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5G, the future of mobile networks #MWC17

By Gorka Riocerezo — February 21, 2017

5G technology will magnify our hyperconnected society in four years

During the Mobile World Congress 2016, mentions of 5G could be heard throughout the pavilions and the same is expected to occur in this year’s edition. Top smartphone brands are usually the main focus of the media, but the telecommunications revolution is in the networks. The CEOs of the largest telecommunications providers in the world (including Telefónica, Vodafone, AT&T, China Mobile, etc.) reminded everyone of this fact regarding 5G and the technological requirements of future services at the recent #MWC16.

Leading manufacturers are getting ready to make this new generation a reality:

  • Nokia announced investments worth $350 million for 5G, the IoT, and security initiatives following its acquisition of Alcatel-Lucent. The company also presented AirScale, an ecosystem of products for deploying 5G in any connected device, including phones, cars, homes, etc.

  • Ericsson has completed 5G pilot tests with 20 telecommunications providers. T-Mobile is one of these providers and the two are developing a pre-5G-standard system as well as performing lab and field tests in the United States. Ericsson has also reached agreements with Cisco and Intel to manufacture the first 5G router. Together with SK Telecom and BMW, it has reached in-motion speeds (connected car) of 3.6 Gbps on the 28 GHz band.

  • Huawei and Optus have completed a full joint test of the 5G network, with the fastest speeds to date in a user transmission (35 Gbps over a 73 GHz band). Huawei also worked with NTT DoCoMo to reach 11 Gbps speeds in a 5G test in Japan.

What is 5G? Or rather, what will 5G be?

5G technology is still in an early development phase and the industry must first overcome major obstacles.

Although a standard does not yet exist, a number of basic premises have been defined:

  • The ability to transfer data at 1 Gbps (100 times faster than 4G LTE and ten times faster than LTE-A).

  • Latency must be under 1 millisecond.

  • It must be more energy efficient than its predecessors.

  • Greater support of connected devices per square meter; densities of up to 100 devices per square meter are currently being considered.

  • According to Bill Smith, President of AT&T Network Operations, 5G technology will probably be defined in 2018 and the standards for this technology will be coded at some point in 2019 by the International Telecommunications Union.

In summary, 5G offers tremendous potential for consumers as well as the industry. It doesn’t just translate into more data in less time. It also opens an array of possibilities for the Internet of Things (IoT), which will have to support billions of interacting devices.

4G isn’t 100% widespread yet, so why are we already talking about 5G?

4G technology, also known as LTE, is the fastest alternative to date. However, it’s not a global reality yet because certain SIM cards and devices are not compatible with it.

Although 4G is a distant dream for many people, manufacturers and telecommunications providers already have their sights set far beyond. A smartphone must have Internet access. We are no longer content with simply surfing the web; we want to make video calls and watch live broadcasts at the fastest speed possible (and without interruptions).

Home automation products, smart vehicles, wearables, infrastructures, and remote devices require wireless connections. In addition, connected cities, homes and people also allow us to process, analyze, and take advantage of the huge data capacity that humans are unable to assimilate on their own.

As a result, it seems that the 300 Mbps maximum download speed that is currently available through 4G networks will not be enough for future needs. The industry must be ready for the next big leap:

  • Consumers want more speed when they connect to the Internet: a broadband experience, anywhere and anytime.

  • Estimates point to the existence of 30 billion connected devices by 2020.

  • It is becoming increasingly common for phones, watches, homes and even cars to connect to the Internet, requiring constant stability.

  • Society continues to evolve towards continued data transmissions and the constant connectivity of all devices.

It’s not just a matter of speed, but also of quality and user experience.

Shorter network latency is the key for improved speeds. In other words, the lower the latency, the more data that can be transmitted. This means that response times will be critical in order to offer new usage experiences:

  • Games: It will be possible to directly stream content to virtual reality devices. Minimal latency is the key behind satisfactory game experiences in real time.

  • Vehicles: It will help provide sufficiently fast responses in order to coordinate self-driving vehicles (so they may communicate with each other or with a control center). Latency is an essential requirement for these types of applications in which a vehicle must react immediately to its surroundings (e.g., a red traffic light).

