Andy Sutton's wife has, it seems, already lived through enough mobile generations. "When I told her I was starting to look at 5G, she asked, 'How many more Gs have you got left in you?'" says Sutton, the principal network architect at EE , the UK's largest mobile operator.
That's because Sutton has been involved in all the Gs so far, and he's as enthusiastic as ever about the development of 4G and its evolution into 5G.
And beyond that? "There may not be a 6G if we get 5G right," he noted during a media briefing at The Royal Institution of Great Britain ("Science Lives Here") in London early Thursday, though he's not ruling it out altogether. (See 'G' Force.)
While it might seem a bit premature for an operator to get excited about 5G when 4G is still in its infancy, Sutton (in harmony with other operators and vendors) believes it can take up to a decade for a mobile technology "generation" to be developed, and he's looking 10 years out. "The standards could be set by 2020, and it's possible that some early launches might happen in Asia," typically Japan and/or South Korea, he said, "but in Europe it's likely to be a 2022 or 2023 timescale." (See DoCoMo Unveils 5G Trial Plans and DoCoMo's 2020 Vision for 5G.)
That gives plenty of time for 4G to mature. EE has been capitalizing on its early entry into LTE -- it launched in October 2012, ahead of its rivals -- by signing up about 3 million 4G customers and activating LTE-Advanced radio access equipment, which can deliver peak downlink speeds of up to 300 Mbit/s, in London. (See Eurobites: EE Boasts Record 4G Take-Up in Q1 and EE Switches On LTE-Advanced in UK.)
But the further rollout and development of 4G should happen in tandem with work on the next generation of mobile broadband capabilities, and that's why EE is already planning for 5G by engaging in various research programs at UK universities (including Salford and Surrey) and being part of the NGMN analysis of the next generation of mobile broadband. Sutton is engaged in that particular development. (See NGMN Kickstarts 5G Initiative, UK Kicks Off 5G R&D, and The 5G Landgrab.)
With 4G so capable of delivering high-speed services, including fixed broadband alternative services in some rural areas of the UK already (up to 24 Mbit/s to homes in the northwest UK county of Cumbria), is there any need for 5G? And what is 5G anyway?
There is a need, believe Sutton and his strategy colleague Ed Ellis. The growing demands of data volumes (particularly video) on network capacity, and the need for ever-lower levels of latency that 4G cannot deliver (for real-time services such as augmented reality and immersive gaming), require a new generation of mobile access technology.
Ellis, having rubbed his crystal ball and crunched some data, expects the volume of traffic to have grown 12-fold by 2018 compared with 2013, with video to represent 67% of all traffic on EE's network by 2018, up from between 40%-50% in 2013. "That's a lot of traffic to handle, and we can't build 12 times the capacity," says Ellis.
And the more devices people have, the more traffic is created. Right now, the average EE customer has about 2 to 2.5 devices, but by 2020 this, with the introduction of multiple connected devices and regular everyday items (the Internet of Things), the average number of devices per person that will be generating data that will end up on mobile networks is expected to rise to 27 (though not all will have a SIM card).
It's the main applications that will drive the need for 5G, though. To deliver a great video service experience to customers, EE and other operators are going to need more than the latency and bandwidth that 4G can offer, especially as 4K and then 8K video arrives on mobile-connected devices.
So what sort of latency are we talking about?
Sutton notes that 2G (GPRS) offered latency of 750 milliseconds, while 3G HSPA brought that to below 100ms. In 4G the latency is 40-60ms, but with 5G the expectation is that latency will be as low as "a few milliseconds to 10ms," says Sutton.
4G is good enough for the next decade, delivering connectivity up to 1 Gbit/s, but 5G will be needed for the next, delivering speeds of 10 Gbit/s and even up to 100 Gbit/s, believes Sutton. So what will be needed for 5G to exist? Is there really any difference between enhanced 4G (for example, LTE in unlicensed bands, or LTE-U) and 5G?
There are a lot of moving parts and some of them will be particular to 5G, most notably the use of multiple bands in the higher frequency ranges (in the 10GHz to 60GHz range) to deliver ultra-high-speed connectivity.
Otherwise, much of what will deliver so-called 5G services are evolutionary steps from 4G, including: the widespread and mass use of indoor and outdoor small cells to deliver enormous wireless capacity using multiple frequencies; the deployment of such technologies as Massive MIMO and enhanced beamforming using multiple antennas; self-organizing network (SON) for automated network management; and the use of SDN and NFV for greater network efficiencies and speedier application introduction. (See Ready or Not, Here Comes 5G.)
Ultimately, for customers, 5G will deliver what Sutton calls an "always sufficient rate" -- whatever connectivity a device needs, wherever it is, and whatever application(s) it is running, 5G should be able to deliver it instantly. That appears to be the promise of 5G.
Clearly, Mrs Sutton will be hoping that's enough to kill off any ideas of 6G…
— Ray Le Maistre, , Editor-in-Chief, Light Reading