5G: a big step forward but still business as usual

Friday 16 December 2016 | 11:59 CET | Background

What is 5G? Why is the industry so excited about it when 4G is barely on the market? When will the new technology reach the market? What can we do with it and what are the implications? The basic answer to all these questions is: this is business as usual and anything beyond that is a shot in the dark. Nevertheless, we can provide a relatively detailed context for the developments. 

Technological innovation in the mobile sector occurs in stages, and we are now in the so-called fourth generation, known as 4G or LTE. As soon as one generation launches, development of the next goes into full swing. The 3GPP, a market-led platform for technical harmonisation, is developing the 5G standard, which will then be approved by the ITU (part of the UN). The latter has already chosen the name IMT-2020 for the technology. A single standard is essential in order to ensure interoperability of networks and user equipment. It also serves an economic purpose, providing certainty and economies of scale for market players, stimulating their R&D work and the drive for a 'first-mover' advantage on the associated royalties. In June the 3GPP announced its work plan, with the aim of having Release-15 ready by March 2017. This iteration of mobile network technology will form the basis for 5G.

Dot on the horizon

At the end of 2014, the GSMA saw two directions for 5G: towards a hyperconnected world and towards a completely new type of RAN. Both cases require several elements: speed, latency, density, coverage, availability, lower operational costs and devices.

The first elements of building 5G standards were recently outlined by a study group set up by the ITU with market parties. The ultimate goal on the horizon is a reduction in latency to 1 ms and symmetric speeds of 10 Gbps, with initial market launches by 2020. Ericsson said recently that it expects the standards to be finalised only in 2020. Various components and concepts are still in development as part of Release-15. This includes things like the use of new spectrum bands (such as the 3.5 GHz band and high frequencies like 28 GHz), massive MIMO, network slicing, virtualisation and the development of new radio technology. The recent concept UCNC (User Centric and No Cell) from Telefonica and Huawei may also form a part. This promises to reduce signalling overhead by 78 percent and latency by 95 percent. Another possibility is the Shared Data Layer concept from Nokia.


One of the first implications is that new spectrum needs to be found and auctioned. More international harmonisation of available bands will be needed compared to previous generations.

Another implication is that older technology may become obsolete. For example, Telstra recently shut down its 2G (GSM) network, and others are preparing the same. With 5G it may not come to that. In other places, 2G is still used for applications such as M2M, 3G powers much of the voice traffic still, and 4G networks handle a growing share of data. The rise of Single RAN equipment also undermines the attractiveness of turning off older technology.

One can also wonder if, after the launch of 5G, the market will turn directly to 6G. At the moment it doesn't appear so, as 5G is expected to support the current ambitions. However, history shows that needs change, and there is no doubt that further innovation will lead to new demands on mobile technology.

Use cases

Important use cases for 5G are the IoT, including applications such as the connected car and autonomous vehicles, and replacing the fixed line (see also the convergence of mobile and fixed networks, something seen with the pause in Google Fiber's roll-out). Those are far from the only ones though; T-Mobile US recently gave a glimpse of some of the possible applications for 5G, ranging from real-time augmented reality navigation to nano-sensor bio-data.

According to a survey by Ericsson, operators expect 5G to be a game-changer, and executives from various sectors expect 5G to provide a boost to innovation. In the many recent announcements on 5G tests and development, some of the applications mentioned include massive IoT, smart cities, smart car, self-driving car, instant traffic & map updates, tactile internet, AR, VR, industrial robots, (cloud) robotics, extreme automation, stadium experience etc.

Market players (operators, vendors, universities) are working in various alliances on 5G development, such as 5GIC (at the University of Surrey), ISRA (Intel), 5GPPP (with th EC) and 5G-haus (Deutsche Telekom).

Business as usual

For current applications, such as mobile video streaming, 4G and its variants will be sufficient for years to come. Voice will also migrate to 4G networks. 5G is about innovation and removing any barriers to new developments in the connected society, such as latency or capacity. In this sense, 5G will be a big step forward. Nevertheless, a new technology is still business as usual for the mobile industry, as with each generation a) the possibility of reusing network components increases (increased network density and deeper fibre are crucial steps to the 5G world), b) this creates ever higher barriers to entry for newcomers, and c) there will no doubt be a sixth generation, as history shows that by the launch of each new mobile technology it's already been surpassed.  

To keep track of the latest news on 5G developments, follow Telecompaper's special 5G dossier

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