5G: Almost here
Written by: Sam Fenwick | Published:

This year’s Mobile World Congress allowed the telecoms industry to display all the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes to get us to the point where 5G roll-out is just around the corner. Sam Fenwick reports

Last year’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) focused on 5G from a fixed wireless access perspective, with several stands showing off equipment intended to serve this use-case. While there was still some news around this topic at this year’s event, with Huawei saying that it will launch 2Gbps-throughput 5G commercial consumer premise equipment (CPE) this year as part of that use-case, there was also a bit more visibility around handsets. The same company announced that it intends to introduce a 5Gbps-throughput 5G smartphone to the market next year, and there is a sense that much of the R&D effort across the industry is shifting to mobility.

“In the world of 5G, the clear focus is on enhanced mobile broadband, and the December 2017 release [the early completion of the 3GPP standard for non-standalone 5G New Radio] was fully focused on that,” said Jonathan Borrill, Anritsu’s director, engineering and technology. He added that one of the remaining big challenges is the development of a standardised and interoperable way of doing and managing the beamforming and beamtracking required for millimetre wave mobility. When someone with a millimetre wave handset is on the move, the network needs to manage the beam directed at the device, while also having a candidate beam ready to replace the main beam, should it become blocked. However, he added that streaming 4K video is probably possible at sub-6GHz using multi-user MIMO without the need for the above.

The search for 5G’s killer app
One of the biggest talking points at MWC around 5G was its ‘killer app’ or most valuable use-cases. The one that was on many people’s lips was its ability to provide MNOs with more capacity than 4G at a lower cost per Gbps, with Ericsson claiming that 5G will be able to deliver it for one tenth of the cost of 4G (in the absence of spectrum refarming and massive MIMO).

During the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance’s press conference on 5G, I asked how certain the panellists were that consumers will need the huge amount of throughput that 5G is expected to deliver.

“That’s the question,” replied Michael Irizarry, executive VP and CTO – engineering and IT services at US Cellular. “[5G] offers great potential and the carriers are focused on understanding the market opportunity. It’s not a question of it’s going to happen, it’s a question of when. But the real opportunity is the improved capacity that the high speed offers, and in our market we’re seeing about a 50 per cent year-over-year increase in data usage – that doesn’t even factor in the projections for IoT and all the increased usage scenarios. We pretty much all believe that 4G will not be able to carry all the capacity even when you deploy some of the tricks, so we’re thinking about 5G as a means to address the capacity. The clarity of use-cases and the revenue and whether or not customers are going to consume that – that will come as we move forward.”

I suspect one thing that needs to be factored in is the way in which the internet has evolved since the days when the 56k modem was king – as download speeds have grown, online content producers have taken full advantage, creating web pages that would have taken minutes to load on an old connection. If this trend continues, we can expect the 5G era to lead to further ‘bloat’, increasing data usage even before 4K video is factored into the equation.

Replying to the same question, Johan Wibergh, group CTO at Vodafone and NGMN chairman of the board, said the use-cases and the usage of 5G will vary significantly between its first year and its 15th year, making it important to assess where the various demonstrations on show at MWC fit into that timeline. This makes sense, given that Release 15 will focus on enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), while providing introductory support for Ultra-Reliable Low latency Communications (URLLC), so many of the more exotic use-cases won’t be supported until Release 16 at the earliest.

Some in the industry are looking beyond enhanced mobile broadband. Andre Fuetsch, AT&T’s CTO, said that as far as competition is concerned, “the real battle” is between the MNOs and the web-scale players. He highlighted the value and growth of the cloud market. “It’s a $60bn-a-year market that’s growing at about 55 per cent a year. It would be really advantageous to hitch our wagons to [it] but how can you do that? We believe it’s the [network] edge. That’s the differentiation point that the cloud players don’t have.”

Anritsu’s Borrill added: “The thing that differentiates 5G is its ultra-low latency. What does that mean to a real use-case, I’m not sure, but I suspect it’s going to be something that jumps on the back of [5G’s] ultra-low latency, [something that’s] more interactive and real-time.”

Borrill said this feature needs a great deal more of the elements associated with 5G (such as a next-generation core, network slicing, software-defined networks/network function virtualisation and mobile edge computing) to be mature and integrated with each other on an operator’s network than is the case with enhanced mobile broadband. “[Take] the vehicle-to-everything (V2X) use-case. We have a waveform but, for example, if [the operator doesn’t] have mobile edge computing, what are we going to do with it? We sweat away to give [them] half a millisecond latency, then [they] give us five milliseconds [latency] through the network.”

He added that both Gigabit LTE and NB-IoT, which are with us today, “are trying to establish use-cases which 5G will pick up”. In the case of Gigabit LTE, he gave the use-case of streaming map data and other information to the driver in a connected car, and said he believes there are cars on the market that have Gigabit-throughput LTE.

Ashok Tipirneni, director of product management at Qualcomm, gave an overview at its stand on the current thinking around V2X communications, and showed a demonstration performed at Qualcomm’s automotive research centre in San Diego.

He indicated that some of the features in 3GPP Release 14 could be used to deliver V2X automotive safety features, such as ‘do not pass’ warnings, intersection movement assist (IMA) at blind junctions and blind curve/local hazard warnings. He added that come 3GPP Release 16, the focus will shift to enablers of autonomous vehicles, such as real-time local updates, intention/trajectory sharing between vehicles, high-throughput sensor sharing and co-ordinated driving. These are aimed at preventing potentially dangerous situations when autonomous vehicles are trying to overtake, or take turns that require moving across lanes of traffic (right turns here in the UK).

