Monday, March 20, 2017

The 5G Imperative

5G was front and centre at this year's Mobile World Congress, which concluded on March 2nd. Last year, 5G was already on the tip of everyone's tongue, while this year 5G banners were all over Barcelona, from the arrival lounge at the airport to nearly every vendor stand. There is considerable industry pressure to move as quickly as possible to bring 5G to market and MWC 17 kicked off with a call by major mobile network operators and vendors to accelerate the 5G New Radio (NR) standardisation schedule to enable large-scale trials and deployments as early as 2019, a year earlier than the previous expected timeline.

The first 3GPP 5G NR specification will be part of Release 15, the global 5G standard that will make use of both sub-6 GHz and mmWave spectrum bands. An accelerated rollout for 5G could provide a strategic market advantage to certain carriers who gain a first-to-market advantage with new applications such as autonomous vehicles and fixed wireless access for residential services. Early deployments would also be welcomed by major vendors, many of which are under increasing financial pressure as new LTE installations dry up.

However, there is also a growing back pressure from some quarters, notably European operators and some regulators, not to rush things for the sake of boastfulness at the expense of technology maturity or market reality. In particular, the CTO of Telefonica was quoted in the industry press as saying that a premature lockdown of 5G specifications might prevent the technology from developing to its full potential.

Mobile operators racing to be first

In the highly competitive U.S. market, key players in 5G include Verizon, and perhaps to a slightly lesser extent AT&T. For Verizon, it is essential that it retains a network advantage over Sprint and T-Mobile. Sprint's current advertising campaign proclaiming that its network quality is within 1% of Verizon's is painful enough to the market leader, and falling behind with 5G would be disastrous. Ahead of MWC 17, Verizon announced plans to rollout 5G pre-commercial services to select customers in 11 markets by mid-2017 to create the 'largest 5G proving ground in the world'. The rollout will include several hundred cell sites that cover several thousand customer locations, with pilot markets including Ann Arbor, Atlanta, Bernardsville (New Jersey), Brockton (Massachusetts), Dallas, Denver, Houston, Miami, Sacramento, Seattle and Washington DC. Verizon's 5GTF ecosystem partners include Ericsson, Intel, Qualcomm Technologies and Samsung.

For AT&T, the first 5G business customer trial is already underway in Austin, Texas. The pilot, being conducted in partnership with Intel and Ericsson, uses millimetre wave (mmWave) technology, which can deliver multi-gigabit speeds using unlicensed spectrum. The carrier has previously reported 5G lab trials delivering speeds of up to 14 Gbit/s with less than 3 milliseconds of latency. In the first half of 2017, AT&T plans to conduct a trial in Austin, where residential customers can stream DIRECTV NOW video service over a fixed wireless 5G connection. The trial will include next-generation entertainment services over fixed 5G connections and is designed to evaluate how fixed wireless mmWave technology handles heavy video traffic.

Meanwhile in Australia, for Telstra being first to market with leading technology has also become a hallmark of the company, and Telstra was among the major carriers calling to accelerate the 5G NR standardisation schedule. Telstra has launched commercial gigabit LTE service is select capital cities across Australia enabled by LTE Advanced features including 4 x 4 MIMO, 3 CA (Carrier Aggregation) and higher order modulation (256QAM). Ericsson is a key technology provider for the rollout, with Qualcomm also a key partner.

For Korean carriers, including SK Telecom and KT, both of whom were early movers with LTE, one could say there is a national imperative to lead in 5G. The next winter Olympic Games, scheduled for February 2018, in PyeongChang, Korea, are supposed to showcase commercial 5G service. KT has previously announced plans for commercial 5G in 2019, a year earlier than others, and is also a 5G development partner with Verizon, along with vendors Ericsson and ZTE. SK Telecom likewise has announced plans for 5G NR field trials in the second half of 2017 with the goal of showcasing the technology at the Winter Games. These upcoming trials will employ 3GPP 5G NR MIMO antenna technology with adaptive beamforming and beam tracking techniques, including non-line-of-sight (NLOS) environments and device mobility. Vendor partners again include Qualcomm and Ericsson.

In Japan, NTT DOCOMO has previously stated its intention to roll out commercial 5G services across Japan ahead of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. At MWC 17, NTT DOCOMO announced interoperability testing and over-the-air field trials in Japan based on the 5G NR specifications being developed by 3GPP. The trials will operate in mid-band spectrum at 4.5 GHz, as well as mmWave spectrum at 28 GHz, showcasing the unified 5G NR design across diverse spectrum bands. The trials will utilise device prototype and base station solutions from Qualcomm Technologies and Ericsson, respectively, along with trial environments from NTT DOCOMO to simulate real-world scenarios across a broad set of use cases and deployment scenarios.

