High expectations on the promise of 5G have created increased desire for faster deployment. We sat down with David Banjo, a technical expert and the Head of Solution Architecture E2E in Nokia 5G Product Sales, to understand when we can realistically expect the ‘programmable world’ to become a reality.
5G, as the name implies, is the 5th generation of cellular networking technologies. But it’s much, much more than that. It far outreaches the scope of past cellular system releases, which were each primarily focused around a singular service or solution. For example, 2G was about voice communications and messaging, while 3G going into 4G was basically about enabling the mobile internet.
With 5G, what we’re really bringing about is the promise of a ‘programmable world’ that’s basically connecting everything and everyone together. It goes beyond supporting only those use cases we know today, to provide technologies to enable whatever might come up from a connectivity, communications and networking point of view.
"With 5G, what we’re really bringing about is the promise of a ‘programmable world’ that’s basically connecting everything and everyone together."
However, as most of the emphasis has been on the highlights of what 5G will bring; the lack of detail on when we can expect these features to be deployed over time has created too high expectations. Let me explain why.
The full scope of 5G capabilities – much more than mobile broadband
If you look at the 5G capabilities ‘pyramid,’ there are basically three main areas that 5G is targeting.
At the top is enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), which we sometimes refer to as ‘enhanced’ or ‘extreme’ mobile broadband. This will provide the ability to achieve enormously improved data bandwidth and reliability, with wireless network speeds eventually going up to and even beyond 10 gigabits per second (Gbps), delivering content to your smartphones and other connected devices faster, and enabling operators to meet the ever-increasing demand for new mobile broadband services.
On the lower right, ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC) will bring the capability to reduce latency or lag down to less than 1 millisecond, and boost reliability from five-nines (99.999%) to six-nines (99.9999%). These are capabilities that will transform industrial and enterprise processes, enabling network-based automation and control in a wide spectrum of industries.
On the lower left, massive machine-type communication (mMTC) capabilities will enable highly efficient deployment of the Internet of Things on a massive scale, for example, where we might have more than a million connected sensors and metering devices within a square kilometre.
5G will also bring in a whole package of additional radio spectrum that operators need. 4G/LTE is great technology, but in many cases the operators, especially in mature markets, are reaching the limit of how much spectrum they can deploy to meet growing demand, increase performance, or improve the customer experience.
Customization at the radio layer
Much of the technology innovation of 5G is found in the radio layer. There are performance and efficiency enhancements, of course. These include ‘massive MIMO,’ which supports large numbers of inputs and outputs in parallel, greatly increasing capacity on the network. Another, advanced ‘beamforming,’ enables the radio signal to be tightly focused to provide a stronger, faster, more reliable signal to the target device, which is especially important if that device is in a remote area at the edge of a cell.
"Much of the technology innovation of 5G is found in the radio layer."
But 5G also brings in some really interesting, and completely new radio features. One of the more revolutionary of these is in the flexibility of the frame structure, such that the radio is not limited to a single one-size-fits-all profile. Operators will be able to tune each radio within the network individually to support different use cases. For example, specific radios could be tuned for really high data rates beyond 10 Gbps, for an application that requires it, for example, live 5G broadcasting of 8K video. Others could be tuned for extremely low latency and high reliability, for example, in an application that involves time-critical factory processes.
Changing mobile networks at the core
Even more revolutionary in 5G are the changes to the core domain of the mobile network. Previous network releases have been designed and standardized from a ‘box implementation’ perspective – reliant on dedicated hardware that is sold and deployed into the operator’s network. The new 5G core has been standardized as a cloud-native, service-based architecture, where individual functions are disaggregated, containerized, and can be deployed anywhere in the cloud, whether that cloud is centralized or distributed.
"The new 5G core has been standardized as a cloud-native, service-based architecture, where individual functions are disaggregated, containerized, and can be deployed anywhere in the cloud, whether that cloud is centralized or distributed."
In essence, this removes the restrictions of the physical network architecture. New services can be rolled out with minimal time to market – in days, rather than weeks, months or years. This level of flexibility will be quite revolutionary for operator networks, and is going to be very useful for some advanced use cases, perhaps including some we haven’t even imagined yet.
One example of the revolutionary nature of 5G that brings all this together is a feature called network slicing. Within a single network, using a combination of the flexible radio interface, software-defined networking, and the service-based architecture of the 5G core, an operator can define multiple virtual networks – end-to-end network ‘slices’ – each of which can be tailored completely to a customer’s specific requirements. For example, a factory could get a dedicated network slice that includes the low latency and high reliability that enables automated control and monitoring of their network-connected robots.
5G adoption - It’s not a sprint, it’s the start of a 10-year marathon
Cellular network generations have all typically gone through 10-year cycles, from release to full maturation. With prior technologies – 2G, 3G and 4G – we started with basic capabilities and a roadmap of features and capabilities that rolled out progressively over the course of a 10-year evolution. 5G is no different. But we’re only just at the start of this cycle.
"Cellular network generations have all typically gone through 10-year cycles, from release to full maturation."
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is the standards organization that coordinates development of mobile telecommunication standards, using a system of consecutive releases. Release 15, the first release of the 5G standards, is complete, and has been rolling out over the last year or so. But what is coming out now is just the first wave of Release 15, often called ‘non-standalone’ (NSA) 5G, because it still relies on 4G, providing a 5G layer on top. Release 15 has already begun commercial deployment in many markets globally, with early versions of 5G-enabled smartphones showcasing some of the enhanced mobile broadband capacity features of 5G.
The next wave of Release 15 is ‘standalone’ (SA) 5G, which Nokia is already trialling with customers and which we expect to result in commercial deployments next year. Standalone 5G networks don’t rely on previous network technology – the 5G radio is directly connected to the new 5G core network. This is an important step, because all of the more revolutionary features that 5G promises, such as network slicing, are only fully realizable in a standalone 5G deployment. And each subsequent 3GPP Release is planned to deliver incremental features and enhancements, for example, further increased network performance and efficiency, to realize the 5G vision targets.
In the coming years, as standalone 5G networks roll out, the next generations of smartphones and customer premises equipment will take greater advantage of 5G spectrum and features, though the devices will probably still be fairly expensive. As phone prices go down over the next couple of years, adoption should accelerate rapidly. And by 2023, we expect 5G subscriptions to start to seriously encroach upon the 4G subscription base.
Changing the paradigm for operators
The next release of 5G, Release 16, is expected to start rolling out in commercial deployments in early 2021. This is the release designed specifically with industrial and enterprise use cases in mind. It includes features like enhancements for ultra-reliable low-latency communications and industrial IoT, and can really take advantage of standalone 5G capabilities.
"The next release of 5G, Release 16, is expected to start rolling out in commercial deployments in early 2021."
Because these capabilities promise to strongly support the transformation of industries and enterprise processes, this release represents the real start of collaboration between operators and enterprises. In essence, it starts to change the paradigm for operators.
In the next article in this series, we talk more about how 5G, particularly the capabilities included in 3GPP Release 16 and beyond, will begin to transform industries and the communication ecosystem.