5G is further away than it looks

John Tanner
11 Oct 2016

After several years of giddy futuristic hype over the possibilities of 5G, it appears that 2016 is going to be the year that the telecoms sector finally rolled up its sleeves and got down to the business of figuring out how to go about deploying it.

To be sure, 5G is still several years away from becoming a commercial reality. But the blitz of 5G-related announcements and event demos so far this year - from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to its Asian cousin in Shanghai in July and the 5G World event in London - have been relatively more pragmatic in nature.

Certainly there has still been plenty of sexy whiz-bang hype. At MWC Shanghai, for example, KT said that it will have 5G up and running in time for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, with apps including 5G video drones, live holograms of the athletes and “omni-view” camera angles. Meanwhile, Ericsson demoed various 5G-enabled apps, including Machine Vision for manufacturing quality assurance, vehicular connectivity for smart vehicles and intelligent transport applications, and even tactile robotic surgery.

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However, it wasn’t all futuristic apps - Ericsson also teamed with SK Telecom and Deutsche Telekom for the world’s first transcontinental 5G trial in South Korea and Germany, making use of key 5G technologies including SDN/NFV, distributed cloud and network slicing. And Nokia demonstrated a functioning 5G network using its AirScale Radio Access technology and Cloud Packet Core running on a Nokia AirFrame data center platform.

Meanwhile, there was some advancements on the standardization front in June, when the 3GPP issued a solid timetable for finalizing New Radio requirements in Release 15 (Phase 1 5G) for 5G interfaces and IoT apps, which is now set to be finalized by June 2018. Also, the Small Cell Forum published Release 7, which gives cellcos a futureproof and realistic roadmap for hetnet and SON deployments as 5G technologies are developed and finalized.

The overall message: 5G isn’t a lab experiment anymore. It’s real and at the very least you can plug it into your network and fool around with it.

However, that doesn’t mean it’s smooth sailing for 5G from this point on. In fact, 5G may be further away than it looks. Plenty of challenges remain, particularly in terms of spectrum allocation and harmonization, which could impact the rate of 5G deployments. Moreover, there are indications that 5G pragmatism will involve operators deploying the various technologies that comprise 5G at their own pace, with LTE at the center of that strategy - and that the “killer app” for initial 5G services will actually be standard broadband connectivity (albeit with faster throughput and better latency). In which case, what’s the hurry to have full-blown 5G in place by 2020?

Spectrum wars

The spectrum issue is tricky, partly because the World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) hasn’t yet allocated millimeter-wave spectrum between 24-GHz and 86-GHz that is seen as crucial for future 5G deployments. The potential band candidates have been identified for discussion at WRC-19, but some cellcos at the forefront of 5G development who are targeting a 2020 launch - such as NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon - aren’t waiting until WRC-19 for those bands to be officially cleared before getting to work on 5G trials.

Complicating matters is that US cellcos are using the 28-GHz band, which is not one of the bands being considered by the WRC for 5G. And they’re using it with the full blessing of the FCC, which in July voted unanimously to open up nearly 11 GHz of high-frequency spectrum - 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum - for 5G usage. The bands in the FCC plan include 28-GHz, 37-GHz, 39-GHz, and the 64- to 71-GHz bands.

The inclusion of the 28-GHz band is problematic because part of that band is already being used by satellite operators for Ka-band services. And satellite players - who are already at loggerheads with the mobile industry over usage of the 3.4- to 3.6-GHz band for LTE, which encroaches spectrum used for extended C-band satellite services - have expressed severe annoyance with the FCC for even considering the 28-GHz band as a terrestrial 5G frequency, not least because one of the outcomes of WRC-15 was a tacit agreement to exclude the band from consideration for 5G usage.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the approved plan strikes the best possible balance to allow terrestrial and satellite players to share the band, according to FierceWireless. Wheeler also said that while studies on interference issues from both sides of the debate offered no solid conclusions to rule in favor of one side or the other, the FCC would “continue the efforts to study the issue, and if it’s necessary to re-examine it, we will.” The FCC says its order includes sharing schemes to ensure all players - satellite, terrestrial, fixed, mobile, etc - can coexist and expand.

