5G reaches an anticlimax at MWC 2019

After years of fooling around 5G finally arrived at this year’s big telecoms coming-together, but now a lot of people just feel disappointed and used, and are left asking “is that it?”

The hype cycle for 5G seems to have been especially prolonged and intense, arguably exceeding even the utopian fervour of the build up to 3G, which left the operator industry so over-committed and under-rewarded. 4G was mainly about doing mobile broadband properly, but 5G was supposed to revolutionise the telecoms industry. At this early stage, however, there is little sign of that.

In hindsight the build up to the show offered a strong indicator of the anticlimax to follow. The big kit vendor announcements were all about fine-tuning their 5G propositions and playing it safe. That was certainly the case with Ericsson and Huawei, while Nokia didn’t even have a pre-show event, contenting itself with just a webcast.

Nokia does have a major event in Barcelona on the Sunday of the show and, while it went big on 5G, the most it had to show for it commercially at this early stage was fixed wireless access. 5G offers the opportunity to provide high speed broadband to locations that can’t get a decent fixed-line service, for whatever reason, but even Nokia’s own forecasts aren’t especially bullish about the FWA total available market. So it feels more like an early way for operator CTOs to show some ROI from their 5G capex.

With the exception of a juicy bit of M&A action, Ericsson’s MWC event felt a bit flat. Meanwhile Huawei can’t escape the backdrop of the geopolitical spat it has found itself in the middle of, and almost seems ready to give up on some western markets entirely. At least one operator CEO reckons it would be disastrous for the industry if it did. A major theme of the show has been hacks trying in vain to get juicy quotes from anyone on the Huawei situation.

Aside from a bit of light FWA most of the 5G buzz has been generated by the arrival of 5G phones. The fact that some of them also come in a novel new foldable format just adds to the intrigue but those are far too expensive to be considered anything more than public prototypes and, anyway, where are the 5G networks for them to connect to?

To investigate why the arrival of 5G has elicited such a collective ‘meh’ from the industry we need to look at the three main technological subsets that are generally considered to comprise it. They are: Enhanced Mobile Broadband, Massive Machine-type Communications and Ultra-Reliable/Low-Latency Communications. These are illustrated in the slide below from a recent presentation given by Interdigital, which is already wondering what’s next for 5G, as is Qualcomm if the the photo taken of its stand above is anything to go by.

Interdigital 5G slide

EMBB is essentially more 4G, in so much as it’s essentially a fatter pipe, enabling faster data transfer rates. The problem is there is currently little need for 1 Gbps+ mobile broadband data rates and 5G cheerleaders are reduced to banging on about streaming 4K video, which is completely pointless on a mobile device anyway since the screens are too small to make use of it.

MMTC is otherwise known as IoT and, while it has massive potential, it’s debatable how accurate it is to describe it as a 5G technology. IoT has been progressing just fine without 5G and the standardisation process is largely independent of it. Furthermore some IoT applications can even be satisfied by 2G, so it’s not plausible to position IoT as the killer app for 5G.

The really novel, disruptive technology promised by 5G is the low-latency/ultra-reliable play. At first, talk of latency and reliability seems very technical and dry, but when you start to see some of the opportunities offered by removing the delay in transmitting a signal from one point to another, no matter how far apart they are, you get a sense of the full potential of this aspect of 5G.

On the Ericsson stand we bumped into our old friend Professor Mischa Dohler, who at MWC 2017 felt moved to defend the potential of 5G-enabled remote surgery, after we had used it as an illustration of how ahead of itself the industry had become over 5G. Dohler confirmed our suspicion that low-latency is where the real action is going to be, and pointed us towards the very cool video below of him duetting with his daughter over 5G while they were 1,000 kilometres apart.

 

Another cool low-latency use-case was provided by Javier Polo, Luis Fernando Fernandez and Juancho Carillo of Spanish cloud gaming specialist PlayGiga. They had a demo showing how cloud virtual reality is made possible by the low-latency capability of 5G and spoke about its importance for mobile cloud gaming in general.

playgiga vr demo

In fact once you eliminate the delay you can bring the cloud into play in all sorts of new ways. Speaking to Alan Carlton of Interdigital, who delivered the aforementioned presentation, we explored a future in which every screen is effectively a thin client that anyone can log into and use as their own device, with all their stuff accessed instantly from the cloud. That could be truly disruptive, while at the same time massively commoditising the devices market.

