The industry is currently in the midst of a 5G hype cycle, with operators in a race to deploy either the first, or the biggest, 5G network. But what is the true state of play?

Guest author

May 15, 2018

8 Min Read
5G: Are we there yet? periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Diana Pani, Director of 5G Standards and Systems, and Bob Olesen, Senior Director, Engineering at InterDigital look at some of the hype factors surrounding 5G. 

As many of us expected, 2018 has been the year of 5G operator announcements. In the weeks leading up to Mobile World Congress, the media was awash with trials and claims—from KT, Qualcomm and Samsung achieving multi-vendor 5G New Radio (NR) interoperability, to Vodafone and Huawei completing the world’s first 5G call. US operator AT&T boldly announced that it was planning to deploy 5G across designated US cities by the close of 2018. T-Mobile US then followed in AT&T’s footsteps with a very similar announcement,  with its president and CEO John Legere even stating that, “Dumb and Dumber are in a meaningless race to be first. Their so-called 5G isn’t mobile, and it’s not even on a smartphone…T-Mobile has massively bigger plans for a truly transformative 5G experience on your smartphone nationwide. We’re playing the long game … the only game that matters.”

Announcements like these are designed to get the media—and especially the tech media—excited, even more so when you consider that AT&T announced that it would be using software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) technologies to power its 5G network. Surely with an impressive array of tech buzzwords and announcements of this nature from some of the world’s largest operators, the mobile industry must finally be 5G-ready, right?

The truth is actually somewhat different. While bold statements and aggressive timelines from operators are surely a sign of things to come, in reality, we aren’t quite there yet. The industry is currently in the midst of a 5G hype cycle, with operators in a race to deploy either the first, or the biggest, 5G network. But what is the true state of play?

Hype Factor #1: “We’ve launched standards-compliant 5G”

Despite the many claims from global operators around the world, the progress of 5G standards suggests that we may all need a little more patience as we await full commercial deployment of 5G. The move from 4G to 5G requires a lot of investment in both the network and radio interface, which means we can’t expect 5G to just “happen” overnight. Instead, we will see 5G emerge in phases over the coming years, with each phase focusing on different aspects of its development and deployment.

Although operators like AT&T have begun announcing 5G as a capability, the reality is a bit more nuanced. New Radio (NR) chipsets will not be commercially available before the end of 2018, which implies that operators will begin the preparation for an eventual 5G network by enabling the network to be “5G-ready”, even while still servicing LTE and LTE-Advanced Pro devices. And while this means it has some 5G-like features, such as 4×4 MIMO, carrier aggregation and high-order modulation, there is still some way to go until the operator has truly deployed 5G. So AT&T’s rollout of 5G is indeed “standards-compliant” … it’s just that the standard is LTE.

Hype Factor #2: “Our network is 5G-ready”

As mentioned, there are several phases to 5G. The first phase, officially known as the “first drop”, which includes the radio and core network system architecture specifications, was completed in December 2017. This was focused on the development of non-standalone NR technology operating in frequencies below 56.2GHz to support enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). Existing LTE equipment will support the first drop for coverage and core network connectivity. Standardization of standalone NR technology, due to be completed in mid-2018, will support the second drop of NR. Both non-standalone and standalone NR 5G systems will support increased data rates, and reduced latency relative to 4G.

Now that the first phase of NR is complete, we can expect to see early 5G deployments in hotspots, where 5G is used as an assistive technology to existing 4G networks. Actual full standalone 5G deployments may be a bit further down the road, as these are dependent on the overall completion of the NR specifications. But the early drops will allow operators to deploy NR, achieving the benefits of high data rates and lower latency, while leveraging existing network infrastructure and deployments.

For operators to claim complete 5G readiness, they really need to wait for the completion of the second phase. While 3GPP introduced different phases to allow operators to have early ‘roll-outs’ of 5G to reduce latencies and deliver better users experiences, operators simply cannot claim to have a “5G network” unless two other major components are in place: the backhaul and network core.

