5G networking is anticipated as the next major revolution for mobile technology, empowering customers with even faster data connections, opening up avenues to new industrial applications, and even helping to build widely connected “smart-cities”. It’s the crucial next step in better connecting our increasingly technological world, but there’s still plenty of legwork left to do before this all becomes a reality.
Around the world, companies and governments are working to iron out the finer points that will bring 5G mobile communication to the masses. Here’s the current state of the industry and what to expect going forward.
It’s all in the details
Despite quite a lot of talk about and investment going into 5G research, there still isn’t actually a globally defined specification for the technology. Organizations such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (MGMN Alliance) have come up with ideal requirements for 5G networks, which include but aren’t limited to 1Gbps data speeds to simultaneous local users, lower latency, increased coverage, and improved power efficiency. However, as we know these ideal scenarios are unlikely to be what consumers end up seeing, and there’s still an ongoing debate about what the global 5G standard should actually look like.
One of the biggest obstacles is technology. Researchers and carriers are still weighing up the merits of various technologies and bits of hardware in order to reach the goals set out by these early 5G standards. Research into radio propagation of small millimeter waves and massive multi-input multi-output (MIMO) hardware is aiming to increase bandwidth up to the desired capabilities. Cellular repeater and macro-diversity techniques are being designed to solve problems with maintaining high bit rates across larger areas, as is research into device-to-device (D2D) connectivity. There’s also backwards compatibility to consider and the gradual phase in of 5G support. Hence why the industry is looking to standard evolutions like LTE Advanced Pro to bridge the gap.
Furthermore, 5G specifications want to enable simultaneous connectivity to thousands of low power internet of things (IoT) devices, also known as pervasive networking, all while improving network energy efficiency. There’s even more to consider when it comes to coding, transmitting, and processing this data and making it all work together. With all of that in mind, plus a fair bit more, we can begin to see why there hasn’t yet been a consensus on exactly how all of this will be achieved and why research and trials are still ongoing. That being said, we are beginning to see companies settle on their approaches.
Even so, there is a general acceptance among developers of what 5G is all about and what these network types are likely to look like. 5G will likely make use of higher frequency radio bands to allow data transfers at higher speeds. Network reach and coverage will consist of lots of smaller transmitters, some only covering a few blocks, in order to make up for the lack of achievable distance with very high frequency signals. In consumer devices, 5G smartphones will makes use of carrier aggregation and heavy MIMO antenna in order ensure coverage from numerous base stations, as well as increasing overall throughput. LTE networks, WiFi data, and unlicensed spectrum could all be used to ensure sufficient coverage and higher data speeds with the introduction of 5G.
While we’re still some way away from knowing exactly how the 5G market is going to look around the world, countries and carriers are beginning to take their first steps.
Back in early July, Verizon became the first US carrier to dish out some details on its 5G specification. The technically heavy documents and company testing details new multi antenna array processing techniques, carrier aggregation technologies, and wide bandwidth uses for fast 5G data speeds, which it hopes will be used as a blueprint not only for its own upcoming 5G network, but also by other carriers.
By releasing its communication specifications at this stage, Verizon is hoping to have heavy influence over the technologies that may end up being used by the global 5G standard, which is expected to be decided by 2020. Of course, Verizon may end up funneling itself down a different path, hence why the company is still continuing trials and testing, and working along major 5G technology developers, including KT Corporation, Samsung, and Nokia. Of course, other aspects of future 5G networking are firmly in the hands of government officials.
Last week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US voted to free up wireless spectrum bands above 24 GHz for use in the commercial deployment of 5G wireless technologies. The frequencies made available cover the 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 64-71 GHz bands, which covers both licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Importantly, the FCC will be allocating these bands in large blocks of 200 MHz each, rather than the 5 or 10 MHz chunks that are currently used for 4G LTE networks. This will offer 5G carriers significantly more bandwidth for data than what is currently available, which should help improve speeds. Today’s fast 4G LTE Advanced devices can make use of up to 20 MHz of bandwidth, but only when multi-antenna carrier aggregation technology is used.
While these high frequency bands allow for faster data speeds, they are not as well suited to long range transmission as today’s lower frequencies, and are more easily blocked by land and buildings. This means that the FCC’s latest vote only has limited scope for providing usable 5G bands. Much of the US’ current longer range LTE coverage is provided by the congested 1 GHz band. Unless the FCC frees up some lower frequency bands for 5G, the rollout will require multiple smaller transmitter stations in order to offer sufficient coverage, and costs would likely limit this to heavily populated areas and cities. This would also make it much less likely that rural areas will see any 5G coverage in the early years of the technology’s rollout.
The FCC held a second vote on the same day which also makes it easier for carriers to phase out older landline phone networks, providing that they replace them with either other wired, such as fiber cables, or wireless alternatives with equivalent or superior performance and compatibility with essential services, such as 911. Importantly, this will free up carrier resources and networks to invest in new technologies like 5G, rather than having to maintain old, slow copper wires.
The following day the White House announced a $400 million research plan, to be led by the National Science Foundation, that will fund research papers and other projects related to the roll out of 5G.
Currently it looks like the US is very much heading for a hybrid approach, at least in the early days, which matches much of the material that we’ve seen about 5G expectations. Smaller high-speed hubs will be supplemented by existing long range technologies as carriers makes the expensive switch over. As for a time-frame, Verizon and AT&T have both said that they will begin deploying 5G trials in 2017, with the first commercial deployments expected to arrive sometime in 2020.
Of course the rest of the world isn’t sitting still waiting for the US to be the first to launch a 5G network, the race is on around the entire globe. Japan’s NTT DoCoMo is currently researching the use of the millimeter wave spectrum for high speed data and conducted its first 5G trial late last year, after reaching test speeds of 3.6Gbps. In South Korea, KT Corporation, the company that is working closely with Verizon on its standard, is planning to show off its 5G technology in time for the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang.
China is also in the game. The country’s Academy of Telecommunications Research has launched a three year research program that will focus on 5G experimentation. In the UK, the University of Surrey has opened a 5G Innovation Centre and the University of Cambridge published the first comprehensive book on the subject titled “5G Mobile and Wireless Communications Technology”. The UK government has also made plans to free up 750MHz of public spectrum for next-gen telecommunications use by 2022 and has set aside some of its budget for research and development.
The situation is a little more complicated in mainland Europe. 20 telecommunications companies, including Nokia, Vodafone, BT, and Deutsche Telekom, have indicated that they’re happy to invest in 5G technologies in time for 2018, but only if net neutrality laws are scaled back. The group is concerned that it will struggle to see a return on its investment into 5G technologies as a result of the neutrality regulations. Depending on how the European Commission decides to handle the situation, this could put a severe dent in the 5G timeline for countries across Europe.
While consumers and net activists will be unlikely to care too much about the complaints of these huge telecoms companies, it does raise an interesting point about the economics of 5G networks. Today, it costs 4G carriers approximately $1 to deliver 1GB of data, and these costs are set to increase substantially if 5G is to require numerous small-cell transmitters and if consumers continue the data consuming trend towards higher resolution video content. It’s likely that the business of providing the next generation of mobile networks will look a bit different to today’s 4G LTE.
There’s still a lot of work to be done, both by national government, carriers, and hardware manufacturers, before we get to the stage where 5G networks are ready for prime time. Making 5G a reality is going to require a joint effort between policy makers and technology companies, but the end results of faster data speeds and a huge increase of bandwidth to cater for many more connected devices should be well worth it.
The next generation of wireless communication should begin arriving in consumer hands just before 2020, although wider roll outs across entire countries, especially large ones like the USA, will take a little longer.