So we have to concede that the 5G low-latency angle is exciting, but before you think we’ve completely contradicted ourselves over the course of this piece bear in mind that we’re nowhere near seeing it in a commercial environment. Meanwhile we’re even further away from the kind of 5G base station ubiquity you would need to make this low-latency driven all-encompassing cloud into existence.

The sense of antixclimax this year is a product of the telecoms industry’s usual vice of over-promising. Yes, 5G is finally here in its earliest form, but we’re probably still five years from having the kind of infrastructure that can support any of these utopian scenarios. So this year we have FWA and the first devices, but unless each subsequent MWC is accompanied by at least one major new 5G-enabled use-case they risk feeling as anticlimactic as this one. If we’re not careful, everyone will get bored and move onto 6G instead.

Lastly we should also give a special shout out to Nokia, who provide great facilities for us hacks at the show regardless of how much trouble we cause them, and from whose stand this piece was written, fuelled by excellent connectivity and miniature multi-coloured sandwiches. They give good press room.

Are you ready to look at 6G?

We can hear the groans already, but we’re going to do it anyway. Let’s have a look at what 6G could possibly contribute to the connected economy.

Such is our desire for progress, we haven’t even launched 5G but the best and brightest around are already considering what 6G will bring to the world. It does kind of make sense though, to avoid the dreaded staggering of download speeds and the horrific appearance of buffering symbols, the industry has to look far beyond the horizon.

If you consider the uphill struggle it has been to get 5G to this point, and we haven’t even launched glorious ‘G’ properly, how long will it take before we get to 6G? Or perhaps a better question is how long before we actually need it?

“5G will not be able to handle the number of ‘things’ which are connected to the network in a couple of years’ time,” said Scott Petty, CTO of Vodafone UK. “We need to start thinking about 6G now and we have people who are participating in the standards groups already.”

This is perhaps the issue which we are facing in the future; the sheer volume of ‘things’ which will be connected to the internet. As Petty points out, 5G is about being bigger, badder and leaner. Download speeds will be faster, reliability will be better, and latency will be almost none existent, but the weight of ‘things’ will almost certainly have an impact. Today’s networks haven’t been built with this in mind.

Trying to find consensus on the growth of IOT is somewhat of a difficult task, such is the variety of predictions. Everyone predicts the same thing, the number of devices will grow in an extra-ordinary fashion, but the figures vary by billions.

Using Ericsson’s latest mobility report, the team is estimating cellular IoT connections will reach 4.1 billion in 2024, of which 2.7 billion will be in North East Asia. This is a huge number and growth will only accelerate year-on-year. But here is thing, we’re basing these judgments on what we know today; the number of IOT devices will be more dependent on new products, services and business models which will appear when the right people have the 5G tools to play around with. Who knows what the growth could actually be?

IOT Growth

Another aspect to consider is the emergence of new devices. As it stands, current IOT devices deliver such a minor slice of the total cellular traffic around the world its not much of a consideration, however with new usecases and products for areas such as traffic safety, automated vehicles, drones and industrial automation, the status quo will change. As IOT becomes more commonplace and complicated, data demands might well increase, adding to network strain.

Petty suggests this will be the massive gamechanger for the communications industry over the next few years and will define the case for 6G. But, who knows what the killer usecase will be for 5G, or what needs will actually push the case for the next evolution of networks. That said, more efficient use of the spectrum is almost certainly going to be one of the parameters. According to Petty, this will help with the tsunami of things but there is a lot of new science which will have to be considered.

Then again, 6G might not be measured under the same requirements as today…

Sooner or later the industry will have to stop selling itself under the ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra, as speeds will become irrelevant. If you have a strong and stable 4G connection today, there isn’t much you can’t do. Few applications or videos that are available to the consumer require 5G to function properly, something which telco marketers will have to adapt to in the coming years as they try to convince customers to upgrade to 5G contracts.

4G and arguably todays vision of 5G has always been about making the pipe bigger and faster, because those were the demands of the telcos trying to meet the demands of the consumer. 6G might be measured under different KPIs, for example, energy efficiency.

