It’s a very exciting time in the evolution of 5G. In December 2017, 3G Partnership Project (3GPP) officially announced the new standards for 5G New Radio (NR), effectively setting the stage to launch full-scale and cost-effective development of 5G networks. The approved standards include support for Non-Standalone 5G, enabling an operator with an existing 4G/LTE footprint to take advantage of the performance benefits of 5G, either in new or existing spectrum to boost capacity and user throughput.
What Happens Now?
Following this vital milestone in the realization of 5G, the industry is hitting the ground running. Although the full deployment and promised 10x to 1000x capacity value add of 5G may be further down the road, the required effort and innovation to bridge the gap between existing 4G speeds and maximizing 5G’s full potential has already begun.
Similar to previous network technologies, the evolution of 5G will see many flavors throughout its life cycle. Early deployments often use straightforward hardware partitioning, useful for demonstrating the technology but not necessarily hitting the performance points set by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which is responsible for defining what constitutes a new network generation, or “G.” For example, the 3GPP standards for 4G LTE were ratified in 2009, and within a year, the first networks were rolling out—Telia deployed their 4G LTE network in Stockholm and Oslo. Although this initial deployment was considered an incremental improvement over 3G, it set into motion profound changes for the transition to 4G LTE.
In a fast-growing industry characterized by continuous evolution rather than revolution, the ITU is committed to connecting the world and their right to communicate. The ITU has set the step-by-step objectives with every network to date in an effort to keep definitions and deployment targets aligned. These key targets set to date by the ITU for 5G include a bandwidth minimum of 100 MHz, peak downlink of 20Gbit/s, latency of four milliseconds (ms) for extreme broadband and 1 ms for ultra-low-latency, and average downlink of 100 Mbit/s and uplink of 50 Mbit/s. Naturally, these standards are not expected to be immediately and universally implemented in every initial deployment, but are considered goals for the step-by-step evolution and maturity of 5G.
Assuming demand doubles every two years—an assumption based on past experience—the capacity enhancement will not be required until the capacity offered by sub-6 GHz is fully utilized. Although higher frequency bands may be deployed earlier to address particular locations, these will be the exception rather than rule as the evolution of 5G naturally progresses. With the world on the cusp of 5G evolution, it is truly an exciting time for the industry.
The Buzz on 5G
As expected, carriers around the world are already deep into 5G deployment plans, with varying strategies and ecosystems available. The challenges are evident: operational limitations, hardware and fiber resources, and as more carriers move toward unlimited data plans, finding a way to monetize 5G’s full capacity. Innovative ways to solve these challenges are already underway.
In the United States, AT&T has announced their plans to deploy mobile 5G to customers in a dozen cities by the end of 2018. To achieve this, one could speculate they will have to use existing or interim hardware solutions for bridging the gap to standard compliant chipset availability.
Verizon, largely recognized for blazing the trail with millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G, having been established as a forerunner with the 5G Technical Forum, has partnered with Samsung to develop “fixed 5G” microcell units, home routers, and mobile chip-sized modems to enable 5G service to its customers. At CES 2018, Verizon’s CEO announced the carrier plans to beat AT&T to 5G deployment.
Sprint announced last year their plans to deploy a 5G solution in the 2.5 GHz range by late 2019. T-Mobile also announced their 600 MHz spectrum last year, and is expected to use the entire band to enable a complete indoor/outdoor 5G network. Offering a key performance advantage, 600 MHz radio waves travel twice as far and offer four times better performance around buildings/obstacles.
In Canada, carrier Telus has partnered with Huawei to launch 5G wireless-to-the-home trial service using custom-designed 5G customer premise equipment. Before the unveiling of 3GPP standards, they had demonstrated successful 5G pilot networks over a 28 GHz connection.
China Mobile, the world’s largest mobile telecommunications operator (by subscriber count), has announced aggressive 5G plans, with large-scale trials launching in 2018 and a standalone rollout to begin in 2020. Rather than integrating 4G and 5G networks, a standalone rollout will mean total revolution of the current architecture and core network. These new networks are expected to run mostly in the 3.5 GHz band, with focus on testing massive MIMO technologies. A single standard solution promises great economies of scale.
Vodafone Ireland has also promised a 5G rollout within the next two years, having tested pre-standard 5G in the 3.6 GHz spectrum. Together with Huawei, Vodafone has completed the world’s first call using the Non-Standalone 3GPP 5G NR standard and sub-6 GHz spectrum.
European carrier Deutsche Telecom and Huawei recently announced field tests of 5G NR with mmWave (E-Band) technology. Previously they had announced the first pre-standard 5G connection in a live network.
With these and many other announcements coming in rapid force, it’s no wonder GSMA has forecasted that by 2025, there will be 1.1 billion 5G connections around the world.
Over the next few years, many flavors of 5G will begin to deploy around the world. These initial deployments may only bring incremental improvements, but over time the full capacity of 5G will be reached and deployed, bringing the promised long-term benefits with it. At full maturity, a 5G network promises customers near-zero latency, improved data speeds, low energy, and increased capacity. While this ideal remains a few years off, we can all agree the wait and journey will be worth it.