DOCOMO said It is looking forward to timely commercial network launches based on 3GPP Release 15 standard-compliant 5G NR infrastructure and devices. The trial will showcase advanced 3GPP 5G NR technologies including MIMO antenna technology, beamforming techniques, adaptive self-contained TDD, scalable OFDM-based waveforms to support wider bandwidths, advanced coding and modulation schemes and a new flexible, low-latency slot structure based design. In addition, the trial will feature 5G NR operation in mmWave spectrum at 28 GHz, employing advanced 5G NR antenna technology to deliver robust and sustained mobile broadband communications including in non-line-of-sight (NLOS) environments and device mobility.

Vendors race to be first

Among vendors, there are also bragging rights and strategic imperatives at play, For Ericsson, 5G is the really the big bet that is keeping the company alive. The Ericsson stand at MWC was mostly a showcase for its 5G ambitions, and for Ericsson this future cannot come fast enough. The company's recent financial performance and on-going restructuring are no secret, with Q4 2016 revenue down 11% compared to a year earlier and the company reporting a climate of weak investments in mobile broadband in most regions of the world with many legacy 4G projects having wrapped up. At MWC 17, Ericsson showcased a 5G platform comprising the 5G core, radio and transport portfolios, together with digital support systems, transformation services and security, all clearly aimed at mobile operators seeking to be first movers in their markets.

For Nokia, the 5G imperative story is pretty much the same, although the company benefits from a more diverse product portfolio that includes IP and optical platforms that will sustain the company in the event that a 5G rollout is delayed or more gradual than expected. At MWC 17, Nokia also said it intends to give operators a first-to-market advantage based on early specifications. The company announced its 5G FIRST end-to-end solution incorporating its AirScale and AirFrame technology, including AirScale massive MIMO Adaptive Antenna, Cloud Packet Core and mobile transport. The solution is expected to launch in the second half of 2017.

For Huawei and ZTE, 5G is the opportunity to pull ahead of their western counterparts by being first to market. At MWC, ZTE demonstrated a range of 5G mmWave and sub-6 GHz pre-commercial base stations supporting 3GPP's 5G NR new air interfaces and mainstream 5G frequency bands. The base stations use massive MIMO, beam tracking, beamforming and other key 5G technologies to achieve a 50 Gbit/s peak rate. ZTE completed its first 5G mmWave field trials last year. ZTE also showed off an upcoming 5G-capable Gigabit Phone powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 835 chipset and which combines wireless carrier aggregation with 4 x 4 MIMO antenna technology and 256QAM modulation. Some may say this device is really pre-5G because it uses technology that is becoming available for 4G LTE, yet the announcement indicates that ZTE believes 5G handsets will be crucial for rapid upgrades to 5G infrastructure.

The issue of 5G handsets and other devices leads to Qualcomm, for whom it would simply be unacceptable to lose its lead. Anyone walking in to Barcelona's Fira convention centre saw dozens of banners proclaiming 'Snapdragon Gigabit LTE - first place in the race'. A rapid adoption of 5G NR would certainly be welcome by the California-based silicon vendor. In October 2016 Qualcomm made the first commercial 5G modem chipset announcement with its Snapdragon X50 5G modem, clearly aimed at operators and OEMs conducting lab tests, field trials and early deployments. The Snapdragon X50 5G modem initially supports operation in mmWave spectrum in the 28 GHz band and employs MIMO antenna technology with adaptive beamforming and beam tracking techniques for NLOS environments. It also offers 800 MHz bandwidth support for peak download speeds of up to 5 Gbit/s.

At MWC 17, Qualcomm announced support for the 5G NR accelerated plan and is expanding its Snapdragon X50 5G modem family to include 5G NR multi-mode chipset solutions compliant with the 3GPP-based 5G NR global system supporting operation in the sub-6 GHz and multi-band mmWave spectrum. This includes support of both Non-Standalone (NSA) operation (where control signalling is sent over LTE), and Standalone (SA) operation (where all control signalling and user data are sent over 5G NR), and are designed to enable the next generation of premium-tier mobile cellular devices while also aiding operators to execute early 5G trials and deployments. The first commercial products integrating 5G NR modems from the Snapdragon X50 family are expected to be available to support the first large-scale 5G NR trials and commercial network launches starting in 2019.

Big questions remain

The question remains, is there a business case for an accelerated adoption of 5G? The upgrade to 4G brought with it concurrent improvements to the overall network infrastructure; 5G is being preceded with network advancements, including network virtualisation technologies, open systems, and even continued improvements of the underlying metro optical transport network. In addition, 4.5G technologies such as carrier aggregation and MIMO are already adding significant capacity to mobile networks. The chief financial officers of the mobile network operators will look at this and ask whether there are in fact end customers willing to pay to be the first aboard fully 5G commercial services.

Perhaps there are certain customers, like the operators of fully-autonomous vehicle fleets, that are eager to sign up for the first available 5G service, but for now it looks as though certain vendors and operators are pressing full-steam ahead because they have no other choice than to be first with 5G.

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