Getting Serious About 5G
MWC 2016 saw intense hype about 5G. This is typical for the run-up to a new “G”, but at least this year there was much less of the waffle about it being “a behaviour”, a “special generation”, the “last G”, or a “state of mind”. Instead, there was much more concrete activity from all stakeholders, including operators, technology vendors and standards bodies.
Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, notably, set a 2017 target for 5G deployment to begin, which has been taken up by carriers including Verizon Wireless. This is still controversial, but the major barriers seem to be around standardisation and spectrum, rather than the technology. Most vendors had a demonstration of 5G in some form, although the emphasis and timeframes varied. However, the general theme is that even the 2018-2019 timeframe set by the Korean operators may now be overtaken by events.
An important theme at the show was that expectations for 5G have been revised:
- They have been revised up, when it comes to the potential of future radio technology, which is seen as being capable of delivering a useful version of 5G much faster;
- They have been revised down, when it comes to some of the more science-fictional visions of ‘one network to cover every imaginable use case’. 5G is likely to be focused on mobile broadband plus a couple of other IoT options.
This is in part thanks to a strong operator voice on 5G, coordinated through the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN)1, reaching the standardisation process in 3GPP. It is also due to a strong presence by the silicon vendors in the standards process, which is important given the concentration of the device market into relatively few system-on-chip and even fewer RF component manufacturers.
Context: 3GPP 5G RAN Meeting Set the Scene for Faster Development
To understand the shift at MWC, it is useful to revisit what operators and vendors were focusing on at the September 2015 3GPP 5G RAN meeting in Phoenix. Operator concerns from the sessions can be summed up as the three Cs – cost (reducing total cost of ownership), capacity (more of it, specifically enhanced mobile broadband data and supporting massive numbers of IoT device connections), and carbon dioxide (less of it, through using less energy).
At that key meeting, most operators clearly wanted the three Cs, and most also highlighted a particular interest in one or another of the 5G benefit areas. Orange was interested in driving low-cost mobile broadband for its African operations. Deutsche Telekom was keen on network slicing and virtualisation for its enterprise customers. Verizon Wireless wanted more speed above all, to maintain its premium carrier status in the rich US cellular market. Vodafone was interested in the IoT/M2M aspects as a new growth opportunity.
This was reflected in operator views on timing of 5G standardisation and commercialisation. The more value a particular operator placed on capacity, the sooner they wanted “early 5G” and the more focused the specs would have to be, putting off the more visionary elements (device-to-device, no-cells networks, etc.) to a second phase.
A strong alliance between the silicon vendors – Qualcomm, Samsung, Mediatek, ARM, and Intel – and key network vendors, notably Nokia, emerged to push for an early 5G standardisation focused on a new radio access technology. This standard would be used in the context of existing 4G networks before the new 5G core network arrives2, and begins to deliver on the three Cs. On the other side of the discussion, Huawei (which was still talking about 5G in 2020 at MWC) was keen to keep the big expansive vision of an all-purpose multiservice 5G network alive, and to eke out 4G with incremental updates (LTE-A Pro) in the meantime.
Dino Flore, the Qualcomm executive who chairs 3GPP RAN, compromised by going for the early 5G radio access but keeping two of the special requests – for “massive” IoT and for “mission-critical” IoT – on the programme, while accepting continuing development of LTE as LTE-A Pro.
- Executive Summary
- Getting Serious About 5G
- Context: 3GPP 5G RAN Meeting Set the Scene for Faster Development
- MWC showed the early 5G camp is getting stronger
- A special relationship: Nokia, Qualcomm, Intel