Despite the lack of sufficient 4G long term evolution (LTE) coverage in most parts of the world, mobile operators and vendors have already embarked on initiatives to launch 5G networks. There are two major factors that are driving the industry to move towards 5G networks. These are the huge increase in demand for data services, which calls for faster and higher capacity networks that can deliver video and other content-rich services; and the proliferation of the internet of things (IoT) technology that is fuelling a need for massive connectivity of devices, as well as ultra-reliable and ultra-low-latency networks that can only be provided through 5G. Besides, 5G is required for the seamless interconnection of various smart city applications such as smart vehicles, smart grids, smart buildings and e-health. It is also expected to open up new use cases such as augmented reality and high definition video sharing.

Groundwork for 5G

Tangible steps are already being taken for the launch of 5G networks across the world. For instance, enhanced 4G networks such as LTE-Advanced (LTE-A) and LTE-A Pro, which comprise many of the core 5G network components, have been launched by several operators. Ac­cor­­ding to Deloitte, as of October 2016, LTE-A had been introduced by 166 operators while 12 operators had launched LTE-A Pro services.

LTE-A is designed to offer maximum downlink speeds of up to 3 Gbps and maximum uplink speeds of up to 1 Gbps while LTE-A Pro offers faster maximum speeds of over 3 Gbps. 5G is expected to build on these speeds.

By end-2017, over 200 operators are likely to offer LTE-A services and over 20 are likely to roll out LTE-A Pro networks.

As far as the formulation of 5G stand­ards is concerned, in February 2017, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released the draft specifications for 5G networks, which are expected to be finalised at the next ITU meeting in November 2017. According to these draft specifications, 5G networks should have a downlink peak data rate of at least 20 Gbps and an uplink peak data rate of at least 10 Gbps. Meanwhile, in dense urban areas, the minimum realised downlink and uplink 5G data rates should be 100 Mbps and 50 Mbps respectively. Further, 5G networks must support a minimum of 1 million connected devices per square km and there should be zero interruption time while migrating between different frequencies. Apart from this, all operators must keep at least 100 MHz of 5G bandwidth available at all times, and up to 1 GHz in higher bands.

Meanwhile, the 3rd Generation Part­ner­ship Project (3GPP) is also working on formulating global 5G standards. To this end, it has collaborated with the ITU to conduct a two-phase research programme. The first phase will focus on the commercial needs for 5G deployment in frequencies up to 40 GHz. It is expected to be completed by September 2018. The second phase will begin in 2018 and will be completed by December 2019. It will focus on frequencies up to 100 GHz as well as on the key performance indicators for 5G deployment outlined under the ITU’s International Mobile Telecom­mu­nications (IMT)-2020 vision.

Status of 5G trials

Several telecom operators and vendors across the globe are conducting 5G trials with a view to setting up the desired ecosystem prior to the commercial launch of the technology. Early trials of 5G began in 2014 led by Japan-based NTT DOCOMO in Yokusuka and US-based AT&T in Middletown, New Jersey. However, large-scale testing only started in 2016.

The US is the first country to identify and open up high frequency spectrum bands for 5G applications. The US Fede­ral Communications Commission has set aside 11 GHz of high frequency spectrum for deploying 5G technology. Seve­ral operators in the US have announced their plans to conduct 5G trials. For instance, in February 2017, Verizon revealed its plans to conduct 5G trials in 11 cities in 2017. It also announced its partnership with Cisco at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2017, under which Cisco will provide its cloud-based 5G packet core solutions, mobile backhaul infrastructure, virtualised managed services, and a pre-release version of its 5G-enabled router to Verizon.

South Korea and Japan have also taken steps to commercially roll out 5G tech­n­ology before 2018 Winter and 2020 Summ­er Olympics, which will be hosted by the two countries respectively. To this end, South Korea-based telecom operator SK Telecom has signed an agreement with Ericsson. Another South Korea-based ope­ra­tor, KT Corporation is also planning to offer trial 5G services during the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Meanwhile, in Japan, NTT DOCOMO has been conducting a number of 5G trials and is now shifting its focus to the development of 5G business cases. Accor­ding to the company, it will be working with partner firms on “standard-setting new services” based on its 5G trial sites from end-May 2017. The company will develop new revenue streams, which will leverage 5G strengths such as low latency, ultra-high speed, ultra-large capacity and massive device connectivity.

Among vendors, LG Electronics and Qualcomm have collaborated to test 5G and Cellular-V2X communications within vehicles during the first half of 2018. LG is currently developing automotive connectivity solutions using Qualcomm’s connected car platform. Qualcomm has also partnered with Ericsson to conduct 5G new radio trials using Vodafone’s and NTT DOCOMO’s mobile networks during the second half of 2017. The two companies also plan to conduct 5G trials on Australia-based operator Telstra’s network.

Nokia Networks, in collaboration with UK-based Spirent Communications, has rolled out 5G lab-as-a-service (LaaS), a platform for testing 5G automation technology. 5G LaaS will accelerate the roll-out of Nokia’s virtual network functions and physical infrastructure. Further, 5G LaaS has a self-service portal that can support thousands of devices and legacy network connections that engineers can use to develop new 5G test beds. In February 2017, Nokia announced two joint 5G testing facilities in the US and Finland in partnership with Intel.

Although 2020 has been regarded as the headline date for 5G commercialisation, the first phase of 5G deployments is expected to take place as early as 2019.

Device ecosystem

As of end-2016, over half of all models of 4G phones were LTE-A-enabled, allowing maximum downlink speeds of up to 150-600 Mbps. The first mobile router capable of transmitting gigabit speeds over an LTE-A network was launched in end-2016.

China-based operator ZTE launched the world’s first smartphone compatible with 5G networks at the MWC 2017. According to the company, the smartphone is capable of reaching download speeds of up to 1 Gbps, which is nearly ten times faster than the speeds offered by 4G networks currently.

Samsung also showcased its 5G-compatible commercial products at the MWC 2017. These included a 5G home router, a 5G radio base station and 5G modern chipsets. The pre-commercial deployment of some of its 5G products is already under way in the US.

Next steps

Although 2020 has been regarded as the headline date for 5G commercialisation, the first phase of 5G deployments is expected to take place as early as 2019 with the 3GPP’s initial 5G specifications likely to be implementation-ready by early 2018. Meanwhile, owing to several advanced ­trials, the 5G ecosystem in the developed markets of China, Japan, South Korea and the US is likely to be established by 2020. However, developing markets may have to wait a little longer for commercial launch. They will have to address infrastructural and technological challenges before adopting 5G in a big way.

Like in the case of 4G, different operators in the same market may launch 5G at different times. Moreover, each operator is likely to take several years to roll out 5G completely, beginning with cities and suburban areas and then moving to rural areas. Therefore, in the near future, 5G networks will be operational in tandem with 2G, 3G and 4G networks. It may be preferable for some operators to turn off their legacy networks (mostly 2G) and reallocate that spectrum, enabling efficient use for higher technologies.

Going forward, the experience gained from the deployment of LTE-A and LTE-A Pro networks as well as 5G trials should be utilised to support the commercial launch of 5G networks, as most of the key technology enablers of all the three technologies are the same.