“One of the biggest challenges we’re seeing [with] 5G is getting the requirements from the vertical players,” said Alan Carlton, VP at InterDigital. “The wireless community has 3GPP, the GSMA, they’re very co-ordinated industry bodies that basically set the requirements. There’s not really an equivalent of that in a number of the verticals, so [their requirements are] coming in a little bit piecemeal.” He noted the formation of the 5G Automotive Association (5GAA) and added that it is the closest thing to a vertical creating an initiative that mirrors what the GSMA does for the wireless industry.

One of the 5G use-cases that seemed new at MWC was allowing operators of heavy construction equipment such as diggers and forklift trucks to do so remotely from the comfort and safety of a centralised location. One of the people presenting this concept was NTT Docomo’s Takehiro Nakamura (at the Huawei Digital Transformation Forum – an event that took place on the Sunday prior to MWC). He also said that another 5G use-case his company is exploring with the aid of NS Solutions is the remote control of humanoid robots by a human operator, with the robot mimicking the operator’s movements. While Black Panther and Pacific Rim fans might be getting excited at this point, the jerky prototype on display at the NTT Docomo stand suggests there is still a lot of R&D to do before this becomes a reality. While it is difficult to imagine that the latency could be low enough to allow someone to operate machinery on the other side of the world, this could enable better use of trained personnel, while also improving their quality of life.

Sticking on the topic of 5G’s non-consumer use-cases, Rajeev Suri, Nokia’s CEO, said: “We expect 5G adoption to be more rapid than what we saw in earlier generations of technology across pretty much all countries. One of the drivers of that speed will be demand from industrial companies. I was at Davos a few weeks ago, where I spent time with the leaders of some of the world’s largest industrial companies, companies like Siemens, ABB and Volvo. Their excitement was real, as was their belief that 5G could enable their businesses to be faster, more agile, more competitive – they are really starting to create a pull, which operators would be smart to respond [to].”

Europe: stuck in the slow lane?
If that last line has engaged your cynicism circuits, now is an appropriate point to mention that many operators’ comments at MWC focused on the need for lighter or more innovative regulation and highlighted the cost of spectrum. The importance governments are placing on 5G as a means of improving the competitiveness of their nations’ economies could be argued to be a bargaining chip in the MNOs’ favour and, as noted in last month’s Insight piece, operators’ ability to pay for it is not as strong as it once was.

As is almost tradition, there was a lot of comment around how Europe compares unfavourably to China and the US in terms of its potential for rapid 5G roll-out.

“Parts of Europe will move as well, particularly the Nordics,” said Nokia’s Suri. “Beyond that, however, I would expect much of Europe to lag the lead countries. It is unfortunate, but even if I’m an optimist by nature, I just do not see the catalyst for large-scale roll-outs of 5G in Europe in the near term.”

He added there is not as a compelling need for the extra capacity that 5G can provide, given that there is still a lot that can be done in the region with 4G, and also noted the high number of operators there are in Europe, and their lower ability to invest in the next generation of technology than their peers in other regions. That said, Suri expects Europe will still see launches of 5G in 2019, but not the large-scale roll-outs that are forecast in the US and China, and he predicted these will probably take place in Europe “in 2020, or even 2021”.

Suri also highlighted that “the average revenue per user in Europe is much lower than in the US and Japan, it’s about half of Japan”, and said there needs to be more consolidation in the region and noted the high number of ‘unlimited tariffs’ in Europe. He cited Finland as a possible source of inspiration, given its consumers use roughly a Gigabyte of data a day and that this “is pretty smartly structured in a way that operators are seeing revenue growth as well”.

“Historically in the world of policy and regulation, people are inspired by what works in other markets,” said Kamal Shehadi, chief legal and regulatory officer at Etisalat International. “In the 1990s, Europe was held up as a model in terms of regulation and policy; that hasn’t been the case for the last seven to eight years. The kind of orthodoxy that now rules in Brussels is no longer attractive to people outside of Europe. We are searching for a workable model that would apply across the board, but it’s very difficult and it’s nothing like 20 years ago when Europe was the easy, go-to model.”

One of Suri’s comments that seemed slightly at odds with the industry’s focus on standards was his emphasis on the benefits of relying on a single operator for a full end-to-end solution, noting that Nokia can deliver this. He cited Nokia Bell Labs’ findings that “with a single integrated network solution model, you could get 30-40 per cent lower total cost of ownership, five to 10 per cent higher reliability and eight to 16 months’ faster time to market for new service introduction [than with a multi-vendor model]. Those are huge opportunities that could very easily run into the billions of dollars, and no operator will be able to ignore the advantages of taking the single integrated approach.”

However, this point was somewhat undercut by one of the big commercial announcements that was made during MWC: T-Mobile’s decision to use 5G equipment from both Ericsson and Nokia as part of its roll-out of a nationwide 5G network in the US.

The general sense I have from this year’s MWC is that the industry has been working flat out and has made significant progress when it comes to turning 5G from a concept into a technology capable of commercial deployment. While it may be almost upon us, the industry’s initial focus on enhanced mobile broadband suggests that it will be several more years before we see the commercial roll-out of the more exciting use-cases that rely on a full end-to-end 5G network complete with network slicing.

5G’s winter shake-down
Ericsson hosted a session that discussed the use of 5G at ‘a winter sporting event’, where Jongsik Lee, VP, head of 5G Task Force, Convergence Institute of Technology, Korea Telecom, highlighted self-driving and connected vehicles and connected drones as successful 5G use-cases during the event. “We were able to show augmented reality and virtual reality,” he said. “We had more than 100 base stations inside and outside venues, including on the roads.” He added that in the case of the self-driving cars, latency of <20ms is required for safety, but they achieved <5ms.

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