Is This the 5G You're Looking For?

At Heavy Reading -- and here on the pages of Light Reading -- we've been following the emergence of 5G closely because, quite simply, it's a technology that will change the world. It has the potential to revolutionize entire industrial sectors, it heralds the Tactile Internet, it promises a connectivity layer for vehicle communication, and so on… it's a great story and we’re "all in" with the vision.

And progress, so far, has been good. Earlier this year the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance's 5G White Paper established a framework for R&D and market development. And the International Telecommunication Union's (ITU) IMT-2020 process -- the ultimate arbiter of what 5G actually is -- to define the performance requirements is ongoing. However, much of this work has been, in essence, aspirational: What do we want? What could we conceivably develop? At some point aspiration must translate to the real world.

That time has now come. At a special 3GPP RAN workshop starting tomorrow in Phoenix, Arizona the industry will formally start work on an implementable 5G standard.

It also gives us some clues about what 5G might actually look like. Using the documentation posted by operators, vendors and R&D organizations to the 3GPP website in advance of the workshop, we get a first look at how important players view the development process and, by extension, what type of 5G the industry is likely to produce.

So, what can we glean from this document dump about the 5G development process?

(Keep in mind that the 3GPP won't use the term "5G" and that the intent is to develop a standard that meets the requirements for IMT-2020 technology, which is still to be formally defined by the ITU.)

The first thing that becomes apparent is that 5G development will span at least three 3GPP releases (R14, R15 and R16) and will be delivered in Phase I, which could be commercialized by 2020, and Phase II, from 2022 onwards.

Phase I is being driven by the operators' desire to demonstrate prototype 5G systems, with a new, high-speed air interface by 2018, and launch the first commercial services in 2020. Even though it won't meet the full IMT-2020 requirements, this technology will, inevitably, be marketed as "5G."

Phase II won't be specified until Release 16 (currently expected at the end of 2019) and probably not commercial until 2022. This is closer to the 5G story the industry has been selling (True 5G?) and by the time it exists will probably be known as 5G+, 5G Advanced, or similar. We all know how this works.

An indicative timeline for the 3GPP process is shown below:

A Phased Approach to 5G Development
Source: InterDigital
Source: InterDigital

What is Phase I 5G (pre-5G?) likely to look like?

Well, probably not the Tactile Internet, network slicing, remote surgery, massively scalable sensor networks, self-driving cars, factory floor automation and all the really transformational stuff -- that is all being pushed to Phase II. Much more likely is that Phase I will be about enhanced mobile broadband (known as eMBB) -- or, in other words, what we have today, but faster and more power efficient.

This phased approach makes sense -- the 5G goals are extremely ambitious and the industry obviously can’t do everything all at once -- but it does mean the original goal of developing major new commercial opportunities will have to wait. In this scenario, operators will be more or less restricted to essentially the same business model of selling gigabytes by the bucket until Phase II.

Quite few of the operator and vendor presentations posted ahead of the event express concern about this (and this is more acute in private in "corridor conversations") because they fear the opportunity to transform the service model will be unnecessarily delayed if the sole focus of Phase I is on eMBB.

In my view, therefore, two really crucial objectives of this week's kick-off meeting should be: (1) That Phase I is forward-compatible with the new capabilities earmarked for Phase II; and (2) That Phase II development work on more advanced capabilities starts right way and runs in parallel with Phase I.

So with that as context, here's my short summary of what Phase I might look like based on the 3GPP document submission:

  • As already noted, it appears that Phase I 5G will be driven by enhanced eMBB with a focus on small cell access. (With some desire to also support macro cells with inter-site distances of up to 500 meters.)
  • Also as expected, the focus on sub-6GHz spectrum, with 3-6 GHz considered the sweet spot. There are quite a few players that would like Phase I to extend to 30-40 GHz.
  • Everyone expects to use wide carrier bandwidths with request ranging from 40MHz up to 100MHz, or even 200MHz.
  • The expectation appears to be that 5G will not operate in a standalone mode in Phase I, but will be anchored by an evolved LTE network and connected to an evolved 4G core. This is called LTE Assisted Access and appears similar, in principle, to LTE-U/LTE-LAA.
  • Hyper-scale IoT (known as massive Machine Type Communication or mMTC) capability looks likely to be pushed to Phase II. One prevalent view is that LTE-M (R14) can do the job in the interim, although some influential organizations would like to see mMTC in Phase I.
  • Overall, there appears to be support for a single air interface that will eventually also support ultra-scalable mMTC and ultra-low latency. But clearly some players are open to a multiple air-interface strategy (e.g. for very high-band spectrum).
  • There is not yet a consensus on the choice of waveform. OFDM with flexible numerology seems to be the most popular, but support is by no means universal.
  • There are quite a few proposals for a new waveform, or various forms of filtered OFDM, but no real consensus among the proposers. Some also argue for an additional single-carrier waveform (i.e. non-OFDM) for the higher and very low bands in Phase II.
  • There is agreement that the focus will be on dynamic TDD with a new frame structure; not many calls for FDD support.
  • Broad agreement, in principle, on lightweight connection and mobility management, and on unscheduled transmissions. Very little detail on what this might mean in practice.
  • Lean design (blank sub-carriers, blank sub-frames, etc.) seems to be the proposed solution for Phase I to Phase II migration. Again, there's relatively little detail on how this might work.

