COVER STORY: 2020 vision

5G is in sight and the industry has set itself a very ambitious target. Kavit Majithia reports.

Even the most ardent engineers will be the first to admit that, in the process of developing LTE, they failed to identify one consumer trend that is now taking the data world by storm.

Not one person in the industry – whether it was those marketing, developing or researching LTE – would have predicted the unprecedented rise of the “selfie”. “The concept of taking bad photos and posting them for everyone to see was an unanticipated service,” says Alistair Urie, architecture strategy director, wireless CTO office, Alcatel-Lucent. “The rise of user-generated content is phenomenal.”

In the early stages of researching and developing a 5G network, engineers are facing the gargantuan challenge of predicting consumer behaviour trends.

With R&D for 5G now in full swing, carriers and vendors across the globe have earmarked a 2020 date for the launch of the world’s first 5G network. Companies are budgeting billions of dollars in R&D, and unlike LTE or 3G before it, 5G is seen in the market as the evolution beyond a pure mobile play.

5G to change the world

5G, in its present iteration, will be designed to change the way devices work and interconnect. According to market experts, it will alter the social landscape of technology and has the potential to change the business landscape of the industry. 5G is going to fill in the gaps that 4G LTE fails to deliver on. “We do not see 5G in the EU as 4G +1,” said Thibaut Kleiner, head of unit, network technologies, DG Connect at the European Commission. “We don’t just see it as the next radio access technology in the EU. We see it as more revolutionary for the network industry at large.”

The European Commission has made dramatic strides in recent months towards pledging a commitment to 5G research and development and it has outlined aims to ensure the continent is one of the first to roll out the network. Strategically, it has pledged an early alliance with South Korea, which is pioneering the launch of 5G in the same way it did in the 4G space. The Koreans are exemplary with regards to LTE growth. With 92% of the country’s data traffic running over a 4G network, the way it has handled and developed 4G is unrivalled anywhere else in the world

Kleiner says the advent of 5G will be designed to change business models, and these networks will be used as building blocks for the future of the EU’s digital society. At this stage, however, the definition of 5G is sporadic at best. Unlike LTE, there is a different message coming out of the industry this time from the very beginning. Carriers, vendors and regulators are intent on avoiding the issues that continues to plague the most developed markets in overpriced spectrum issues and a lack of global standardisation in the 4G space.

5G will be different, according to the experts. It is set to be largest collaborative R&D project the world will ever see. It will take approximately six years, cost billions of dollars and change the landscape of technology forever.

“We will not wake up one day a 5G world. 5G is a journey and it will take years,” adds Nektaria Efthymiou, head of network strategy at Telefónica UK.

Early movers

A 2020 launch date for 5G was first touted in South Korea, and the south east Asian country has so far pledged an investment of $1.5 billion for the development of the technology.

Its partnership with the European Commission is designed for both parties to work together on the development of 5G standards and technology, and they will further collaborate to develop systems, set standards and ensure global interoperability through the harmonisation of spectrum bands. This partnership is in line with Japan’s NTT DoCoMo’s alliance with Finnish vendor Nokia, and the companies are actively testing network speeds 1,000 times faster than 4G, on the road towards a launch in six years’ time.

Analysts claims a collaborative approach towards 5G like this is key, particularly when the industry takes into account standardisation and spectrum issues across the world. Industry experts have, however, questioned the reason behind the drive towards a 2020 launch – particularly when LTE has yet to reach maturity across a number of developed markets.

It has been suggested that South Korea and Japan, which are due to host the Olympic Games in 2018 and 2020 respectively, are pioneering a quicker launch than the global industry is in fact ready for.

“Is 2020 a realistic date or is it being imposed on us?” asks Adrian Scrase, CTO at the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI). “It seems to be an irremovable date now. It’s a nice round number and it happens to coincide with the European Project initiative and the Tokyo Olympic Games. I feel like we are working backwards from 2020 whether we like it or not.”

Scrase recalls the industry’s experiences in launching LTE and says industry bodies were forced to write standards that originally had unrealistic target dates. Roughly 12 to 18 months before the launch of LTE, Scrase recalls a time when standard bodies in Europe were in “a state of panic”.

“If you launch something with the expectation that there will be errors, it can take years to remedy,” he says.

ETSI aims to produce a global set of standards for the ICT sector, including fixed and mobile segments, and the body is expected to play a key role in the development of 5G.

