Like each generation of wireless communications standards before it, 5G is designed to offer users faster service and more features.
But with 2020, the date of the Olympic Games in Japan, set as the headline date for 5G deployment, there are doubts whether it can – or even should – be rolled out in time. There is also pressure to make 5G available for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Korea, or the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan.
In technical terms, 4GLTE has a typical download speed of 14Mbps, and a theoretical maximum of 150Mbps; while 5G could offer 10Gbps – around 1,000 times faster. EE claims it will trial 5G speeds of 1Gbps in 2017, while Ofcom sees 5G as achieving real-world speeds of between 10 and 50Gbps.
The IHS Technology report The 5G Economy suggests that 5G could have a global value of £2.7tn by 2035, but that for technical and commercial reasons 5G is likely to be rolled out as an incremental series of new technologies, each offering its own applications and satisfying particular customer demands, while 4G LTE continues to evolve through Gigabit LTE, LTE IoT, and NarrowBand-IoT deployments.
If so, when could actual 5G be a commercial reality?
The first of these SMARTER (Services and Markets Technology Enablers) technologies will be Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB), offering improved indoor and outdoor wireless broadband coverage, and fixed wireless broadband deployment.
EMBB will extend cellular coverage into problematical areas such as office buildings, industrial parks, shopping malls and large venues, and will improve capacity to handle large numbers of high-volume data devices. The net result will be an improved and more consistent experience of mobile broadband in applications including enterprise teamwork, education, augmented and virtual reality, and extended mobile computing – largely enhancements to existing services catered for by 4G, and not truly transformative.
O2 expects the European Telecommunications Standards Institute to set global standards from this year until around 2020, with 5G available between 2020 and 2024. A spokesman says: ‘Things are a long way off yet – in the meantime we continue to contribute to developments and engage with the industry and trials.’
O2 CEO Mark Evans says that government industrial strategy is essential. ‘As the demand for faster connectivity increases, it is vital we build the next generation of digital infrastructure,’ he comments. ‘Mobile operators such as O2 are willing to make the massive investment needed to keep Britain connected. However, we can’t do it alone. We need an industrial strategy that puts mobile at the heart of post-Brexit Britain.’
David Lister, principal researcher of 5G technologies at Vodafone, says that telecoms providers need to find use cases for 5G that will justify the cost of development and rollout. ‘Before we get too carried away with any [5G] technology, we have to say: “This can only be supported if it can be commercially justified”.’
A Vodafone spokesman elaborates: ‘Vodafone expects 5G to be introduced commercially by 2020. However, it’s is a well-established industry norm that standards evolve into each other over time. It's an efficient way to invest in the future – and it also means that in practice we are already beginning to build networks that will bring some of the benefits of 5G sooner than 2020.’
Phil Sheppard, director of network strategy at Three UK, says: ‘Planning for 4G and, of course, 5G is all about how you can do it cost-efficiently.’
Sheppard advances Three’s familiar argument on spectrum allocation, saying: ‘You need to look at the future – (for) 4G Advanced or 5G, surely it’s equally important to ensure that there’s a fairly even distribution of spectrum, so that all operators compete in that giant technology world?’
Three is exploring dark fibre, small cell networks and additional spectrum to improve its mobile network without necessarily focusing on 5G, and it’s notable that the company made no submissions to Ofcom’s consultation into allocation of the 6GHz spectrum.
An EE spokesman tells Mobile: ‘With 5G, speeds as high as 10Gbps aren’t unrealistic. But 4G is getting faster too, and it’s 4G that’s still going to be connecting the vast majority of people in 2020. 5G will really be about businesses and industrial usage first, not consumers – today 5G is all about research, because the technology is far from defined.’
The next 5G phase would be Massive Internet of Things (MIoT) capability, perhaps starting on the launch of 3GPP Release 16 specifications in 2021.
