With 5G on the horizon, how is investment stepping up in research and development? Are carriers taking an active role, or is the drive coming largely from the vendor community? Guy Matthews reports from the frontiers of cellular innovation.

It is too early for anybody to start getting excited about owning a 5G device. It is not apparent at this stage what such a device might even be capable of. The ITU has yet to reveal in any detail which types of technology will be incorporated into 5G. Standards are non-existent.

There is talk of 5G services launching in 2020, but with so much to be done – and with operators in any case still puzzling over how to monetise LTE – this is a hopeful deadline to say the least. Even the optimists are not expecting widespread adoption until 2025.

That is not to say that R&D work is not underway. In fact, behind the scenes, in labs all over the world, it is raging ahead, based on what little can be surmised of the successor to 4G.

A tentative approach

According to Chris Howarth, managing director of the comms and high-tech division of consultancy Accenture, most of the work so far has been on a shared "community" basis, involving a cross-section of stakeholder types – carriers, service providers, manufacturers, software developers, network performance specialists and governments.

"We're seeing this more than on any of the other 'G' lifecycles" he says. "This could reflect not only the level of uncertainty as to what the next generation of connectivity could bring, but also the cost pressure on carriers and the reality of further investment in building capacity without the guarantee of increased revenue streams."

Howarth points to UK-based examples of shared vendor and carrier investment, such as the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey and the 5G Working Group within the UK Spectrum Policy Forum: "This is a sensible approach at this stage as it is still not clear what will constitute the next-generation of connectivity, and therefore how a competitive advantage will be gained," he adds.

He does point out that at this early stage work is more focussed on the technical and standards aspects of 5G than on a business case or on application drivers.

"I think 5G collaboration has got out of the gate a lot quicker than it did with either 3G or 4G," agrees Paul Beaver, products director with wireless equipment testing company Anite. "The last two years have seen an incredible upsurge of interest in 5G, when you think that the target for commercial launch is 2020. This ramping up is not something I've seen before. You need to remember that the R&D challenge we're working on here is tougher than anything that's gone before. 5G is going to be more complex and present trickier problems than 4G."

Another notable feature of today's 5G research is the leading involvement of organisations not traditionally linked with the very early stages of mobile telephony developments.

Project Virtuoso is an initiative fronted by microprocessor maker Intel, set up to accelerate 4G and 5G technology development and testing. Virtuoso is scheduled to run for four years and is subsidised by the Danish High Technology Foundation. Norwegian carrier Telenor is also part of the project.

Anite is contributing its Virtual Drive Testing expertise to Virtuoso, says Beaver, adding that the company is also involved a partner in METIS, an EU-funded 5G research project.

"There are usually individual companies catalysing these initiatives – Intel in the case of Virtuoso and Ericsson in the case of METIS," he explains. "But the memberships when you look at them are very broad – operators, academics, vendors, testers – collaborating to examine the prospects for everyone."

Global collaboration

The need to pool resources on 5G has seen several collaborations that span continents in a way that was not at all the case for prior generations.

Chinese vendor Huawei, for example, is making a considerable investment into research and development based in Europe, much of it at the Huawei European Research Centre (ERC) based in Munich and Stockholm. It has also spread its research dollars across a number of universities, including the University of Surrey in the UK.

"In total, 19 carriers are working closely with vendors such as Huawei as part of the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance to define a 5G vision as well as requirements to meet end-user needs," says Dr Peiying Zhu, senior director of Huawei's Wireless Technology Lab.

Zhu believes it is impossible to estimate the total investment that will have to be made by the communications industry as a whole to get 5G right.

"Based on the scale of Huawei's investment and the demonstrated commitment of the industry to 5G, it would be a very significant financial investment," he concedes. "One example that can be cited is Horizon 2020, the EU's research and innovation programme. Under terms of a public-private partnership, a total of €1.4 billion will be invested into the development of a framework for future European 5G networks. This demonstrates the kind of finances required to progress 5G projects, but also how regulatory bodies are supporting innovation."

Another example of Asia meeting Europe in 5G collaboration is Nokia Networks and its work with NTT DoCoMo in the area of millimetre waves. It has also pooled resources with Korean carrier SK Telecom.

"We're at the forefront of 5G in various ways, working to create a platform that's useful across all sorts of industries and verticals, supporting M2M for example," says Volker Ziegler, chief architect of Nokia Networks. "We're integrating what we have with newer technologies, like ultra-dense radio for urban areas."

Is the industry wiser five generations on? Zeigler is not sure, but is encouraged at least by what he sees as an open-minded preparedness to leverage the right people to solve a new challenge and push the envelope: "Another difference I'm seeing with 5G is the quality of the early demos," he says. "It's about making sure the best ideas win. It's not about us or any individual players, but about supporting evidence."

He also notes the unusual extent of public-private partnership, an idea that dates back to 2G but which now underpins most serious 5G work at a fundamental level.

"The South Korean government has invested about $1.5 billion in 5G so far," he points out. "I see 5G as being about interoperability, and the early engagement of all these partners will help that. It will be about other things too, like energy efficiency, and we're working on that."

In it from the beginning

Prominent also in these early and formative stages is the role being taken by academic institutions. The University of Surrey's Centre for Communication Systems Research (CCSR) is one such body at the 5G forefront, working with 16 different partner companies including BT, Telefonica, EE and Vodafone.

"About a third of our funding comes from government sources, from higher education budgets, while two thirds is from our industry partners," says Professor Rahim Tafazolli, head of Surrey's 5G research. "R&D in 5G is coming from all areas. Operators have got to lay down requirements for their users, while research bodies need to develop technologies around those requirements. Manufacturers need to base equipment on those technologies, and regulators too must be involved. The whole ecosystem is in it from the beginning."

To have any hope of hitting a 2020 service launch deadline, says Tafazolli, standards will need to be in place by mid-2016 at the latest. He calls on all parties with a potential stake in 5G to come forward and do their bit.

"It's better to be involved now than stay on the sidelines saying 'It's too early'," he believes. Tafazolli agrees that the 5G task is considerably more mountainous than any the mobile industry has yet faced. "The big differentiator with 5G over earlier generations is around expected quality of user experience," he says. "To get 5G right, we must work to understand the user better than ever before – and to understand that different users will have different uses for it. Operators will play a crucial R&D role here, as nobody understands the user better than them."

He says 5G will be about communications in a conventional human sense, but will also need to be about control over inanimate things too, such as cars and buildings: "It will involve broadband, narrowband, latency and energy usage," he predicts. "And it's got to last until perhaps 2030 or even 2040. It's more complex than any previous generation, which is why we need all parties involved from the start."

If 5G is to embrace every aspect of human interaction in a seamless way, at the same time as enabling a global M2M mesh, then research investment will need to stay focussed on high-bandwidth, resilient and ubiquitous connectivity.

Although much is unclear, it is already obvious that 5G will dramatically impact our lives in ways that cannot yet be imagined.