Tom Stroup, president of the Satellite Industry Association issued a diplomatic response to the ruling: “SIA is also encouraged by the provisions pertaining to earth stations operating in the 28-GHz band but still has concerns regarding potential aggregate interference. We look forward to working with the FCC further and appreciate the Commission’s willingness to revisit this issue as needed. There are many sophisticated technical issues posed by this rulemaking, and we are eager to fully evaluate the rules that have been adopted.”

Speaking at the CASBAA Satellite Forum at the end of May (before the FCC ruling), Ethan Lavan, director of the In-Orbit Resources Division at Eutelsat, warned that the mobile sector would continue to go after satellite spectrum regardless of the WRC-19 agenda unless the satellite industry got involved in 5G standards and equipment development to ensure that it’s developed with satellite concerns in mind.

“We need practical work to be accomplished as representatives of the satellite industry in the various forums,” he said. “We are at the point of no return. There are going to be equipment specifications for IMT 5G rollouts which are being defined now. We have alternatives to the 28-GHz band which were decided and are the subject of study in the next conference period. But unless we have some attractive and workable equipment specifications and means for the equipment manufacturers and operators to use that band, there will be no going back, because they’ll already be stuck to the only band that may in fact be available, which is a satellite band, and this applies to the other bands with sharing criteria.”

WRC sidelined

What this will mean for 28-GHz at WRC-19 is anyone’s guess. But it does indicate that the WRC is no longer able to keep up with the accelerated pace of change the telecoms sector is undergoing, and risks being sidelined as a global arbitrator of spectrum use, observed Julian Bright, senior analyst for Intelligent Networks at Ovum, in a research note.

Bright pointed to remarks at 5G World from speakers indicating the telecoms sector can’t and won’t wait three years for the WRC to work out a 5G spectrum plan. At 5G World, Takehiro Nakamura, VP and managing director of NTT DoCoMo’s 5G Lab, said during a keynote that device makers want new spectrum bands both below and above 6-GHz to be identified this year to be able to hit that 2020 deadline, as they will have their work cut out for them incorporating another batch of new bands into 5G-capable devices.

Even standards bodies are unhappy with the sluggish pace of the WRC timeline, Bright noted. “Speaking in the same keynote session at 5G World, Adrian Scrase, CTO of ETSI, said that historically the industry had put its faith in the WRC to identify new spectrum bands, but he suggested that an alternative approach might need to be found if the current approval process does not deliver in time.”

Bright added that operators using 5G spectrum bands now are likely to get the go-ahead from local regulators (as already happened with the FCC) regardless of WRC approval. That’s a problem for 5G, because the whole point of the WRC is to harmonize spectrum bands so that vendors don’t have to meet different spectrum requirements in different markets - a scenario that defined the 2G and 3G eras of mobile, and one that that nobody really wants to return to.

“Adherence to the rules governing spectrum regulation and use has always been a key principle observed by the telecommunications industry, but commercial pressures are in danger of undermining current processes if the situation isn’t quickly resolved,” Bright wrote.

More to the point, he continued, “This could lead to market fragmentation, which will ultimately hamper the global uptake of 5G.”

Peter White, CEO and co-founder of Rethink Technology Research, agrees. In a research note highly skeptical of 5G’s ambitious 2020 deadline, White said that while it was unrealistic to expect everyone to wait for WRC-19 before starting work on 5G, the move by the FCC to use a band that isn’t even available in most other markets “means economies of scale may never reach handset makers. That alone will break 5G and recent moves by the FCC look like this is destined, disastrously, to happen.”

