The roll-out of 5G and internet of things (IoT) is expected to introduce a range of new use cases. Wh­i­­le a number of these applications will be consumer centric, some are expected to find industrial applications and assist in the digital transformation of industries. Thus, upgrading the existing 4G networks to cater to the increasing traffic and enhance customer experience is becoming increasingly important. However, spectrum availability and harmonisation will be crucial for 5G adoption.

The Ericsson Mobility Report June 2018 highlights the global trends in mobile data adoption and usage, and outlines the use cases of 5G, the time-frame for its roll-out and the key challenges…

LTE trends

Long term evolution (LTE) became the dominant mobile access technology at the end of 2017. The number of LTE subscriptions will continue to grow strongly and is estimated to reach 5.5 billion by end-2023, accounting for more than 60 per cent of all mobile subscriptions. Mean­while, WCDMA/HSPA subscriptions are likely to decline during 2018 and are estimated to account for around one-fifth of all subscriptions in 2023.

Voice over LTE (VoLTE) has now been launched in more than 145 networks across 70 countries. The number of VoLTE subscriptions is projected to reach 5.4 billion by end 2023, accounting for around 80 per cent of the combined LTE and 5G subscriptions.

Several operators have started deploying VoLTE on cloud-based core networks to support more cost-efficient network operations and capacity augmentation. This network evolution builds upon network function virtualisation and enables faster roll-out of services. Further, it has been agreed in the 3GPP standards that VoLTE technology will provide the foundation for enabling 5G voice calls. New use cases such as augmented reality and vir­tual reality are also being explored.

There are more than 1,500 VoLTE-enabled device models available globally. Cellular smartwatches are one of the latest commercial devices to utilise VoLTE. In a multi-device scenario, devices such as smart speakers could also be IP multimedia subsy­stem enabled. VoLTE support in Cat-M1-capable IoT chipsets, devices and network infrastructure is beginning to be commercialised, and new use cases are being explored.

5G outlook

Operators in the US will be among the first to launch 5G commercial services. Four major operators in the country have announced that they will start providing 5G services between late 2018 and mid-2019. Other markets where early 5G subscriptions are expected include South Korea, Japan and China. Globally, major 5G network deployments are expected from 2020 onwards. By the end of 2023, there will be over 1 billion 5G subscriptions for enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), accounting for 12 per cent of all mobile subscriptions.

From 2020 onwards, a large number of 5G devices will be launched with third-generation chipsets. Typically, new cellular network technologies have a low initial penetration of compatible devices and 5G will be no different. By 2023, a billion 5G devices for eMBB are expected to be connected worldwide.

Initially, high bands will be allocated for 5G. These include the 28 GHz, 26 GHz, 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands. In certain countries, deployment in the 28 GHz band will begin by end-2018 or early 2019, while the other high bands are expected to be available by late 2019. Low bands below 1 GHz are of interest as they provide coverage in remote areas as well as in buildings. A new band in the 600 MHz range is expected to be made available by the end of 2018.

Mid-bands in the 1-7 GHz range may also be allocated in many countries. Mid-bands in the 3.3-5 GHz range, which are seen as important spectrum resources for terrestrial 5G access networks, will be made available around 2020. These mid-bands offer a middle ground between coverage and capacity. In addition, all the existing 3GPP bands including low bands and mid-bands are being considered for 5G services in the future.

Key considerations for 5G

Importance of harmonisation: Many countries are not waiting for 5G regulations and specifications, and are already taking steps towards the commercial launch, with a particular focus on the spectrum range 26.5-29.5 GHz. For instance, the Federal Com­munications Commission has adopted regulations governing mobile use in the 28 GHz range. The 37 GHz and 39 GHz bands are also being prepared for early use. South Korea carried out a successful pre-commercial 5G trial using the range 26.5-29.5 GHz during the Pyongchang 2018 win­ter sports events. Japan is planning to deploy fully commercial 5G networks for the 2020 summer sports events in Tokyo. It is also carrying out a larger-scale pre-commercial field trial in the 3.7 GHz, 4.5 GHz and 28 GHz frequency ranges in 2018 and 2019. Regulators in Europe and China aim to deploy commercial 5G networks in the 26 GHz range by 2020. They have ex­pre­ssed interest in subsequent deployments in the 42 GHz range. India is considering the range 24.5-29.5 GHz for commercial 5G networks, as well as the 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 42 GHz bands.

In light of such developments, international harmonisation of spectrum bands is critical. Countries may not always be able to use the same frequency bands within a certain spectrum range. The mobile in­dustry is trying to solve this by establishing tuning ranges. Keeping frequency allo­­cations within these tuning ranges would allow economies of scale in network infrastructure, mobile broadband devices and IoT devices.

  • Advanced 5G services require wide bandwidths: Countries adopting 5G services early will need to address the issue of inadequate licensed spectrum. Advanced 5G services will require spectrum in wide bandwidths since they are expected to provide high peak data rates and capacity. The need for both speed and capacity suggests that an aggregate bandwidth of 10-15 GHz or more (implemented over time) will be required. Therefore, GHz-wide channel blocks in bands in the 24.25 GHz to 86 GHz range will be needed.
  • Backhaul spectrum is key for 5G transport networks: Another key issue is the need for additional backhaul capacity. To support 5G access networks, refarming of some of the current microwave frequency bands will be required. More backhaul spectrum will be needed to support throughputs of up to 100 Gbps. In order to cater to the evolving 5G backhaul demands, the specifications of the W-band (92-115 GHz) and D-band (130-175 GHz) are being finalised in Europe and have recently been laid down in the US.
  • Local licences for private networks: The development of private networks requiring local licensing also needs to be taken into account. A number of countries are considering awarding spectrum for local use. Countries that wish to make spectrum available on a more local basis could limit those allocations to real estate areas such as factories. This is a national decision and it is still unclear if and how countries will realise possible allocations for private networks.

The way forward

To realise the full potential of early terrestrial 5G network deployments and meet the growing demands on network performa­n­ce, significant efforts are required world­­­wide to reassign spectrum from underutili­s­ed applications to 5G services. Ensuring international harmonisation of spectrum, meeting the necessary backhaul requirements and tuning ranges will be important in the development of 5G. Licensing the right spectrum, in sufficient amounts, to terrestrial mobile broad­band providers is key to creating the momentum for 5G service deployments in any country.