The 5G tales of Barcelona

Telecom Asia contributor and raconteur Tony Poulos sits on a chair atop a table at a tapas bar in Barcelona. "Anyone NOT here for Mobile World Congress?" Poulos asks the crowd, rhetorically.

With a reported 93,000 attendees, MWC2015 bulged at the seams. Devices pinged with incessant press releases as vendors and operators pushed out press releases and invites. After spending the day barraged by technology, Poulos's monologue – an irreverent and very funny take on MWC – was a welcome respite. His format hasn't changed in centuries: a storyteller entertaining a group of like-minded individuals in a public house. It was a pleasure.

So what about MWC?

5G: fast and furious
TA editor-in-chief John Tanner says it's a sure sign that 5G development is truly underway when two industry organizations release white papers "outlining their respective visions of 5G" at MWC.

"In essence", wrote Tanner, "5G must be designed to support the demands of a fully mobile and connected society", involving "higher speeds, connectivity density, mobility range and reliability (and far lower latency) in a heterogeneous environment, embedded flexibility to accommodate a wide range of use cases, business and partnership models, and an architecture supporting modular network functions that can be deployed and scaled on demand."

Tanner also wrote that "ChinaEU – an industry association that promotes ICT cooperation between Europe and China – issued a statement calling on both China and Europe to collaborate strategically on 5G".

Strategic collaboration
At an LTE forum hosted by ZTE and the GSMA, Dr Xiang Jiying, chief scientist at ZTE, discussed the evolutionary path from 4G to 5G. "Customers from Asia are very interested in the pre-5G concept", said Xiang. And at MWC2015, ZTE won a GTI excellence award for its massive multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) solution, which comprises a 64-port/128 antenna 3D/massive MIMO base station.

"3D/Massive MIMO is a key part of 5G technology", said ZTE in a statement. "Multi-antenna technology improves wireless spectrum efficiency significantly, which ... helps telecom operators’ maximize the use of existing site locations and spectrum resources." According to a November 2014 simulation completed by ZTE and China Mobile, "massive MIMO throughput can be four to six times higher than 4G throughput".

Xiang says one challenge is complexity – ZTE designed a dedicated chipset for this device, which has 128 antennas & 64 channels. Another challenge: device manufacturers. "True 5G needs cooperation with the handset makers", said Xiang.

Data transformation
"The operating revenues in global telecommunications are growing steadily", said ZTE CTO Zhao Xianming in his forum speech. "In the next few years, data services will exceed voice and SMS services, and become operators' main source of revenue … [and] the Internet of Things and big data are coming to prominence, further driving the transformation of telecom operations".

Transformation is also on the mind of Ryan Ding, executive director and president of products & solutions, Huawei. "In the past, we devised products and operations, then the operator bought the product and we'd work together to deploy it", he said in a separate interview at MWC2015. "Nowadays, the whole network should be customer-driven. That's what we mean with our slogan 'Open roads to a better connected world': What kind of experience does the consumer need? Then we work together to determine what kind of products are needed for what kind of network".

The products that make up the network are in a constant state of flux, and Ding says that his firm uses a three-step approach that allows its customers to create their network: modules, authentication management, and an application management platform. He described the firm's LTM modules that have an average battery life of ten years."This is a low energy/low data device", he explained. "Every minute it uploads 50-100 KB of data, and we don't care what that data is, we just deliver it to the app" (he also said that higher energy/higher data modules could deliver 10ms latency).

One use Ding suggested for the LTMS: pets. "In Europe, owners would pay 20-30 euros per year for a collar with this device—to track their dog or cat." Another use, he said, is in catering: the device can track temperature, humidity and condition of the goods within. "Huawei will not become a logistics company", he said, "we'll just work in the area we're familiar with – help the operator build the enabling platform, not the apps".

This is the nuts-and-bolts of the IoT, which is part and parcel of this concept we call 5G. "Should we build the network first, or wait for its content?," said Ding. "In China five years ago, people questioned high-speed rail, but now, it's already difficult to book a ticket as it's so popular.These arguments always happen with highways, high-speed rail or broadband: do you sink the investment costs?"

Toothbrush data?
Poulos loves to discover items he calls the "Internet of Silly Things", and this year, he found a Bluetooth-enabled toothbrush that sends your brushing information to your dentist (no flossing app was available, regrettably). These novelty-soundbite products that are fun, but detract from the macro view.

How about this as a building-block concept?

Low-power data modules like the ones from Huawei send out data picked up on massive MIMO (and other comm gear) like the ones from ZTE and the data is crunched by appropriate apps and put to use. More subsystems like this are created, and if open standards are upheld (as Huawei's "Open Roads" slogan urges), they communicate with each other. As Tanner wrote: "higher speeds, connectivity density, mobility range and reliability (and far lower latency) in a heterogeneous environment." This will not be built quickly or easily. It will advance to perhaps 30 billion devices, perhaps 50 billion, and perhaps – as Ding predicts, by 2025 – 100 billion.

There will be struggles. Spectrum fights, standards issues, budget kerfuffles. But as Ding notes, "in 2014, China put up almost one million TDD base stations—more than Europe and North America end-2014, China Mobile had 70 million 4G customers. E-commerce success in China isn't only due to Jack Ma, but because of the strong network".

This is how it starts.