In search of 5G

John C. Tanner

You know that 5G has arrived when mobile industry conferences start dedicating entire tracks to it.

Such was the case at LTE Asia in September, where 5G not only had its own mini-summit, but was also a recurring topic during keynotes. Several C-level executives admitted that while 5G is so far in the future that even the business model is unclear, firms need to start investing now.

“It’s not a push for 5G so much, it’s that you’re seeing this massive explosion of data, so we have to start looking at the next stage now,” said Patrick Scodeller, CTO of M1. “There’s no real commercial push for it now, except that if you provide a good experience, customers will pay for it.”

Kuan Moon Yuen, CEO Consumer Singapore at SingTel, agreed. “We have to invest in the future. There may be no obvious killer app for 5G, but we have to plan for it now.”

And indeed there is a whole lot of planning going on. Dozens of groups around the world are spearheading various 5G-related R&D activities, from regional initiatives like China’s 863-5G Project (via the Ministry Of Science & Technology), South Korea’s 5G Forum and Japan’s “2020 and beyond” Ad Hoc group (via the Association of Radio Industries and Businesses), to the ITU-R’s Working Party 5D, as well as industry groups like the GSM Association and even the IEEE.

All of which is a remarkable amount of effort on a technology so vaguely defined that there’s no single definition of what 5G actually is. In fact, what’s perhaps most interesting about 5G is that it’s conceptually defined by the shortcomings of current cellular networks in the face of rapid data growth and its impact on user behavior in the next five to six years. (see Figure 1).

Whatever we imagine 5G to be, it will be designed to overcome limitations in 4G networks related to capacity, coverage, latency, power consumption, data rates, and of course, cost.

Despite the varying conceptual definitions of 5G, some basic common parameters have emerged to give mobile broadband players something to shoot for.

On the RAN side, according to NTT DoCoMo, 5G is generally envisioned to support these basic parameters:

  • 1,000x higher system capacity per square kilometer (compared to LTE)
  • 100x faster data rates (i.e. gigabit levels)
  • Support for mass connectivity (i.e. 100x more devices, including M2M scenarios, even in crowded areas)
  • Lower energy consumption for networks and devices
  • Lower TCO (including backhaul)
  • Lower latency (i.e. less than 1ms, or as close to zero as you can get)
  • High reliability, robustness and security.

Other commonly cited requirements for 5G include:

  • Ultra-dense base-station deployments (i.e. small cells and hetnets)
  • Lower service creation time (measured in minutes, not days)
  • More spectrum (and more efficient usage of it)
  • A flexible software-based intelligent network capable with powerful analytics capabilities. 




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