According to Alan Carlton, Managing Director of InterDigital’s European business, the drive towards more speed and more data is mainly self-imposed. The next ‘G’ can be defined as what the industry wants it to be. The telcos would have to think of other ways to sell connectivity services to the consumer, but they will have to do that sooner or later.

The great thing about 5G is that we are barely scratching the surface of what is capable. “We’re not even at 5.0G yet,” said Carlton. “And this is part of the confusion.”

What 5G is nowadays is essentially LTE-A Pro. We’re talking about 256-QAM and Massive MIMO but that is not really a different conversation. With Release 16 on the horizon and future standards groups working on topics such virtualisation, MMwave and total cost of ownership, future phases of 5G will promise so much more.

The next step for Carlton is not necessarily making everything faster, or more reliable or lower latency, but the next ‘G’ could be all about ditching the wires. Fibre is an inflexible commodity, and while it might be fantastic, why do we need it? Why shouldn’t the next vision of connectivity be one where we don’t have any wires at all?

Carlton’s approach to the future of connectivity is somewhat different to the norm. This is an industry which is fascinated by the pipes themselves and delivering services faster, but these working groups and standards bodies are driving change for the benefit of the industry. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about making something faster, so you can charge more, just a change to the status quo which benefits the industry.

Coming back to the energy efficiency idea, this is certainly something which has been suggested elsewhere. IEEE has been running a series of conferences in California addressing this very issue, as delivering 1000X more data is naturally going to consume more energy to start with. It probably won’t be 1000X more expensive, but it is incredibly difficult to predict what future energy consumption needs will be. Small cells do not consume as much energy as traditional sites, but there will need to be a lot more of them to meet demand. There are a lot of different elements to consider here (for example environment or spectrum frequency), but again, this is a bit of an unknown.

Perhaps this is an area where governments will start to wade in? Especially in the European and North American markets which are more sensitive to environmental impacts (excluding the seemingly blind Trump).

Echoing Petty’s point from earlier, we don’t necessarily know the specifics of how the telco industry is going to be stressed and strained in six- or seven-years’ time. These changes will form the catalyst for change, evolving from 5G to 6G, and it might well be a desire for more energy efficient solutions or it might well be a world free of wires.

Moving across the North Sea, 6G has already captured the attention of those in the Nordics.

Back in April 2018, the Academy of Finland announced the launch of ‘6Genesis’, an eight-year research programme to drive the industry towards 6G. Here, the study groups will start to explore technologies and services which are impossible to deliver in today’s world, and much of this will revolve around artificial intelligence.

Just across the border in Sweden, these new technologies are capturing the attention of Ericsson. According to Magnus Frodigh, Head of Ericsson Research, areas like Quantum computing, artificial intelligence and edge computing are all making huge leaps forward, something which will only be increased with improved connectivity. These are the areas which will define the next generation, and what can be achieved in the long-run.

“One of the new things to think about is the combination of unlimited connectivity as a resource, combined with low latency, more powerful computing,” said Frodigh. “No-one really knows how this is going to play out, but this might help define the next generation of mobile.”

Of course, predicting 6G might be pretty simple. In a couple of years’ time, perhaps we will all be walking around with augmented reality glasses on while holographic pods replace our TVs. If such usecases exist, perhaps the old ‘bigger, badder, faster’ mantra of the telco industry will be called upon once again. One group which is counting on this is EU-funded Terranova, which is currently working on solutions to allow network connection in the terahertz range, providing speeds of up to 400 Gbps.

Another area to consider is the idea of edge computing and the pervasiveness of artificial intelligence. According to Carlton (InterDigital), AI will be every in the future with intelligence embedded in almost every device. This is the vision of the intelligent economy, but for AI to work as promised, latency will have to be so much lower than we can even consider delivering today. This is another demand of future connectivity, but without it the intelligent economy will be nothing more than a shade of what has been promised.

And of course, the more intelligence you put on or in devices, the greater the strain on the components. Eventually more processing power will be moved off the devices and into the cloud, building the case for distributed computing and self-learning algorithms hosted on the edge. It is another aspect which will have to be considered, and arguably 5G could satisfy some of these demands, but who knows how quickly and broadly this field will accelerate.

