Further evidence that industry opinion about 5G is uniting around a defined set of network requirements and operator use cases, at least as far as early deployments are concerned, came from the 5G World event in June. There was broad agreement on two key areas of strategy: first, that cumulative performance gains can be achieved both in the run-up to 5G and after launch, through the use of technologies such as massive MIMO, flexible carrier aggregation, 256QAM, and license-assisted access (LAA); and second, that the adoption of SDN/NFV and cloud-based approaches such as Cloud RAN can help to create a 5G-ready network architecture capable of supporting a diverse set of use cases from low-rate IoT to ultra-fast mobile broadband. Key to this will be a technique known as network slicing.
At the performance end of the scale, South Korean operator Korea Telecom expects to push the limits of current 5G technology when it launches a pre-commercial network in time for the Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang in 2018. KT will be spending this year defining the trial system for the games, where it plans to use the technical capabilities of 5G, including latency of 1ms and ultra-high speeds of 20 Gbps, to show the games in an entirely new way. Innovative video techniques will provide the athletes’ point of view, including “omni-view” video from different angles and holographic representations of competitors, the operator says.
NTT DoCoMo says it will deploy 5G for Japan’s Summer Olympic Games in 2020, and wants to use higher frequency bands and massive MIMO, expecting to achieve throughput of around 10 Gbps. Trials are already under way and from 2017/18 will move to a larger scale in order to verify system behavior. After the 2020 launch, the company says it aims to continuously improve its 5G systems.
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European operators, on the other hand, appear unlikely to adopt the higher bands for 5G early on. Both Vodafone and Orange say they are looking at bands that can deliver wide area coverage and intend on making the best use of the currently available licensed bands. As a result, Vodafone believes that the focus in Europe will be in the lower bands for some years.
5G solutions on show
Most vendors focused their discussions on strategies for evolving the network from 4G to 5G, with Ericsson, Huawei, and Nokia all stressing the importance of pre-5G technologies such as LTE-Advanced Pro as a stepping stone to 5G, but with varying emphases on how to manage this process. At the same time, all were also reporting progress on technology trials and proof of concepts designed to support some of the various use cases.
Ericsson showed the latest version of its 5G test bed, with beamforming and massive MIMO capability, reporting that it has achieved speeds of 25 Gbps using 15 MHz of bandwidth. The vendor has already moved its test bed out into the field where it is being used in customer networks.
Ericsson offers its Lean Carrier technology, a software upgrade for 4G networks, as a stepping stone to 5G, claiming to boost 4G performance by employing a number of software “plug-ins” that leverage techniques already under development for 5G, including massive MIMO, multi-user MIMO, RAN virtualization, latency reduction, and intelligent connectivity.
The vendor is leveraging these prototype technologies in operator field trials in North America and Asia, and recently demonstrated technology for smart vehicles and intelligent transport applications.
Huawei pointed out that 4.5G will coexist with 5G for a long time to come. In Huawei’s view, the transition to 5G, in addition to driving increased speed and capacity, should be focused on providing an improved user experience with enhancements such as HD voice and HD video, providing more connections in order to enable access to vertical markets and access for IoT, and redefining network architectures to provide greater flexibility.
The three pillars required to create 5G-ready networks are cloud architectures, new air interfaces, and intelligent operations, says Huawei. The vendor believes that Cloud RAN will be an important function of delivering 5G and IoT, and advocates a phased implementation starting with LTE networks in order to be fully ready for 5G.