Qualcomm aims to ship its first 5G modem chips for phones in the second half of 2017, with follow-on chips targeting the IoT. If fixed 5G to homes works well in trials, Verizon says it will pursue a commercial rollout city by city in 2018 and 2019.
With applications such as asset tracking, smarthomes, agriculture and cities, utility monitoring and connected shopping, MIoT is indeed transformative, but mobile industry body the GSMA argues that there are only three commercially viable 5G applications not achievable with LTE, LTE-A, and other 4G improvements: augmented/virtual reality, tactile internet, and autonomous driving.
Many of these use cases are already being addressed by existing IoT technologies, but MIoT requires improved low-power requirements, operability in licensed and unlicensed spectrum, and improved coverage. IHT expects this market to be mature by 2035.
IHT anticipates a third stage of 5G development by 2035. Mission Critical Services (MCS) such as autonomous vehicles, drones, industrial automation, remote patient monitoring and smart utility grids require extremely high reliability, ultra-low latency, widely available networks and strong security.
The main driver for MCS is the automotive industry, which needs it for autonomous vehicles. The 5G Automotive Association was recently joined by Chinese giant ZTE, which claims ‘breakthroughs in channel coding, massive [multiple-input/multiple-output], network virtualisation and slicing, and accurate positioning’.
‘All these achievements will make a fresh user experience possible for the smart internet of vehicles,’ says Bai Gang, ZTE’s GM of 5G product.
But James Atkinson, editor of Wireless magazine, says: ‘Until there’s a concrete business case and real consumer demand for products such as autonomous vehicles, there doesn’t seem to be a great hurry to introduce full 5G.’
And Adrian Scrase, CTO of ETSI, says the real demand for 5G will be to connect things, not people. ‘The telco industry must engage with industry sectors such as transport, healthcare, mining and exploration, utilities, agriculture, aviation (drones), entertainment, factory automation, etc. We cannot expect them to come to us, we must be prepared to go to them and to meet them on level terms.’
3GPP, which has just launched an official 5G logo, plans a Phase 1 release of specifications sufficient to enable early 5G launch in 2018, and a Phase 2 release containing a complete 5G system description to enable full 5G launch in 2020, but this timetable may be optimistic.
Atkinson notes: ‘UK operators are pretty much wait-and-see. Some want to see an ROI on 4G before thinking of investing in 5G. If any UK operator might look to go early, it would be EE, because of its interest in the Emergency Services Network.’
Companies such as Nokia and Ericsson in Europe, and Huawei and ZTE in Asia, are competing to establish the all-important patents that will form the lucrative backbone to 5G, but are partly constrained by the development of the specification.
Meanwhile, with expertise provided by the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey and technology specialists such as GemaTech, the 5G emulator at the Basing View innovation hub in Basingstoke provides a chance for SMEs to work with 5G-like performance through digital hubs located in Basingstoke, Farnborough, Guildford and Woking.
The real question is whether the speed of 5G is a consumer requirement, and whether anyone is willing to pay for it. One potential 5G customer blogged: ‘What good is all this speed, if it only means I reach my monthly limit in two minutes instead of two weeks?’
4G occupies frequency bands of 800MHz, 1800MHz and 2600MHz, while 5G is likely to take up the 6GHz band, and these higher frequency signals do not travel so far, so thousands of expensive multiple input and output antennas (MIMOs) will be needed to boost 5G signals.
And William Webb, president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, argues in The 5G Myth - When Vision Decoupled From Reality, that current visions of 5G are inherently flawed. ‘The key underlying rationale for previous generations and for 5G has been to meet ever-growing user requirements for more data and faster connectivity. This trend is coming to an end. Current mobile data speeds are more than adequate for all foreseeable uses,’ he says.
One possible scenario in investment-starved Europe is that there will be no real 5G deployment – the industry may push 4G as far as it can, then call it 5G. It could become a label rather than a technology, possibly applied to the IoT market. This, Webb says, would be a terrible missed opportunity ’to spend money where it is really needed, in improving network reliability rather than speed.’