Dialing it back

But harmonized spectrum could turn out to be the least of 5G’s problems, according to White. A paper based on data from Rethink’s RAN Research service (which White says forecasts 5G base station deployment from the demand side, taking into account what operators can afford to spend and plan to spend), argues that the sheer complexity of what we think of as a 5G access network - i.e. ubiquitous small cells and Wi-Fi access points and their subsequent requirements regarding fronthaul, backhaul and radio planning (across dozens of spectrum bands that may or may not be harmonized) - and the cost of installing it all (in short: it won’t be cheap, even with the cost savings promised by network virtualization) is going to make 2020 a very hard target for 5G players to hit.

That doesn’t mean the technical complexity challenges are insurmountable - tech companies are in the business of figuring this stuff out - and it doesn’t mean cellcos aren’t going to invest in 5G technologies. It means that they’re going to do it at their own pace in a way that makes sense for the bottom line, White argues. “What is clear is that MNOs will take the quickest fixes fast and then be very slow in deploying small, dense cells ... 5G was never meant to be a root and branch upgrade, but by allowing it to co-exist with LTE, it means MNOs can take their time over it. Perhaps 15 years to fully deploy it. Perhaps 25.”

As it happens, one of the emerging messages from this year’s 5G announcements and keynotes from the vendor side is that 5G is not so much a replacement of LTE as an enhancement, with 5G technologies gradually phased in alongside LTE as it evolves to LTE-Advanced and Advanced Pro. That’s an acknowledgment of both the costly complexity issues cellcos face with 5G deployment, and the issues of spectrum harmonization above 6-GHz.

Qualcomm’s decision to focus its 5G prototype (revealed at MWC Shanghai) on the sub 6-GHz bands was taken by industry observers as a deliberate move to cater to operators’ practical needs to focus first on coverage and performance boosts with harmonized spectrum. ZTE showcased its Pre5G solution portfolio at MWC Shanghai by stressing the “Pre” part of Pre5G, explaining how cellcos can evolve their existing 4G networks smoothly. Earlier in June, Ericsson revealed its 5G Plug-Ins solution that essentially enables cellcos to evolve to 5G at their own pace a software upgrade at a time.

Meanwhile, Huawei Technologies executives spent their keynotes at both the MWC Shanghai and 5G World events giving delegates a 5G reality check.

In London, according to Mobile World Live, Ying Weimin, president of R&D for Huawei’s wireless network product line, advised cellcos to take a step-by-step approach to 5G in the face of current uncertainties over things like standards, business models and spectrum allocations. In Shanghai, rotating CEO Eric Xu said that IoT and connected cars won’t be the main drivers justifying 5G deployments. (He did, however, say that virtual reality looked like a more likely 5G driver - which might be the case, although for the moment the excitement over VR bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the same kind of kind of novelty value we saw with 3D displays a few years ago.)

Even as far back as MWC Barcelona, CEOs were hinting that 5G’s availability in 2020 was going to depend on market realities. Intel CEO Brian Krzanich said that ramp-up of 5G deployment would depend in no small part on the ability of vendors reduce their prices.

Ralph De la Vega - vice chairman of AT&T and CEO of AT&T Business Solutions and AT&T International - said 5G rollouts and uptake will also depend on whether that market has a pro-investment policy in place to justify moving ahead with 5G.

Vodafone CEO Vittorio Colao made a similar point, saying the industry needs to look at what conditions will make 5G profitable. “To start, we need pro-investment policies for telcos, so that we can be rewarded for this massive bet. These policies should not look to telcos as a lemon to be squeezed but an engine for economic growth.”

And while it may be folly to turn to analyst forecasts for reality checks, Ovum’s inaugural 5G subscriber forecast projects 24 million 5G subscribers globally by 2021, the first year that 5G will expected to be commercially available. That sounds like a lot until you notice that’s spread over 20+ markets. Also, Ovum has also forecasted that LTE subscriptions will grow from over 1 billion this year to 3.6 billion by 2020. So LTE is still going to dominate mobile broadband for a long time to come.

This article was first published on Telecom Asia 5G Insights September 2016 edition

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