Artificial intelligence and the intelligent economy have the potential to become a catalyst for change, forcing us to completely rethink how networks are designed, built and upgraded. We don’t know for sure yet, but most would assume the AI demands of the next couple of years will strain the network in the same way video has stressed 4G.

Who knows what 6G has in store for us, but here’s to hoping 5G isn’t an over-hyped dud.

InterDigital says Huawei is setting a dangerous precedent with patent lawsuit

Huawei has filed a lawsuit challenging the royalties it’s charged, but InterDigital CEO thinks the saga could have a much more damaging and wide-ranging impact on the industry.

Lawsuits in the telco industry are not uncommon, while they are pretty much part of the daily routine for anyone who deals with patents. According to InterDigital CEO Bill Merritt, the dispute is not the problem, it’s the way that Huawei is hoping to get a resolution, heading towards localised judicial systems as opposed to international, and standardised, arbitration.

“Standards have done a great job at breaking down national walls, creating a single playing field, and we think pricing should be the same,” said Merritt.

As it stands, Huawei has filed a lawsuit with the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court (January 2) accusing InterDigital of not licensing patents on fair and non-discriminatory terms. The lawsuit follows the expiration of a prior licensing agreement (December 31) with the pair not able to come to an agreement on future terms.

Long story short, Merritt pointed out Huawei wants to pay less for the patents. It’s a simple dispute, based on the success of Huawei smartphones and devices over the last year or so. As Huawei is shipping more units, it feels it should be offered a more competitive rate due to economies of scale. InterDigital however, feels it is offering a fair and reasonable price. The court case will decide royalty payments for the next four years (2019-23).

From Merritt’s perspective, the issue is not the dispute but the lawsuit itself. In the past, with Huawei and other customers, InterDigital has chosen to go down the route of arbitration, an option which Merritt feels is best in this situation as well. In most arbitration cases, each party selects a professional arbitrator, before the pair jointly select a third independent one. The idea is that the trio would assess all the information in the contract, look at market precedent as well as future developments, to decide a competitive and reasonable price for the transaction. It’s (in theory) an independent and neutral way to resolve conflict.

In this case, arbitration was offered as a possible resolution, but Huawei declined, instead electing to head to the regional court. This is where the danger lies; the Shenzhen Intermediate People’s Court is a localised institution which has influence in China. The risk is regionalised rate setting which would cause chaos considering how many jurisdictions there are around the world.

To compound the issue of regionalised rate setting, not only are you likely to have varied approaches and opinions, an international supply chain does not lend itself well to this scenario. The majority of devices and products which are sold today are manufactured in a variety of different countries and regions; the economy has been globalised. Merritt said if you are having to factor in several different regionalised rates for production of devices, the whole supply chain could turn into a disaster.

“The number of disputes could easily be reduced if parties committed to arbitration,” said Merritt.

Unfortunately for Merritt and InterDigital, the two technology powerhouses of the world are increasingly promoting more nationalised agendas and policies which encourage isolationist thinking. It seems we can’t go a day without referring to the trade conflict between the US and China, but the idea of regionalised rate setting, which this lawsuit encourages, is another step away from the international ecosystem, the healthiest option for a profitable and sustainable telecommunications industry.

This is a case which might be worth keeping an eye on over the coming months, it might just lead the patent segment down a worrying and complicated red-tape maze of regionalised price setting.

5G: Are we there yet?

Telecoms.com periodically invites third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Diana Pani, Director of R&D, and Bob Olesen, Senior Director, Engineering at InterDigital look at some of the hype factors surrounding 5G. 

As many of us expected, 2018 has been the year of 5G operator announcements. In the weeks leading up to Mobile World Congress, the media was awash with trials and claims—from KT, Qualcomm and Samsung achieving multi-vendor 5G New Radio (NR) interoperability, to Vodafone and Huawei completing the world’s first 5G call. US operator AT&T boldly announced that it was planning to deploy 5G across designated US cities by the close of 2018. T-Mobile US then followed in AT&T’s footsteps with a very similar announcement,  with its president and CEO John Legere even stating that, “Dumb and Dumber are in a meaningless race to be first. Their so-called 5G isn’t mobile, and it’s not even on a smartphone…T-Mobile has massively bigger plans for a truly transformative 5G experience on your smartphone nationwide. We’re playing the long game … the only game that matters.”

