Who's in the lead in the race to 5G? Sunetra Chakravarti looks at 5G trials globally and what we can learn from them about the realities of 5G rollout.
On February 20, Vodafone and Huawei completed the ‘first call in the world’ using 5G standards in Spain.
The call was placed using a computer in Barcelona and answered on mobile at Vodafone's Madrid headquarters by Spain's secretary of state for information society and digital agenda, José María Lassalle. The transfer adhered to new specifications decided upon by industry giants in December 2017, the 3GPP-approved Non-Standalone (NSA) 5G New Radio standard.
While the call was being placed, Intel was also busy- making waves at the Winter Olympics in South Korea with its non-test 5G trials. But it wasn’t the only organisation using PyeongChang 2018 as a platform for 5G. 21 universities, research institutes and European companies had set up the 5GCHAMPION consortium that deployed a 5G ‘proof of concept’ network on a bus circuiting venues in Gangneung, one of the Winter Olympic venues.
If you were lucky enough to blag a seat on the bus, you could partake of a Finnish scene via VR glasses using a network reaching 2.5Gbps speeds.
Closer home, in March this year Nokia will be showcasing one of the world’s first 5G-based test beds in Bristol. A joint research program undertaken by the University of Bristol, BT and Nokia, the event will be proof of concept of 5G to demonstrate the benefits of the technology that is promising to change how we live and work.
Huawei, one of the biggest businesses with their finger in the network pie have also announced partnerships. ‘The aim is to test real-life 5G performance in a range of environments in preparation for commercial launch,’ said Huawei about its tie-up with BT to conduct 5G development and field trials across EE's mobile network under a new agreement in the UK.
Over in the US, networks aren’t sitting back either. Verizon is set to launch commercial service in Sacramento, California later this year and Sprint has announced that it will be rolling out 5G capabilities in 2018. Off the back of its 2.5 gigahertz spectrum, Sprint is confident of having enough spectrum to blanket the whole country. And, most interesting of all, AT&T are investing in ‘pucks’ or wireless hotspots to get their 5G ambitions off the ground by the end of the year.
In fact, across the world, a total of 72 network operators are already testing 5G, a three-fold increase in the number conducting trials at this time last year. And of these 72, 28 have announced plans for 5G trials. Even more significantly, Etisalat and Ooredoo, service providers in the Middle East have launched pre-commercial 5G services with limited availability.
According to a report by Viavi Solutions, the speeds from the ongoing 5G trials are not to be scoffed at, at all. Etisalat, Proximus, Telenor and Zain have reported reaching speeds of 70 Gbps although the average speed is much lower. Six operators have claimed speeds in excess of 35 Gbps while another six have reported speeds of 10 Gbps.
Despite the fact that the 3GPP 5G new radio specification has only recently been completed, 14 network equipment manufacturers have announced involvement in 5G trials. To date, these trials have been conducted across a broad range of bandwidths, ranging from sub-3 GHz to 86 GHz. Of the operators disclosing their test spectrum, the most commonly trialed wavelength is 28 GHz, with 21 operators using it, followed by 15 GHz.
Fundamental, not incremental
To think of 5G as just a step up from 4G is a mistake. 5G has the ability to not just transform telecommunication, but provide a step up for most other types of technology that could do with the low latency that 5G brings in. Connected cars, smart cities and highways, health, computing, robotics, gaming- every vertical within tech is set to receive a boost unseen since 3G changed the definition of communication in 1998 and put the world wide web into our palms.
As with any new technology, there is a race to see who wins and so is the case with 5G. Intel, Huawei and Qualcomm are already working on the next-generation of 5G capable hardware. In fact, Huawei have said to have spent more than $600 million on R&D in the field since 2009.
Leveraging its current relationships with smartphone manufacturers, Qualcomm is working towards putting 5G modems inside devices from over 18 manufacturers that it has partnered with. Meanwhile, Intel announced recently that it is collaborating with PC makers Microsoft, Dell, HP, and Lenovo to bring 5G connectivity to PCs using Intel’s 5G modems.
Huawei is in a unique situation here because it has control over both hardware and software in 5G-enabled phones. It’s Balong 5G01 chip can reach download speeds of 2.3 gigabits per second and the Chinese company announced that it will launch the world’s first 5G enabled smartphone in 2018.
So, will switching over to 5G be less painful and fraught with setbacks than the 3G to 4G switchover? What are the stumbling blocks for 5G communications from being a reality?
The first one is signal interference. 5G depends millimetre wave communication and a line of sight- path between the transmitter and receiver, is crucial to transfer data. While Intel solved this problem in its prototype PCs (that it showed off at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona) by putting 5G modems in the kickstands of the devices, other manufacturers will have to look for similarly innovative ideas.
Also of concern according to Sameh Yamany, Chief Technology Officer, VIAVI Solutions are: ‘Fixed mobile convergence, hybrid cloud, network slicing and increasing virtualization. Virtual test, automation, self-optimization and analytics will be essential when dealing with the growing complexity and scale of 5G networks, while managing demand for high data rates, very low latency applications and large-scale IoT services.’
With innovation and scale comes greater risk. Owing to the incremental and hitherto unheard-of advances, services like the medical industry and city management will be the first to develop a dependency on IoT response services.
Even if we set aside the huge infrastructure invoice for setting up a 5G network and the question of who will pay for it, there is always the real risk that with dependency on the network, any disruption in the future could result in the loss of life or the inability to respond to emergencies due to network outages.
‘The best way I could describe the threat for the operators is that with more sensors the more problems they face,’ said Michael O’Malley, vice president of carrier strategy at Radware.
‘They will likely be targeted due to the increase in critical data that they will carry. If their networks go down in this new future, it could result in the paralysation of a smart city.
‘In addition, the amount of critical data that will be generated with these new applications will create a target rich environment for ‘for-profit criminals’. We shouldn’t start to deploy live 5G networks until we know all the risks are identified and catered for,’ he added.
So, who’s leading the race?
‘The US will also take a prominent position in the 5G battle, with Verizon and AT&T commercially deploying their own forms of 5G. However, this is an early, fixed wireless version of 5G, based on its own specs and unlikely to be fully 3GPP-compliant. This is progression, to a degree, yet the predicted launch only addresses the specific case of providing ‘last-mile’ broadband connectivity to North America’s many underserved residential and rural areas and does not address its cellular needs.
‘Operators in the US will also be looking to deliver 3GPP compliant 5G systems, with Verizon claiming it is the first carrier to conduct an over-the-air call using the specifications. We can expect AT&T and Sprint to be hot on the heels of Verizon, with both trialling 5G NR this year and aiming for commercialisation by late 2019 or early 2020,’ opined Li-Ke Huang, 5G Research & Technology Director, Cobham Wireless.
However, the US might just get pipped to the race by a small, yet mighty competitor Japan. Intel, Toyota and NTT Docomo have partnered to bring 5G to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, with Intel going as far as to say that it will turn Tokyo into the first 5G city in the world, with more 4K streams and automatic facial recognition for stadium security, all powered by 5G networks.
As Stéphane Téral, Executive Director of Research and Analysis, Mobile Infrastructure and Carrier Economics, IHS Markit signs off: ‘Expectations for 5G are sky-high... yet the path to full 5G adoption is complicated and still evolving. Operators and infrastructure vendors across the globe are moving at varying speeds when it comes to testing and deployment — they need to act now to address technology challenges.”
Learn more about 5G Trials in our free upcoming webinar on 5G in Practice - What have recent trials taught us? featuring speakers from Orange Group, Inatel and Bristol is Open. Register now.