5G Momentum is Building

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Mobile communications are already buckling under the weight of traffic but if it continues on its current trajectory, driven by higher-quality, Netflix-style on-demand video and advances in virtual reality, then a whole new solution will be needed.

Fortunately the fifth-generation mobile communications standard is just around the corner with the promise to alleviate bandwidth and latency issues for good. At least, that's the noise being generated by carriers, chip-set manufacturers, and hand set manufacturers.

"At a certain point the existing 4G LTE technology will not be sustainable to cope with the massive growth in video data," says Volker Held, head of innovation marketing at Nokia "We need a new structure. This is the kernel of the 5G business case. Utilising it means we won't need to talk about bandwidth constraints for the foreseeable future."

"5G will raise the bar by providing data rates of tens of megabits per second for tens of thousands of people," says Per Borgklint, SVP, chief innovation officer, and head of business unit media, Ericsson. "Consumers will receive a level of quality in their services like never before. 5G will be critical. In addition to handling high bandwidth applications, IoT, and billions of video-enabled devices, it will drive seamless, borderless coverage, allowing media companies to go beyond the geographical restrictions of fibre and become true global players."

A set of requirements needed to hit 5G have been more or less agreed upon. Among them: clocking regular mobile data speeds over 1 gigabits per second (Gbps), 100 times faster than current 4G LTE networks with peaks of 10Gbps. Some telcos, like South Korea's SK Telecom, claim to have reached 50Gbps in the lab. 5G latency is targeted at less than 1 millisecond (ms).

In theory, this would allow users to download a 40GB 4K movie in seconds, 4K live-to-mobile broadcasting, frame-accurately synchronised OTT and TV streams, and the ability to run more complex mobile internet apps. Delivery of 360° video to mobile would be straightforward, as would distribution of 8K resolution video, if not to mobile screens (because who needs that?) then perhaps to fixed wireless terminals in the home.

Momentum has been building in recent weeks. Earlier this month the Obama administration announced the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative (AWRI), a $400 million government-funded seven-year project aimed at developing 5G.

The National Science Foundation will lead the project with carriers including AT&T and Verizon along with HTC, Intel, Oracle, Nokia, and Samsung participating. AWRI follows on from the FCC’s Spectrum Frontiers initiative and will use four city-scale testing platforms. Independently, Verizon is set to launch its own 5G trial network in the U.S. from 2017 with a long term to support its mobile service Go90.

Japan is at the forefront of 5G. Telco NTT are already performing tests in partnership with Huawei, and are expecting to have the general public using 5G in 2021, according to Futuresource Consulting.

Not wanting to be left behind, Europe's governments formed the 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership in the hope it will reinforce the European industry's ability to compete on the global stage. Launched by the EU Commission, the PPP has assorted manufacturers, telcos, service providers, SMEs, and researchers on board.

Separately, telcos including BT, Nokia, Hutchison, Telefonica, Orange, Vodafone, and Deutsche Telekom signed a manifesto pledging to launch a 5G network in every country within the EU by 2020.

Since the Brexit vote, that may not necessarily include the UK, but BT-owned mobile operator EE has been one of the more adventurous in planning for 5G and says it is "getting requirements together for the 5GPP X-cast project which is looking at broadcast fixed and mobile for 5G."

EE is also funding a 5G research centre at the University of Surrey, UK, along with BT, the BBC, Huawei, Fujitsu, Samsung, Telefonica and Vodafone.

Public demonstrations at the Winter Olympics Pyeonchang, FIFA World Cup Russia, and the Glasgow-Berlin athletic championships are timed for 2018, the first standards due to be ready by 2019 with 2020 the 'magic' date for commercial deployments.

What Can We Expect from 5G?

The live coverage of large scale events—as evidenced by the high profile sports venue trials—could benefit from 5G by streaming the action simultaneously with commentary on social media and offer greater personalisation, including user-directed multicam views.

"The difference in latency from 0.5s to 0.001s with 5G will have a positive impact but perhaps not as much as expected, as it will only improve one element of the chain," notes Tony Maroulis, research manager at Ampere Analysis. "The data will still have to be captured, encoded, compressed, transferred, received, decompressed, and played back."

Broadcasters could, however, mine a treasure trove of user data, Maroulis suggests. "If broadcasters were able to maintain a data connection between the users' devices and their servers, it would give them better profiles of their viewers and how their engagement changes. Ad-funded broadcasters could offer entirely personalised targeted advertising," he says.

Other media uses, highlighted by Tristan Veale, research analyst, Futuresource Consulting, include greater use of cloud for storage (allowing devices to be less reliant on local storage, on site/in-venue live event experiences; collaborative gaming; and ultra-high fidelity media - meaning music too.

"A caveat is that even if you can download a 40GB 4K movie in seconds then it's totally irrelevant if you have a 4GB data plan," he adds. "The limitations of capped plans needs to move on before this industry can become more data heavy. Otherwise people will still have to rely on fixed networks to watch media."

5G is an Aspiration

Media and entertainment is just one of a number of applications fighting for a piece of the 5G action. Remote healthcare, autonomous driving, and robotics control for industry are among sectors on the wishlist for blanket sensor-to-sensor communications.

"Whether it is the ability to maintain connections with hundreds of M2M devices, delivering mobile data speeds of over 1Gbps, further lowering latency, these are all specifications that are not dealt with efficiently on today’s networks," says Maroulis. "In reality, perhaps only a few of these specifications will be met in the first 5G network. The same was true with 4G when it began. It was not until carrier aggregation was introduced that true 4G networks were live."

"5G is an aspiration," declares George Robertson, chief technologist at UK digital TV promoter DTG. "Probably what will happen is that Long Term Evolution (LTE) will dovetail into 5G. There won't be an overnight switch on."

Peter Seibert, executive director of European digital TV consortium DVB, agrees: "The rollout of 2G, 3G, and 4G took 10-15 years which is the time frame I expect for 5G."

Partly this is because 5G is technically very complex. "You can bring data rates down by going to Massive MIMO or beamforming in a handheld, but this is really new technology and still needs a lot of work," he says.

The big question is who pays for the investment. Among the costs are wireless base stations which the 5G PPP reckons will need "very dense deployments of links to connect over 7 trillion wireless devices serving over 7 billion people." That's worldwide of course. The DVB's Siebert suggests this means a base station every 150 million, plus the investment in backhauling on top.

Ultimately it will be consumers, of course, but telcos are making the case against net neutrality saying that they don't want to invest in a vacuum.

"The EU and member states must reconcile the need for open internet with pragmatic rules that foster innovation," alerts the 5G Manifesto (PDF), signed by telcos operating in Europe. "The telecom industry warns that the current net neutrality guidelines, as put forward by BEREC [Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications], create significant uncertainties around 5G return on investment. Investments are therefore likely to be delayed unless regulators take a positive stance on innovation and stick to it."

According to David Wood, chair of the World Broadcasting Unions Technical Committee, "Engineers always overestimate the speed that new technology will arrive, and underestimate its eventual impact. To be realistic we are probably talking about the early to mid 2020s. But this depends on the network operator incomes, and national economic climates."

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