MWC 2018 preview: first 5G results, with big ambitions

Monday 19 February 2018 | 12:41 CET | Background

Mobile World Congress starts on 26 February, and the network equipment vendors and mobile operators are expected to outline their latest technological developments and plans for the coming years. Several 'proofs of concept' for 5G services are expected to be on display in Barcelona, as the industry gears up for the launch of the first 5G networks at the end of this year or early 2019. The launch schedule is ambitious, as 5G brings much more than new radio technology to the market. While the 5G pioneers are moving ahead quickly, much is still to be done to realise the high ambitions of 5G. 

5G to start in phases

In 2016, a wide coalition of vendors and tier-one mobile operators put their weight behind an acceleration in the 5G standardisation process. The 3GPP had been planning to release the 5G specifications only in around 2020, but the industry wanted something sooner. They extracted part of the 5G New Radio standard to start testing according to a very ambitious schedule, in a wide range of multi-vendor interoperability trials. 

The result is that the first release of 5G was ready much earlier than expected. Already at the end of 2017, the first version of the standard was published by 3GPP, meaning 5G will hit the market not a couple years after 2020 but already before that date. At the same time, the first version of 5G is only partial, known as 'non-standalone' as it relies on having a 4G network as well. The optimistic outlook from the industry is that only a software update will be needed to switch from 4G to 5G. 

Many proof-of-concepts

All the equipment suppliers will have 5G antennas and baseband equipment on display at MWC. The equipment for an experimental 5G network is so small it can be loaded on a truck and rolled out to the customer for a demo. This means the industry can already start working on applications, such as M2M, IoT and drones. 

The reality of 5G is a lot needs to happen in the network, with significant adjustments on the ground and in the data centre. This is why the vendors are putting a lot of emphasis on making 4G networks '5G-ready'. The major operators have been working on this for two years already and will outline their progress in Barcelona.  

US and Asia ahead of EU

Network investments need customers to justify the demand. In North America, China, Japan and South Korea, the industry is already ahead of Europe in a number of areas. 

In the US, spectrum is more easily come by. The US has opened up the 3.5-3.7 GHz band to shared access. The US Navy is the biggest user of the band, but room has been made for operators further inland under the so-called Citizens Broadband Radio Service initiative.  

The FCC has also released high band spectrum, in the 28 to 39 GHz range, an area with great potential for 5G services. In the US, operators - mobile, fixed and cable - see an opportunity to use the frequencies to deliver 5G fixed-wireless access. This should make it easier to reach rural areas without fast fixed networks, as well as allow broadband operators to expand their network footprints at a relatively lower cost. The huge network of telecom poles in the US makes it easy to deploy the many wireless antennas required. 

In Japan and Korea, mobile operators don't earn their ARPU from calls or data, but from content services, such as streaming music, video and gaming. As a result, they are making enormous investments in increasing bandwidth. Customers there also replace their devices more often. In China, the strong growth in the urban middle class is driving the government to invest in telecom infrastructure, which should also support 'smart' services such as security, mobility and industry. 

EU slower with 5G launch, but full of ambition

The situation is different in Europe. While the EU was quick off the mark with 3G, it was slow in releasing spectrum for 4G. As a result, many operators in Europe are still completing their 4G networks. Releasing more spectrum for 5G is also going to take time. Furthermore, the market is different than North America or Asia. The first 5G applications are not expected to be for consumers, but for industry and the public sector. However, these are challenging applications, such as secure communication and industrial control systems - think of robots and self-driving cars. It will take much more time and work to deliver the guaranteed reliability needed for these services to work. 

The big ambitions require close cooperation between the industry and public authorities. During this phase of 5G, everyone in the value chain needs to be investing in the future. The government needs to make sure the spectrum and regulatory framework are in place, without significant delays. Mobile operators need to have their networks upgraded and ready for when the technology is completed, and the equipment vendors need to meet their promises. In Barcelona, we'll hear more of these promises, and the industry's work on building a foundation for realising 5G. The early launch of 5G will only be the first step. 

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