When it comes to the core network, virtualization and SDN are crucial for the development of 5G—and, again, AT&T’s claims, in this case, are absolutely accurate. The 5G core network was designed as a service-based architecture to enable full virtualization and flexibility of implementing a network as a service. AT&T and several vendors, including Ericsson and Huawei, are working hard at 5G trials and revolutionizing the network. Some have already announced a few products (5G plugins) to enable this. But for devices to operate and connect to this new 5G core network, standalone NR and protocols for the 5G service-based core network interactions will be required, which are expected to be completed later this year.

Hype-Factor #3: It’s a sprint, not a marathon

It’s worth reiterating that, despite ambitions, 5G simply can’t be rushed, and the technology will evolve over the next few years to meet user and market demand.  The first phase has led to the creation of a baseline 5G system, both on the radio and the core network side, which has been designed in a flexible and forward compatible manner to allow for phased deployments and future evolution. In technology generally, people value “disruptive” breaks with existing technology, but in mobile telecoms, the ability to build progressively is incredibly important. It also ensures continuity, ease of deployment and risk reduction.

As we mentioned, the next phase of 5G (“Phase 2”) will begin in mid-2018, and will be focused on the development of new features and support of new use cases/verticals for 5G NR as well as operation in higher frequencies up to 100GHz. Some of the use cases for 5G NR include vehicular communications and massive mid to high-end machine type communication like video surveillance and factory automation.

However, new radios, spectrum, and core networks only solve two-thirds of the 5G reality challenge. The architecture changes being discussed, such as cloud-RAN, higher capacities with mmW spectrum, and the overall densification of cells means that backhaul—more commonly known as the transport network—will become a problem. Transport networks have traditionally been covered by wireline standards outside of 3GPP. However, with wireless capability advancements played against the costs of laying fiber to dense small cells, wireless standards are beginning to look more at the transport use cases. In Phase 2 for instance, the concept of joint backhaul and access could be introduced to address these challenges. AT&T is one of main proponents and leaders of the integrated access backhaul study.

For the early deployments of 5G, this means we will most likely see a proprietary backhaul design. There are, however, a number of options that will help solve the backhaul challenge—such as fiber, Ethernet and mmW mesh solutions—but the implementation of these solutions will be vendor and site dependent.

As challenges with backhaul and the core network are addressed, and as 5G NR evolves, 2019 will see it take over as a core technology, assisted by 4G. The close of Phase 2 will see a broader set of 5G use cases begin to emerge and will allow 4G to finally take a back seat as 5G becomes the primary technology.

Following that, we will see 5G products and deployments emerge, but this still won’t be defined as true 5G. This can’t really happen until we see the roll-out of 5G-enabled commercial devices, which are expected to be made available to the general public by mid-2019.

Still some way to go

There’s no doubt that the progress the industry has made towards 5G is exciting, and the technology is certainly moving in the right direction. But it is important to take a step back and think about what to expect in the coming months, and even years. While 5G is in touching distance, we still have some way to go—in fact, it’s likely to be beyond 2019 before we see any kind of meaningful 5G service. In terms of overall adoption, 5G is even further out. Let’s take LTE as an example: despite LTE being rolled out in 2011, it was only in late 2016 that LTE device shipments worldwide outnumbered 3G device shipments.

While the initial phases of deployments are rolling out, we have to address the future challenges; backhaul, for example, may become a significant problem following the infrastructural changes 5G will bring. But it’s important that the industry remains patient and develops the correct, working technology that delivers what it promises. Hosting efforts are another challenge that will need to be addressed. Furthermore, as 5G networks gain momentum, the capacity and latency capability of cloud data centers will need to be tested, and operators may need to think about employing strategic data center planning to meet the end to end latency claimed by the 5G networks.

AT&T is certainly championing its 5G efforts—not only does it have its own aggressive timeline, but it has played an important role in accelerating the NR timeline to December. There’s no denying that the company has great plans for 5G, and, to get ahead, it is making use of the phased deployment options that the industry has put in place. Its initial “5G” offering will rely on LTE-Advanced Pro and, soon after, on the non-standalone NR deployment.

We expect that by early 2019 there will be some commercial devices operating in non-standalone deployment scenarios (in mmW bands). But despite operators best marketing efforts, we simply won’t be seeing the “real” full 5G in 2018.

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