Indeed, the industry as a whole is keen to implement a set of global standards in preparation for the advent of 5G.

Scrase claims standardisation bodies will now have an added role to play on the research side of 5G, particularly by taking into account experiences from other global industries. “There needs to be some changes in physical infrastructure for deploying networks,” he explains. “The best way to look at deploying these networks faster and easier is by going to other industries and learning how they replace and integrate their legacy systems with upgrades.”

The UK, one of the last developed nations to roll out LTE, has also been particularly vocal in pledging a commitment to being one of the first nations to launch a 5G service.

It has pledged approximately £35 million for research and British prime minister David Cameron signed an agreement with German chancellor Angela Merkel earlier this year to collaborate on 5G development.

Companies including Huawei and Telefónica have described the UK as their “playground for 5G growth”. Telefónica, which is in the early stages of developing an innovative 5G network, claims the opportunity for 5G to evolve is endless, but carriers in the space must be equally committed to a standardisation process in the space. “We need to question where to invest in order to support a wide range of business models as a collective industry,” says Efthymiou.

“We need to standardise the framework and we need to configure the framework from the beginning to ensure this. The problem is, we can’t define anything yet because we don’t know what 5G will look like.”

The pitfalls of the past

A lack of global standards for the roll-out of LTE was only one of its many pitfalls. However, market watchers will be the first to say the industry has in fact struggled every time it attempts to bring a new technology to market.

“Traditionally – from a technical point of view – this industry has got technical steps wrong at every turn, and engineers have had to step in and make it right,” says Howard Benn, head of standards and industrial affairs at Samsung Electronics Research Institute.”

In an industry panel at the Tech UK 5G Huddle event in London, Benn looks back at the launch of three of the biggest revolutions in the telecoms industry, and how each one failed, or is failing, to deliver services that they were originally created for. “GSM was originally designed for voice, and clever engineers came along and implemented SMS,” he says.

3G, says Benn, was designed to accommodate the rise in video calls and increasing capacity, but by the time it was launched on to the market, “all people wanted to do with 3G was access data”.

And LTE, which largely operates as a high-speed data network, was in fact, originally designed on the basis of Instant Messaging Services, RCS capabilities and VoIP. “Engineers proceeded to come along and develop voice call continuity, which was the basis of VoLTE.”

Kleiner takes a different view, and as a spearhead for the EU’s initiative for 5G, he is keen to veer away from comparing 4G to 5G. “It is important to underline the fact that 5G is not just for radio access,” he says. “5G is our opportunitiy to transform the way we use network technology. It is also an opportunity for governments to play an integral role in research. This includes altering the landscape of frequency spectrum.”

According to data released by the GSA last month, 584 operators have invested in LTE in 168 countries so far. This includes 331 commercially launched LTE networks in 112 countries, and the association predicts that this will reach over 350 by the end of 2014.

As the uptake of LTE continues to grow, so does the amount of money invested in LTE networks. With the industry now turning its attention towards the launch of another next-generation network, will this mammoth investment in 4G become redundant by 2020 as a result? According to Urie, 5G will not be feasible without a strong LTE offering.

“There is no standalone business case model for doing 5G,” he says. “The sort of technologies that should be deployed with 5G must be friendly towards an LTE network. When we first launched 4G, we still had 3G, and as soon as users adopted the new technology, we could no longer exploit the 3G carrier because it wasn’t done correctly.”

He believes that if 5G is launched in the right way, engineers should strategise for carrier aggregation and dual connectivity, mixing both 4G and 5G in a meshed network.

“The most important thing a carrier should do now is end its investment in 3G – it is a dead network. For the next six years, carriers must build up a strong LTE offering,” Urie adds.

The building blocks for 5G

For the time being, 5G is more of an idea than a reality. The fact that the US has so far largely stayed out of early 5G discussions says much about its progress.

Those advancing with 5G are heralding the launch of the network as the catalyst for the Internet of Things, as the industry aims towards the establishment of a more connected world.

Data will of course be key, as will a commitment by the industry as a whole to ensure their return of the vast investment will not outprice the typical consumer.

Europe and Asia have made all the right noises so far in their aims to launch the network by 2020. The EU, perhaps over-compensating for its struggles in launching 4G, is pledging the necessary funds to ensure the continent is once again regarded as a technological superpower.

It is now down to engineers, researchers and developers to make 5G a reality.

We use cookies to provide a personalized site experience.
By continuing to use & browse the site you agree to our Privacy Policy.
I agree