Announcements like these are designed to get the media—and especially the tech media—excited, even more so when you consider that AT&T announced that it would be using software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV) technologies to power its 5G network. Surely with an impressive array of tech buzzwords and announcements of this nature from some of the world’s largest operators, the mobile industry must finally be 5G-ready, right?

The truth is actually somewhat different. While bold statements and aggressive timelines from operators are surely a sign of things to come, in reality, we aren’t quite there yet. The industry is currently in the midst of a 5G hype cycle, with operators in a race to deploy either the first, or the biggest, 5G network. But what is the true state of play?

Hype Factor #1: “We’ve launched standards-compliant 5G”

Despite the many claims from global operators around the world, the progress of 5G standards suggests that we may all need a little more patience as we await full commercial deployment of 5G. The move from 4G to 5G requires a lot of investment in both the network and radio interface, which means we can’t expect 5G to just “happen” overnight. Instead, we will see 5G emerge in phases over the coming years, with each phase focusing on different aspects of its development and deployment.

Although operators like AT&T have begun announcing 5G as a capability, the reality is a bit more nuanced. New Radio (NR) chipsets will not be commercially available before the end of 2018, which implies that operators will begin the preparation for an eventual 5G network by enabling the network to be “5G-ready”, even while still servicing LTE and LTE-Advanced Pro devices. And while this means it has some 5G-like features, such as 4×4 MIMO, carrier aggregation and high-order modulation, there is still some way to go until the operator has truly deployed 5G. So AT&T’s rollout of 5G is indeed “standards-compliant” … it’s just that the standard is LTE.

Hype Factor #2: “Our network is 5G-ready”

As mentioned, there are several phases to 5G. The first phase, officially known as the “first drop”, which includes the radio and core network system architecture specifications, was completed in December 2017. This was focused on the development of non-standalone NR technology operating in frequencies below 56.2GHz to support enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB). Existing LTE equipment will support the first drop for coverage and core network connectivity. Standardization of standalone NR technology, due to be completed in mid-2018, will support the second drop of NR. Both non-standalone and standalone NR 5G systems will support increased data rates, and reduced latency relative to 4G.

Now that the first phase of NR is complete, we can expect to see early 5G deployments in hotspots, where 5G is used as an assistive technology to existing 4G networks. Actual full standalone 5G deployments may be a bit further down the road, as these are dependent on the overall completion of the NR specifications. But the early drops will allow operators to deploy NR, achieving the benefits of high data rates and lower latency, while leveraging existing network infrastructure and deployments.

For operators to claim complete 5G readiness, they really need to wait for the completion of the second phase. While 3GPP introduced different phases to allow operators to have early ‘roll-outs’ of 5G to reduce latencies and deliver better users experiences, operators simply cannot claim to have a “5G network” unless two other major components are in place: the backhaul and network core.

When it comes to the core network, virtualization and SDN are crucial for the development of 5G—and, again, AT&T’s claims, in this case, are absolutely accurate. The 5G core network was designed as a service-based architecture to enable full virtualization and flexibility of implementing a network as a service. AT&T and several vendors, including Ericsson and Huawei, are working hard at 5G trials and revolutionizing the network. Some have already announced a few products (5G plugins) to enable this. But for devices to operate and connect to this new 5G core network, standalone NR and protocols for the 5G service-based core network interactions will be required, which are expected to be completed later this year.

Hype-Factor #3: It’s a sprint, not a marathon

It’s worth reiterating that, despite ambitions, 5G simply can’t be rushed, and the technology will evolve over the next few years to meet user and market demand.  The first phase has led to the creation of a baseline 5G system, both on the radio and the core network side, which has been designed in a flexible and forward compatible manner to allow for phased deployments and future evolution. In technology generally, people value “disruptive” breaks with existing technology, but in mobile telecoms, the ability to build progressively is incredibly important. It also ensures continuity, ease of deployment and risk reduction.

As we mentioned, the next phase of 5G (“Phase 2”) will begin in mid-2018, and will be focused on the development of new features and support of new use cases/verticals for 5G NR as well as operation in higher frequencies up to 100GHz. Some of the use cases for 5G NR include vehicular communications and massive mid to high-end machine type communication like video surveillance and factory automation.