This is all, obviously, subject to change -- that's the point of the workshop after all -- but it does I think give a pretty good overview of the state of 5G in the real world as it stands today.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

Gabriel Brown 10/1/2015 | 6:21:42 AM
Re: Above 6 Ghz will come before Below 6 Ghz Worth adding to this, I did a 5G panel session on video with TIA earleir this week. The U.S. speakers were pretty positive on 28GHz for 5G.

(and as we already know the FCC has opened a notice of inquiry into this band)
Gabriel Brown 9/21/2015 | 6:58:45 AM
Workshop Report The chair's summary report from this workshop has been posted here: 

TV Monitor 9/17/2015 | 4:14:35 PM
Re: Above 6 Ghz will come before Below 6 Ghz Gabriel Brown

The Korean government research lab that does shadow work for local industries plans to test a 30 Ghz mobile data system that comes in the form of a subway car mounted WiFi hotspot this winter. The Link The 30 Ghz mobile data station exists today but is too large to be hand carried at the moment, so it comes in the form of a wall-mounted WiFi hotspot to which subway riders can connect to access high speed internet. The hotspot will then connect to base stations in the 30 Ghz band. The very fact that the base stations will be kept at a minimum distance of 1 km from each other and that this system works inside moving subway cars in a subway tunnel demonstrates the robustness of the Korean 28~30 Ghz mobile data system, so there is no reason why they cannot deliver highway cruise speed mobile data in 28~30 Ghz band. This is the reason behind the apparant Korean disinterest in sub 6 Ghz low-band 5G. For everybody else, their mmwave 5G solutions support only walking speed mobile data at a maximum range of 200 m, and this is the reason for low-band and high-band dual 5G solutions. The market will then decide if they want to deploy both low-band and high-band 5G networks, or single high-band 5G network that can support highway speed mobile data.

As for other 5G usecase like IoT, the LTE-M is more suitable than any 5G solutions. 
Gabriel Brown 9/17/2015 | 4:44:18 AM
Re: Above 6 Ghz will come before Below 6 Ghz Thanks for the comment. Agreed that Korean companies will aim to launch a trial service in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics, and that it will be eMBB focused, and that it is likely they will try and use above 6 GHz. This is more or less national industrial policy.   

But you can't read across that this will be all that 5G is, or that the rest of the world will adopt this model. That isn't known yet. You could also do eMBB in 3-6GHz.

Samsung has presented its work on 28GHz to moving vehicles in a very tightly controlled environment. This is fantastic research and very much to be applauded. I'm sure the 2018 demos will be very impressive. But this technology, appears some way from being commercially useable "at highway cruising speed over a long distance." More likely it is suited to stationary/nomadic users.

You can build a system with an LTE control plane and '5G' data plane – which, as noted in the article, appears the most likely first step. But is this really what 5G is about? How transformative would that be to operator business models?

eMBB is an important part of 5G, but it is not all of it. That is what I wanted to convey.
TV Monitor 9/16/2015 | 8:47:40 PM
Above 6 Ghz will come before Below 6 Ghz The very first 5G network to go live in 2018 at Pyeongchang will be a mmWave network, 28 Ghz to be precise. KT announced they already completed the design work of its first 28 Ghz network there and will begin construction this fall. Koreans have no intention of doing the so-called low-band 5G; they will go straight to 28 Ghz 5G and skip the low-band 5G altogether, because they have the 5G network technology thats supports highway cruising speed mobile data today, which allows cell basestations to be deployed at every 2 mile interval.

The reason for this split sub-6 Ghz and above-6 Ghz 5G phases is that the European companies, Nokia and Ericsson, yet do not have above 6 Ghz 5G technology that could support mobile data at highway cruising speed over a long distance. Once Samsung demonstrates in 2018 that it is indeed possible to support highway speed mobile data at 28 Ghz, then the justification for this so-called low-band 5G dissappears, and the 5G standard will simply consolidate around the LTE control plane + 28 Ghz 5G data plane.

danielcawrey 9/16/2015 | 3:34:37 PM
First Steps These are quality first steps to impementing 5G.

When you think about it, the wireless landscape is going to look a lot different by 2020. That's five years from now! Can you imagine the number of devices that will need to hook up to the internet?
Sign In