Feature Article

February 16, 2016

5G Gets Ready for its Close-up Ahead of Mobile World Congress

The next generation of mobile networks, known as 5G, is slowly making its way from lab to field as major carriers and infrastructure vendors continue to work on its development. Promising to deliver 10 to 100 times faster throughput than 4G networks with greater spectral efficiency and a converged, cloud-enabled architecture, 5G has become a bit of a holy grail for the mobile industry.

As the wireless sector gears up for its annual confab in Barcelona, Mobile World Congress, a few notable market developments have set the stage for moving the 5G conversation forward—framing real-world scenarios and commercial technology plans for what is still a loosely defined concept of the “next-generation network.”

What is 5G?

Technical standards for 5G began to coalesce in 2015, with an eye to making 5G-based services commercially available by the end of this decade. But actual architecture design and definition remain somewhat nebulous as global standards bodies work to hammer out a universal approach.

For now, the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance defines the following requirements for 5G networks:

  • Data rates of several tens of megabits per second should be supported for tens of thousands of users
  • 1Gbps to be offered simultaneously to many workers on the same office floor
  • Several hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections to be supported for massive sensor deployments
  • Spectral efficiency should be significantly enhanced compared to 4G
  • Coverage should be improved
  • Signaling efficiency should be enhanced
  • Latency should be reduced significantly compared to LTE.

Despite the vague guidelines, the major equipment OEMs are not wasting any time: Nokia Networks (including Alcatel Lucent), Ericsson, Samsung and Huawei all have hardware prototypes for 5G, and expect to use Mobile World Congress as a stage to show them off.

Others are also working on the underlying technologies: BT for instance recently completed a trial that used G.fast technology to deliver a cloud radio access network (C–RAN) cellular network service over copper, a breakthrough that could improve the economics of delivering 5G.

A traditional approach to C–RAN requires a dedicated fiber link to connect transmitters at the top of a cell tower to complex signal-processing equipment deeper in the network, in order to connect cellular base stations to mobile operators’ core networks. This can involve complex and costly engineering work if no fiber is present in the ground to carry the signal.

Using existing copper however removes the need for mobile operators to invest in costly, high capacity backhaul links over dedicated fiber connections. By providing a far more economic “fronthaul” connection between the base station and the mobile operators’ core network, a C–RAN service delivered over G.fast would significantly lower the cost of deployment for mobile operators building out 4G networks today and 5G architectures in the future.

In the trial, researchers at BT’s Adastral Park Labs in Ipswich, in collaboration with US–based semiconductor manufacturer Cavium, showed that they can use G.fast technology to deliver cellular data over copper lines at speeds of 150 – 200Mbps.

“Using G.fast to deliver a cellular network is an exciting breakthrough for C–RAN and yet another world first for our team of researchers at Adastral Park,” said Tim Whitley, managing director for Research & Innovation at BT. “These technologies will play a key role in 4G networks and will be fundamental to 5G architectures. The trials are another step towards a fixed and mobile network which will support customers’ increasing demands for data.”

Standards for 5G are expected to become reality in the 2018 timeframe.

Roadmaps

While widespread 5G rollouts will require finished standards and more technology availability, there are some early movers on the pre-standard deployment side, particularly in South Korea and the United States.

Korea Telecom, for its part, has pledged that its 5G network will be available for its consumers in 2018, before it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

KT has pledged to build a wireless network that can host up to 250,000 devices simultaneously for the 2018 Games, which is twice the volume of networks provided during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. While the 2014 Games provided around 2,000 access points for wireless networks, Pyeongchang will provide 5,000, the company added, saying that it has already built 30 percent of the infrastructure out.

In May, it will also break ground on a cloud data center built specifically for the Games.

Last week KT said that it had demonstrated its planned 5G services in front of the Olympics organizing committee, including virtual reality (VR) fare.

The company's 360° VR platform will provide live channels in real-time, allowing home viewers to see the games in from any direction and angle. A Sync View option meanwhile features a split screen view: the view of the athlete, streamed in Ultra HD from a small camera, and another of the regular game broadcast.

Holograms of players are also planned, and a facial recognition initiative called 5G Safety will use videos taken by drones and cameras for security purposes.

Meanwhile, at Mobile World Congress, SK Telecom will demonstrate a 5G platform built in collaboration with Nokia and Intel that offers 20Gbps—which is 200 times faster and with 1,000 times more data capacity than the current 4G LTE network. Speeds like that allow a user to download a two-gigabyte movie in less than one second.

“The commercialization of a 5G service is expected to allow users to transfer high volume data in a speedy manner, enabling the implementation of virtual reality, three-dimensional hologram and telemedicine technologies,” the company said.

The Korean plans have flash, but closer to home, two of the four major US carriers are also moving forward before the standards have gelled.

Verizon Wireless in September made waves when it announced that it would be working on 5G technology with its partners, with field tests this year and commercial network use kicking off by 2017.

"5G is no longer a dream of the distant future," said Roger Gurnani, chief information and technology architect for Verizon. "We feel a tremendous sense of urgency to push forward on 5G ... to usher in a new generation of innovation."

Verizon says its 5G technology will have 50 times the capacity of its current 4G network and be able to "handle exponentially more Internet-connected devices," at speeds around 40 times faster than LTE. Initial lab tests will take place in the Boston and San Francisco areas.

Not to be outdone, AT&T this month said that it would begin testing 5G this year, and would start using some 5G components commercially by the end of 2016.

Partnering with Ericsson and Intel, AT&T will begin testing in its labs in the first half of 2016, before moving on to field testing the next generation mobile networks in Austin, Texas in the second half.

The frenzy of activity in pre-standard 5G is a competitive necessity, driven by demand for better video experiences, more bandwidth in general and the developing tsunami of the Internet of Things (IoT). The first carrier that can deliver future apps and support connected-everything will have a distinct advantage in the marketplace.

"New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before," explained John Donovan, AT&T's chief strategy officer. "5G will help make them a reality."




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere


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