The evolution of Mobile Technology to 5G: Q&A with Gerard Carroll

There was a lot of discussion about 5G in 2016, and with so much information (and hype) flying around it seemed like a good time to understand where 5G really stands as we’re in 2017. In order to do that I recently sat down with Graham Kunz to discuss the next evolution of mobile technology. With Graham’s background in service assurance for wireless customers, it was an interesting conversation that I hope you will find useful.

Below is a summary of our conversation.

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How did we get to 5G? First there was analogue (i.e. 1G, voice only), then GSM (2G, 16 to 64 kbit/s), then UMTS/CDMA2000 (3G, ~2 Mbit/s) and LTE (4G, 10 Mbit/s).

What will it give us?

  • Faster speeds –10 Gigbit/s
  • Lower latency (i.e. more responsive) – 1 millisecond of latency
  • More dense networks – more base stations and more users/devices per cells

When can we get 5G? The current plans are mid-2018. But that is probably very optimistic. At this time of writing 3GPP have not released any 5G standards yet, even in draft format. Some service providers are pushing their own (notably Verizon).

But why are there so many press releases talking about 5G? Purely for marketing reasons. All of the major players are generating hype about 5G in order to position themselves as thought and technology leaders. In reality, many of the 5G achievements touted today are really Advanced 4G.

Will 4G go away? A very good question. The answer is no. 4G and 5G will co-exist for a long period of time with many people believing that 4G will act as a macro-layer for coverage and network wide mobility while 5G will provide higher capacity and higher speeds.

So that means that 3G and 2G must go away then? That depends. It will vary from market to market. Older technologies will dominate in less developed parts of the world namely because they are cheap, mature and it allows the network vendors an upgrade path (i.e. make more money in the future). Certain countries and operators are already refarming (recycling?) 2G and 3G spectrum.  However, there is incentive to keep using 2G (especially for Machine to Machine communication), in areas like the UK where 2G licenses were awarded perpetually and at a cheap price.

Where can I get the technical details on 5G? The simple answer is there are no 5G standards released yet by the traditional standards bodies (3GPP, ETSI, ARIB, etc.):
http://www.3gpp.org/ftp/Specs/2016-12/Rel-15/
http://www.etsi.org/standards
http://arib.or.jp/english/html/overview/st_ej.html

Wait a minute, what about Verizon’s 5G standards? Ah yes, Verizon released a set of standards for 5G (see http://www.5gtf.org/). They were written by Verizon in conjunction with Cisco, Ericsson, Intel, LG, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung. This is an effort by the US mobile operators to try to get a head-start on the market. (AT&T are similarly pushing on 5G, see http://www.fiercewireless.com/tech/at-t-reiterates-call-for-initial-5g-standards-by-december-2017). The US is a big enough market that this approach may well work, but it should be noted that previous efforts like WiMax and CDMA2000 never were as dominant as UMTS and LTE.

What frequency bands will be used for 5G? This is always a major sticking point for any new mobile technology. Different countries have different ranges of spectrum available and it is notoriously hard to get agreement on a single frequency band to use worldwide. The reality is there will be multiple bands used for 5G.

OK, so what bands will they be? Essentially all of them!

  • The ‘classical’ radio bands between 700 and 2100 MHz are really attractive (they offer better in-building coverage),
  • The Wi-Fi band of 5G is attractive because it is unlicensed and free to use
  • And above 6GHz (up to 60 GHz to 80 GHz) there are huge swathes of spectrum available.
    • A major reason why Verizon released their standards earlier is because they are promoting 5G in the 28 and 39 GHz band – simply because they own that spectrum!

Does it really make a difference which band they will use? Well yes, for example it will impact cost and international roaming. The hardware manufacturers of mobile devices live in a very competitive world. Margins are tight and they have to keep costs down. They will not design a device that can handle all potential frequency bands as it would be too expensive. This means certain bands like 39 GHz will be used. But if that device moves to Europe, it may not work at all if that band is not available there!

So what will happen? There is real potential for a schism between early adopters of 5G (particularly in the US) and the Rest of the World. Perhaps lessons have been learned and this time will be different, but history does have a habit of repeating itself.

It is exciting to note that the EU has just agreed on a set of harmonized frequency bands for 5G use at 700 MHz.  This is fantastic news as it is a low frequency band, which means excellent propagation and terrific in-building coverage.

Clearly there is a need for global standards to ensure quality and consistency for customers, this is good step in that direction. However, will Verizon follow suit

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Written by Gerard Carroll – Gerard on LinkedIn | Posts by Gerard
Gerard is Empirix’s RAN Solution Manager and has worked on radio interfaces for over twenty years with companies such as Ericsson, Siemens and NEC. He is an expert in the field of mobile telephony, with extensive experience in mobile network monitoring for 2G, 3G and 4G RAN’s.