unit of bandwidth. There’s definitely a spike in terms of TCO for 5G just because you’ve got a lot more cells in a lot more places with a lot more bandwidth. The increase in cost is 2.5 to three times per cell but you get 20 times the throughput.”

However, not everyone was convinced by the blaze of publicity and announcements surrounding 5G at MWC, with the show prompting John Strand, CEO of Strand Consult, to say in his review: “[There] was nothing to help explain how mobile operators will fund the 5G rollout, let alone earn money on it… With the hype of 5G operators are on the same path as they were with 3G.”

5G wasn’t the only disruptive technology being discussed at MWC. Börje Ekholm, Ericsson’s new president and CEO, stressed the importance of artificial intelligence and machine learning. He attributed these technologies to a 50 per cent reduction in the time required for Ericsson to build out new sites in the US, while “in Indonesia 70 per cent of priority incidents are resolved pre-emptively, and in Thailand content downloads from Facebook are 60 per cent faster than before.”

At MWC 2017 5G might not have been in handsets, but it certainly felt imminent. Whether it lives up the hype remains to be seen, but given the ever-accelerating pace of innovation it will be interesting to see what’s on show next year and whether the demonstrations will be a quantum leap above those shown at this year’s event and the one in 2016.


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