There’s no question that wireless networks are on the verge of obsolescence if they don’t innovate. For one, the Internet of Things (IoT) is quickly emerging as a significant agent of transformation as it blends the physical and digital worlds. In the latest Ericsson Mobility Report, 28 billion connected devices are forecasted by the year 2021, more than half of which will be machine to machine (M2M) and IoT connections. And that, along with consumer video traffic and bandwidth-hungry rich media apps, is driving wireless operators to look to LTE (News - Alert) advancements and 5G to help them prepare for future network demands.
The advent of next-gen LTE standards as well as 5G will mark a sea change in how wireless networks are architected. The first commercially available network of interest will be the next iteration of LTE, which should see rollouts starting late next year. Full advanced LTE implementations are expected by 2022 in most markets, with 5G starting to really ramp up about then. Then, a commercial RAN overlay with a new, standard 5G interface will happen sometime in the mid-2020s and beyond.
Regardless, the 5G goal is to provide 1,000 times the current available capacity, with links capable of offering a fiber-like 1Gbps throughput. That will require 10 times the cell sites that exist today, and 10 times the spectrum, making for a big expansion of operators’ spectral holdings in both licensed and unlicensed frequencies (and a great deal of future regulatory debate). Getting there will also take at least a 10X improvement in spectral efficiency thanks to better radio interfaces and core networks.
Suffice it to say that achieving the 5G vision will require a significant re-architecting and densification of the network as we know it today. And unlike the majority of previous wireless technology standards, once the final specifications are released, 5G won’t have merely a single interface. It will encompass multiple networks, including LTE, small cells, and Wi-Fi and other unlicensed spectrum technologies.
“The future architecture is multi-access, multi-frequency, unlicensed and licensed, and capable of handling all of those characteristics at the same time,” explained Andy Castonguay, an analyst with Machina Research. “This likely means that the actual standards process will be laid out in multiple stages over multiple years.”
Standards Beginning to Coalesce
Technical standards for 5G began to coalesce in 2015, with the goal of making 5G-based services commercially available by the end of this decade. But because the architecture design will be multi-access, denser and more complex, global standards bodies are just beginning to put parameters around its definition.
For now, the NGMN Alliance (News - Alert) defines the following requirements for 5G networks:
Operators of course are interested in leveraging their investments as long as possible before eventually transitioning to a 5G air interface. In a nod to that evolution-not-revolution approach, the next generation of LTE standards, beginning with release 13, are considered part of the 5G family. Critically, release 13 modules are expected to be finalized sometime this year.
After that, according to the 3GPP timeline, the first phase of the 5G standards process should be completed in the second half of 2018, with a second phase following by December of 2019, just in time for the global ITU evaluation process known as IMT-2020. What those phases will consist of is still a work in progress.
Innovating for Use Cases
With so many new devices and systems being connected to the Internet, wireless operators have plenty of new opportunities lurking amidst the challenges. And it’s likely that defining the industry requirements for the next generation of mobile networks will revolve around supporting specific operator business models and use cases.
For instance, IoT and low-latency machine-to-machine (M2M) and critical communications will be a big part of the future traffic mix.
“The use cases will drive investment,” explained Nokia Networks’ Edwin Sutedjo, head of service innovation, in an interview. “There are many different technologies existing in short rage and long range environments, and it’s a segmented opportunity. Certain verticals have simple IT requirements that can be served with best-efforts connectivity to a device. Others have requirements that are more stringent.”
There are also other, more specific requirements. “In the IoT world, some of the sensors are not attached to electric grids, so they have specific requirements for battery life,” said Sutedjo. “Not all wireless approaches are suitable to support battery life. 3GGP LTEM aims to reduce the energy consumption—but the connectivity component should be very low cost.”
Another challenge and opportunity for operators is to rethink their business model to go beyond just offering connectivity.
“There are opportunities for device management, and to monetize the data itself by going up the ladder to offer some form of analytics,” said Sutedjo. “The more you go up the service stack, the requirement to specialize in that vertical and use case increases.”
Another space where operators play a vital role is in critical and low-latency communications.
“The first showcase of this took place on German highways,” said Stefan Kindt, head of IoT marketing at Nokia Networks. “DT built an extended LTE network to deliver apps right from the base station to alert drivers to incidents on the highway. Connected cars get an alert of what’s happening, allowing them to avoid accidents and emergency braking, and to know when passing lanes were coming up.”
Most carriers see immediate opportunities in supporting enhanced mobile broadband services like these for consumers and businesses. "New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before," explained John Donovan (News - Alert), AT&T's chief strategy officer. "5G will help make them a reality."
And as with IoT, there’s also a value-added, beyond-connectivity piece that better, faster networks can enable on the consumer side. According to a Vindicia study, 90% of U.S. consumers are interested in upgrading from a basic subscription to a package with added privileges such as discounts, exclusive offers and access to events or activities with other subscribers. Of those, more than half are either “extremely interested” or “very interested” in these types of privileges. In addition, 76% of consumers are willing to pay $3.99 extra each month for a subscription that gives them special access to premium content or members-only benefits, with that percentage increasing to 84% if the price is set at $1.99 extra.
"Vindicia's subscription survey offers two compelling truths," said Gene Hoffman, CEO of Vindicia. “First, as long as service providers deliver sustained and obvious value for money, customers will stick around. Second, demand for value-added benefits is so high that service providers can consider it a reliable avenue for significant business expansion. Our survey found that despite the notion that consumers don’t want to add significant financial obligations to their lives, they are very willing to pay for the services they value.”
And when it comes to ranking the number one reason for subscribing to digital services to begin with, convenience was the top of the list, followed by the value of the service, cost savings, selection and, finally, personalization.
Operators Plan Pre-Standard 5G Deployment
Faced with a rapidly developing set of fresh market opportunities, operators are already planning pre-standard deployments of advanced technologies.
Verizon was a first mover, and has talked about being first-to-market with “5G,” with builds starting in 2017. Verizon's tests have shown that the technology will have 50 times the capacity of its current 4G network and be able to "handle exponentially more Internet-connected devices," at speeds around 40 times faster than LTE. Initial lab tests will take place in the Boston and San Francisco areas.
AT&T (News - Alert) is beginning testing 5G this year, and said that it would start using some 5G components commercially by the end of 2016. Partnering with Ericsson and Intel, AT&T will begin testing in its labs in the first half of 2016, before moving on to field testing the next generation mobile networks in Austin, Texas in the second half.
Asia also has its share of movement: NTT DoCoMo (News - Alert), Japan’s largest wireless carrier, has been conducting its first real-world tests of its own next-gen network technology, in partnership with Nokia Networks, as the company prepares to launch what it, too, is calling “5G,” by 2020. And, Korea Telecom has pledged that its “5G” network will be available for its consumers in 2018, before it hosts the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. This will be a wireless network that can host up to 250,000 devices simultaneously at 10Gbps speeds. Also, SK Telecom has demonstrated a 5G platform built in collaboration with Nokia and Intel that offers 20Gbps—which is 200 times faster and with 1,000 times more data capacity than the current 4G LTE network.