However, new radios, spectrum, and core networks only solve two-thirds of the 5G reality challenge. The architecture changes being discussed, such as cloud-RAN, higher capacities with mmW spectrum, and the overall densification of cells means that backhaul—more commonly known as the transport network—will become a problem. Transport networks have traditionally been covered by wireline standards outside of 3GPP. However, with wireless capability advancements played against the costs of laying fiber to dense small cells, wireless standards are beginning to look more at the transport use cases. In Phase 2 for instance, the concept of joint backhaul and access could be introduced to address these challenges. AT&T is one of main proponents and leaders of the integrated access backhaul study.

For the early deployments of 5G, this means we will most likely see a proprietary backhaul design. There are, however, a number of options that will help solve the backhaul challenge—such as fiber, Ethernet and mmW mesh solutions—but the implementation of these solutions will be vendor and site dependent.

As challenges with backhaul and the core network are addressed, and as 5G NR evolves, 2019 will see it take over as a core technology, assisted by 4G. The close of Phase 2 will see a broader set of 5G use cases begin to emerge and will allow 4G to finally take a back seat as 5G becomes the primary technology.

Following that, we will see 5G products and deployments emerge, but this still won’t be defined as true 5G. This can’t really happen until we see the roll-out of 5G-enabled commercial devices, which are expected to be made available to the general public by mid-2019.

Still some way to go

There’s no doubt that the progress the industry has made towards 5G is exciting, and the technology is certainly moving in the right direction. But it is important to take a step back and think about what to expect in the coming months, and even years. While 5G is in touching distance, we still have some way to go—in fact, it’s likely to be beyond 2019 before we see any kind of meaningful 5G service. In terms of overall adoption, 5G is even further out. Let’s take LTE as an example: despite LTE being rolled out in 2011, it was only in late 2016 that LTE device shipments worldwide outnumbered 3G device shipments.

While the initial phases of deployments are rolling out, we have to address the future challenges; backhaul, for example, may become a significant problem following the infrastructural changes 5G will bring. But it’s important that the industry remains patient and develops the correct, working technology that delivers what it promises. Hosting efforts are another challenge that will need to be addressed. Furthermore, as 5G networks gain momentum, the capacity and latency capability of cloud data centers will need to be tested, and operators may need to think about employing strategic data center planning to meet the end to end latency claimed by the 5G networks.

AT&T is certainly championing its 5G efforts—not only does it have its own aggressive timeline, but it has played an important role in accelerating the NR timeline to December. There’s no denying that the company has great plans for 5G, and, to get ahead, it is making use of the phased deployment options that the industry has put in place. Its initial “5G” offering will rely on LTE-Advanced Pro and, soon after, on the non-standalone NR deployment.

We expect that by early 2019 there will be some commercial devices operating in non-standalone deployment scenarios (in mmW bands). But despite operators best marketing efforts, we simply won’t be seeing the “real” full 5G in 2018.

Wifi industry consolidation as Fon acquires XCellAir

Spanish wifi aggregator Fon has acquired carrier wifi specialist XcellAir from Interdigital to boost its Fontech B2B arm.

XcellAir was launched by telecoms R&D firm InterDigital in 2015 to help operators make the most of wifi and unlicensed spectrum in general in reinforcing their LTE signals. Fontech offers software-based solutions designed to help operators and enterprise manage wifi, so there’s a clear overlap here. On top of that Fon is lauding the geographical benefits of acquiring a US-based team.

Fontech will be incorporating XCellAir’s core product, the cloud-based XCellRAN carrier wifi solution, into its portfolio. It apparently features whizzy tech such as SON and radio resource management that offer carrier-grade control and analytics for wifi.

“We have known XCellAir for a long time and have always been impressed by their product, vision, and team, which are all complementary to Fon,” said Alex Puregger, CEO of Fon. “We are very excited to welcome them to Fon. The acquisition of XCellAir will further boost our technology and product leadership in the area of operator-managed wifi.”

“We are proud to have established XCellAir as a leader in the wifi management and optimization space and, in particular, enabling operators to deliver the best home wifi experience,” said Amit Agarwal, CEO of XcellAir. “The acquisition of XCellAir by Fon enables us to take the business to the next-level, immediately increasing scale and global reach. The entire team is excited to join the Fon family.”

