It was little surprise that 5G was the dominant theme at Mobile World Congress 2018. The technology has made great strides in the past 12 months in all measures: standards, chipset and infrastructure development, trials, partnerships and operator commitments to deployment.
This progress is largely thanks to 3GPP's announcement in 2017 of an intermediate step in the introduction of 5G New Radio (NR) with a non-standalone configuration. This uses the LTE radio and core network as the basis for mobility management and coverage, but adds 5G carrier(s) to enable data access at higher speeds.
Although the Release 15 specification being developed by 3GPP will also contain standards for stand-alone operation of 5G NR, it has accelerated deployment timelines and ensured the ecosystem quickly matures beyond proprietary systems.
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Early deployments now opt for a standards-based path, which will prove critical to the health of 5G. Network roll-outs will start in the second half of 2018, before wider deployment in 2019 and volume growth a year later. Crucially, industry acceleration has enabled chipset and infrastructure companies to begin designing silicon and hardware that are compliant with the specifications. The event in Barcelona confirmed this, meaning that the first 5G-enabled smartphones should appear in the first half of 2019.
Despite this optimism, it's a delicate time for the new generation of networks. Expectations are high and claims of "foremost", "first" and "fastest" are abundant. But these assertions fail to convey the challenging economics, and business case for 5G (a subject for another time). Until infrastructure and modems are functioning in real-world scenarios, it's all too easy to make bold claims.
For example, Huawei, through its HiSilicon subsidiary, has made healthy progress in 4G LTE and can be expected to be a contender in 5G. But the claim that its Balong 5G01 is the "world's first 3GPP 5G commercial chipset" is misleading. At Mobile World Congress, Huawei kept the modem under glass on its stand, and although it showcased its 5G router to support fixed wireless deployments, demonstrations using smartphone designs were entirely absent.
MediaTek is taking a more measured approach to 5G. Its collaboration with China Mobile illustrates its commitment to deliver chips for tests in 2018, with 2019 targeted for preliminary roll-out and commercial deployment in 2020. Samsung has been publicly quiet on its plans for 5G smartphone modems, despite announcing 5G network equipment and a home router in Barcelona. It also showed a tablet with support for millimeter wavebands, based on the pre-standard specifications developed by both Verizon and KT, known as 5GTF and 5G-Sig. We fully expect Samsung to launch 5G-ready devices powered by its Exynos processor series in 2019.
Following its deployment of a 5G network using KT's 5G-Sig at the 2018 Winter Olympics, Intel demonstrated 5G NR interoperability. The move built on its partnership with Huawei and Deutsche Telekom, which saw completion of interoperability and development tests based on Release 15 non-standalone. Intel also showed a two-in-one PC concept with an integrated modem running on the 28 GHz band. Although the prototype features large kickstands to house millimeter-wave antennas, it's still an important reflection of Intel's progress and aim to deliver commercial 5G PCs in the second half of 2019. We also believe a collaboration with Spreadtrum in 5G will accelerate both companies' ability to address the Chinese mid-tier smartphone market.
But it's Qualcomm that appears to be in the driving seat when it comes to development of 5G modems. It has a wide range of agreements with operators aiming to for testing: according to the company, 19 operators have selected its X50 modem for mobile 5G NR trials and 20 manufacturers have committed to release compatible devices starting in 2019. The launch of Qualcomm's third-generation X24 modem underlined its leadership in 4G, creating a strong basis for success in 5G.
In Barcelona, the US chipmaker displayed a working smartphone prototype supporting millimeter-wave technology and an antenna module the size of a coin, which emphasized the bulky design of most other prototypes on show. Moreover, its simulations of non-standalone 5G NR in 3.5 GHz and 28 GHz spectrum using existing cell sites in Frankfurt and San Francisco offer a much-needed example of what can be expected in terms of capacity, speed and latency. At 3.5 GHz, browsing speeds jumped from 56 Mbps for an average 4G user to over 490 Mbps for their 5G counterpart. At 28 GHz, speeds were about 23 times faster.
There's a lot of hype surrounding 5G, and the technology has beaten expectations with its pace of development. However, what's important now is that the industry collectively address real-world testing, uses and the associated performance and benefits. As we get closer to handsets running on 5G networks in 2019, let's focus on actual performance rather than spurious theoretical claims and empty assertions of "5G firsts".
GeoffBlaber leads mobile device software research at CCS Insight