  • Telemedicine: It will allow doctors to perform an operation or surgery remotely. Connection delays are so minuscule that doctors will be able to use robots to operate 1,000 kilometers away.

  • Videoconferences: Communicating through high-resolution video. Although this seems commonplace today, networks do not provide precise communication in real time. There are always delays and lags that cause inconsistencies and poor user experiences.

Energy savings, one of the top benefits of 5G

Although the miracles promised by 5G data transmissions will take a few years to see the light of day, there are clues as to the areas that will improve. 5G technology also aims to improve ecological sustainability by reducing energy consumption.

New frequencies that are far superior to existing ones

One of the biggest unanswered questions has to do with the frequency bands that 5G will use. The need for more bandwidth will require channels that are one or two orders of magnitude above the existing 2G, 3G, and 4G networks.

The basic idea is to have at least several bands between 6 GHz and 100 GHz. These frequencies are much higher than what is commonly used by cell phones, which do not surpass 3 GHz.

Although these bands offer faster transmission speeds, they also pose serious issues: short coverage radius and scarce penetration. In other words, a link above 60 GHz will be effective in an open field or a street, but it will have a hard time making its way through a building to provide indoor coverage. This explains the need for the combined use of lower frequencies and for the regulator to not rule out 3.6, 3.8 or 4.2 GHz.

This leads to the need for a new mentality when determining the location of base stations: there will be a shift from large towers and stations located many miles away to smaller base stations that will operate locally and handle few users (small cells).

Implications for telecommunications providers and vendors

Top telecommunications providers and European manufacturers of infrastructures and devices have presented a “5G Manifesto” outlining their recommendations for ensuring that Europe regains its technological leadership position and launches the development of 5G networks by 2020.

Telecommunications providers highlight the undisputed role of 5G in addressing the needs of a connected society and making the digitalization of Europe’s economy a reality. However, they stress that the commercial launch of 5G will require:

  1. Significant infrastructure investments: efforts will only be possible if the rules that govern the industry are updated, simplified, and standardized. Current regulations on network neutrality, which have been frequently mentioned at MWC events, create uncertainty for 5G investments.

  2. Sufficient spectrum levels and new capacities: according to the industry, Europe must standardize the spectrum of the bands that are needed to deploy these services, such as 700 MHz and 3.2-3.8 GHz, as well as higher alternatives, and also eliminate restrictions that limit the usage of existing licenses in order to provide 5G services.

  3. Collaboration between telecommunications providers and vertical industries: all the players involved have agreed to perform test and pilots, reach network interoperability, develop use cases during the 2018-2020 period, and share the results.

How to solve coverage and penetration capacity issues?

To handle the unstoppable increase in data traffic, it is necessary to augment the density of the antenna network by deploying, in addition to the existing macro cells (rooftop antennas), tens of thousands of small cells, which are much smaller and provide less coverage, in order to achieve:

  • More capacity in high user density areas

  • Improved coverage and available data speeds

  • Lower energy consumption

Small cells are intermediate mobile access nodes, like small base stations, that connect conventional mobile devices to the networks of telecommunications providers. To do so, they use fixed broadband connections—such as fiber optics, xDSL or cable—and become integrated in the current environment while maintaining the existing mobile network technology.

It doesn’t make sense for Spain’s leading telecommunications providers (Movistar, Vodafone, Orange, and Masmóvil) to now focus on deploying thousands of new proprietary antennas on their own. As a result, it is reasonable to think that telecommunications providers should collaborate more with each other (as some have been doing recently) to optimize synergies through two types of activities:

  1. Sharing networks with each other.

  2. Using the network infrastructures of neutral telecommunications providers, passive like Telxius and Cellnex, or active like the future “Red Compartida” shared network that ALTÁN is creating in Mexico.

Recommended reports:

The 5G era age of boundless connectivity and intelligent automation (GSMA. 2017) [PDF. 4,1MB]

Next Generation Mobile Technologies: A 5G strategy for the UK (GOV.UK) [PDF. 16,8MB]

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Jordi Meya
Jordi Meya

Technology Business Unit director

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