They don’t explicitly say so but the last quote implies Agarwal is hanging around, at least for a bit. If you haven’t tired of generic M&A canned quotes you may derive some pleasure from the video of Puregger explaining the deal below. This move will presumably concern other wifi aggregators such as Devicescape and we wouldn’t rule out further consolidation in this area.

 

We could see commercial 5G products as soon as next year

After years of probing, posturing and prognosticating the telecoms industry has committed to the first 5G New Radio standard.

At Mobile World Congress earlier this year the decision was unilaterally made, with some dissent, to fork the development of 5G NR into standalone and non-standalone versions. The apparent need for this fork was so that we could get on with the air interface part without having to wait for the core and all the attendant mind-boggling complexity to be finalised.

As a consequence, while much of the 5G core will have to wait until the middle of next year to reach its first standard ‘freeze’ (i.e. the work done so far is set in stone), we have been able to freeze the first standard for just the air interface component of 5G. Because this will still rely on the legacy 4G core it is referred to as non-standalone (NSA – not to be confused with the National Security Agency, or indeed No Strings Attached).

To get a better sense of the significance of this we spoke to Ulises Olvera-Hernandez of InterDigital, who is an active participant in the system architecture group of the 3GPP and has generally been elbows-deep in the 5G standardisation process from the start. “This is a very significant drop for the 5G specification,” he said.

“The physical and control layers are fully developed at this point. This is very significant because the base station and terminal chips can now be made. The radio will be pretty much the same between NSA and SA. The Summer 2018 release will bring the SA radio, which will mean the NSA radio we have just standardized will be able to connect to the new 5G core.”

5G NR NSA SA

As has been extensively covered, 5G is about a lot more than just more 4G – i.e. improved data rates. The world also wants 5G to enable massive IoT with technology that combines very low energy use with limitless scalability. And as if that’s not enough we also need 5G to offer the kind of robustness, efficiency and flexibility that will allow utopian use-cases such as autonomous vehicles and robotic surgery.

“This release includes something that is referred to as ‘ultra-reliable, low latency communications’,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “In simple terms this requires a new radio interface that is able to respond much quicker.” He also said the whole IoT aspect has not been covered in this release but will be addressed subsequently.

One other significance of this milestone is how it positions the 3GPP in the overall 5G standard mix. This stuff is ultimately adjudicated by the ITU (International Telecommunications Union) via its IMT2020 group and the deadline is looming. You can see the submission timeline below.

IMT2020 submission timeplan

“This also prepares for the IMT2020 submission,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “3GPP will be one of the radio interface technologies that are proposed and the first submission is due in February 2018. So that is a key aspect of this release.”

But the most immediate and conspicuous consequence of freezing the 5G RAN standard will be the legitimization of the use of 5G by the marketing teams of any company even remotely associated with the telecoms world. They hardly need encouraging, of course, but the 5G spam we have had to endure to date will pale into insignificance compared with the deluge to come.

“Companies will now be able to say they have a 5G radio interface and that their core network is ‘5G ready’,” said Olvera-Hernandez. 5G ready. The phrase alone is enough to make those of us who earn a living by spending an unhealthy about of time banging on about phone stuff shudder in grim anticipation. We will probably see the first 5G ready claims as soon as everyone has got over their New Year hangovers but, more surprisingly, we might even see actual commercial products to back that claim up before the end of the year.

“I believe we will see 5G in the form of NSA in 2018,” said Olvera-Hernandez. “I think that towards the end of next year you will see commercial 5G products, as a year should be sufficient to make this happen. We will see voice carried in a better way in the 5G system than it has been with 4G because there has been a complete re-engineering of the quality-of-service aspects of 4G.”

The decision to go with NSA first seems pretty sensible on one level, but while it has sped up the process by which various telecoms industry stakeholders can legitimately claim to have 5G products and services, it also creates a separate set of complexities. The marketing frenzy is inevitable but it does risk setting unrealistic expectations, which will be exacerbated if the process of reconciling NSA with SA doesn’t go smoothly.

If all this has merely served to whet your appetite for telecoms technicalities you can have yourself a very geeky Christmas by reading this 3GPP brief introduction (!) to the 5G system architecture. On a lighter note we’ll leave you with this photo of the 3GPP architecture working group on the lash, having hit their milestone.

3GPP drinks