With 5G on the horizon, attention is turning to how operators can prepare their networks for rapid service launch when the spectrum, standards and technology are ready. To optimize network investment over the next three years, the industry naturally wants to deploy 5G ready infrastructure wherever possible.
But given that the first standards (and Phase 1 standards, at that) are not expected for another two years, what does "5G ready" really mean?
Is it a case of marketing and hype getting ahead of reality? Yes, it is, partly. A lot of advanced 4G capabilities are being rebranded as pre-5G.
But "5G ready" is a real, tangible thing in some important ways.
In this column, I'll look at RAN technology and then follow up on the mobile core and IP edge in later articles. The arguments are the same in each domain, although the details are a little different.
All the major vendors have made basestation product announcements this year, often using "pre-5G" terminology to bridge the gap between LTE Advanced Pro (4.5G) and the first introduction of 5G. There's a dose of vendor marketing push in this, of course, but it's fair to say suppliers are being encouraged down this route by demand for product of some kind (any kind!) from operators with aggressive 5G timescales. At this stage we're talking test-beds and field trials rather than commercial deployments, but nevertheless, there is demand for "pre-5G" in the market.
The major RAN platform announcements, from the top four vendors, this year are:
- Ericsson's 5G Plug-Ins: These are a collection of features (MIMO, vRAN, dual 4G/5G connectivity, etc.) that can be deployed on the new Ericsson Radio System basestation platform introduced in 2015.
- Huawei's GigaRadio: This was launched as a 4.5G basestation (which is what it is) earlier this year. The company talks about the platform being able to support some 5G-like features, but so far has not described it formally as "5G ready" or "pre-5G."
- ZTE's Pre-5G Massive MIMO: This is an interesting platform that takes massive MIMO in commercial product (well, almost commercial) to a new level. Again, this is a 4G product in the main, albeit one with a view towards 5G features.
- Nokia's AirScale: This is the biggest RAN announcement of the year. Nokia had been due a basestation platform upgrade for some time and with the Alcatel-Lucent acquisition closed, the way was clear to replace the ageing, but very successful, Flexi BTS. Being the newest platform on the market, AirScale is, inevitably, pitched as "5G ready."
In each case, these are essentially advanced 4G basestations being repurposed (rebranded) as 5G-ready. It's easy to scoff and argue that this is simply a case of vendors sticking a new badge on an old product, but if you're not too much of a stickler for standards definitions, and a little generous, there is at least some substance to the claims.
Firstly, the radio hardware that vendors are currently shipping is state-of-the-art and as good as you're going to get, in any kind of decent volume, over the next few years. On that basis, it is at least partly legitimate to label these commercial products as "5G ready." A lot of advanced 4G features are applicable to 5G, after all. Analysts and the media will call vendors out on this, but it is really no big deal; this is just how the world works.
Secondly, these basestation platforms will be able to run prototype 5G software in some form. In some cases, they will support remote radio units that incorporate the new 5G technology and/or new baseband units that can be upgraded via software update. This won't result in a highly optimized 5G product, but for test-beds and field trials, it serves a useful purpose.
Thirdly, the RAN market, like the broader networking market, can benefit from a software-driven "continuous update" approach. The idea of 5G-ready networks is very much in this vein of ongoing improvement through software, rather than a big-bang approach to deployment. Granted, in radio access, where you deploy RF chains, antennas, etc., for performance, you really do need new hardware. But there are areas -- particularity relating to virtual/cloud RAN and features such as dual connectivity -- where software updates can be valuable to introducing new capabilities.
For operators making major RAN investment decisions over the next few years, the prospect that they can be at least partially "5G ready" is attractive. No one really thinks today's state-of-the-art platforms are "true 5G," and clearly important capabilities will be lacking -- densification (i.e., small cells) is a particularly notable omission from the pre-5G RAN product discussion. But as we saw with 4G, getting ahead of the market with smart, bold investment strategy is what allowed operators to deploy very quickly when commercial product arrived.
In time, the market will deliver optimized 5G products as the specifications and performance requirements become clearer and suppliers are able to miniaturize new capabilities. Vendors already have prototype 5G basestations for millimeter-wave and sub-6GHz access. In cases where vendors have limited 4G market share, and are striving for market disruption (such as Samsung), it could make sense to go straight to a new purpose-built 5G platform.
Of course, "5G ready" is a nebulous term, open to misuse and exaggeration. But if you think about it as referring to continuous evolution of both hardware and software aspects of RAN technology, the concept stands up. This cycle of rapid prototyping, testing, making changes and feeding back to standards, is one of the defining features of 5G development. It is also why the early test-beds and field trials in Japan, South Korea, and the US are so valuable.
— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading