As the world heads towards a connected society, the transition from 4G to 5G has become inevitable, given the compelling benefits the technology brings for users and the opportunities it throws up for operators. Owing to a low latency of around 1 ms, peak download rates of 10 GB per second, high data carrying capacity (about a thousand times more than 4G) and low network energy consumption (about 90 per cent less than 4G), 5G is bound to change the way the global telecom industry functions.

Apart from providing traditional voice, messaging and data benefits to customers, the technology facilitates a seamless interconnection of industry verticals such as the internet of things (IoT), smart cities, 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.

On-the-ground progress

Given the benefits of 5G technology, telecom industry stakeholders including governments, vendors, operators and other organisations are making concerted efforts to facilitate its deployment across the globe.

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is playing an important role in the evolution of the 5G landscape. It has given the IMT-2020 standard for 5G networks and is working in close collaboration with the global mobile industry to ensure that 5G gets commercially rolled out by 2020, in line with the IMT-2020 vision. Meanwhile, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project is 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 commercial needs for 5G deployment in frequencies up to 40 GHz. It is expected to be completed by September 2018 while the second phase will begin in 2018 and end 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 IMT-2020.

Apart from industry bodies, several telecom operators and vendors across the globe are individually working towards setting up the desired ecosystem required for deploying 5G technology. For ins­tan­ce, China Mobile has recently announced its 5G deployment plan. Under the plan, China Mobile will select four to five cities in 2017 to set up facilities using the sub-6 GHz spectrum band for system verification and development of pre-commercial prototypes for 5G technology. In mid-2018, the operator will shift its focus to high frequency bands (above 6 GHz). It is planning to build about 20 sites each in a few selected cities to conduct large-scale tests and develop end-to-end commercial products along with a pre-commercial network.

The US is the first country in the world 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 in the country. Several oper­ators in the US have announced their plans to conduct 5G trials. For instance, AT&T announced plans for conducting 5G trials in 2017. Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile US and Sprint Corporation are also likely to undertake 5G trials in the country. In addition, the US government recently announced its decision to collaborate with the National Science Foun­dation (NSF) on the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, a $400 million government-funded seven-year project aimed at developing 5G technology. Operators like AT&T and Verizon and vendors such as HTC, Intel, Oracle, Nokia and Samsung will also be a part of the project.

South Korea and Japan have also taken steps to commercially roll out 5G technology before the Winter (2018) and Summer Olympics (2020), 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. Meanwhile, Japan-based oper­ator NTT DOCOMO has begun trials, partnering with various vendors across multiple frequency bands to test 5G technology. These vendors include Alcatel-Lucent (3-6 GHz), Fujitsu (3-6 GHz), NEC (5 GHz), Ericsson (15 GHz), Sam­sung (28 GHz) and Nokia (70 GHz).

On the vendor side, Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm have emerged as front-runners in terms of interest and participation in the 5G space. Ericsson has undertaken significant work in the development of 5G hardware and has been participating in field trials and research programmes with oper­ators including Verizon, AT&T, China Mobile and SK Telecom. Ericsson’s 5G radio prototype, which provides 5G wireless network access, has been widely deployed for real-world testing in the US, South Korea, Japan and Sweden. Nokia has also entered advanced testing phases of new 5G radio access products to be deployed by mobile operators around the world. It is currently undertaking collaborative re­s­earch and testing programmes with op­er­ators like Verizon, China Mobile, SK Tele­com, NTT DOCOMO and Deutsche Telekom AG.

Meanwhile, Qualcomm has adopted a development strategy wherein it is working on 4G, 5G and Wi-Fi technologies to support multimode mobile devices that can jump between networks seamlessly as 5G network capabilities are phased in over time. The company is also involved in the development of industry standards for 5G and has produced technological innovations in millimetre wave technology, antenna technology and other technical areas.

Samsung has also recently forayed into this space and is planning to partner with T-Mobile US to commercially launch 5G service by 2017 using the 28 GHz spectrum band. To this end, it is also collab­orating with operators such as Verizon and AT&T.

Early days for India

In comparison to global markets, discussions around 5G are still at a nascent stage in India. The existing telecom infrastructure in rural and semi-urban areas still comprises 2G and 3G technologies. 4G and 4G advanced technologies are limited to urban areas and will take a few more years to reach the entire population. Thus, it may be a little early to jump on the 5G bandwagon. According to industry experts, 5G operates in spectrum bands having frequencies more than 6,000 MHz. Even though spectrum bands between 700 MHz and 2.6 GHz are available for mobile services in India, upgrading technology to support 5G in the respective spectrum bands would require significant investments.

Nevertheless, India is extremely optimistic about the 5G opportunity and is taking initiatives to keep pace with global developments in this space. The Ministry of Electronics and Information Techno­logy has already commissioned a research project for the development of the 5G ecosystem with an initial investment of Rs 360 million over a period of three years. To provide skilled workforce and equipment for the research, a team including researchers from educational institutions, private stakeholders like Reliance Jio Infocomm Limited, Tata Teleservices Li­mi­­ted, Tejas Networks, and a host of other start-ups has been hired. This team has filed 100 patents so far, of which around 10 have already been granted. The researchers are likely to add more patents till 5G technology is available for commercial use in the country. These patents will empower India to bargain in the field of 5G technology.

Vendors such as Nokia and Ericsson have started discussions with telecom operators and policymakers to collaborate on 5G technology. The initial discussion among these parties revolved around operators’ interest and their preparedness for developing 5G technology, identifying relevant spectrum bands that could support the technology and establishing a regulatory framework for 5G.

The way forward

While early trials of 5G began in 2014 led by Japan’s NTT DOCOMO, in Yokusuka and AT&T in Middletown, New Jersey, large-scale testing only started in 2016.

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. But the sa­me cannot be said about developing markets, which may have to wait a little longer for commercial launch. They will have to address infrastructural and technological ch­­a­­llenges before embracing 5G in a big way.

The Indian market has taken early steps to create an ecosystem conducive to 5G deployment. The development of smart cities across the country will be a key growth driver in this regard as these cities will require a vibrant IoT ecosystem, which will thrive with faster and advanced 5G networks in place.