ITU brings dose of realism to 5G agenda


The ITU always brings a dose of sobriety to a new standards party. Amid the escalating claims about when 5G equipment will be available (now, according to some vendors) and when services will be deployed (2018, even 2017 in 'pre-standard' form), the ITU-R Working Party came up with predictable conclusions from its meeting in San Diego, California. The forthcoming standard will be called IMT-2020, reflecting a timeline for finalizing the specifications by the end of the decade.

The official name will do nothing to stop companies labelling every new piece of radio equipment '5G', but it does start to streamline efforts towards something officially and globally unified. Nevertheless, the ITU's frameworks are always out of step with the work of technical standards bodies and with the real market - and that may be even more the case with 5G, especially if that ends up building significantly on current innovations in areas like virtualization and small cells.

For instance, the ITU frameworks tend to be conservative in their timescales, but over-ambitious in their core requirements - meaning that real world standards-based kit appears earlier, but without hitting the ITU performance levels. The ITU's timeline is 2020, but like NTT Docomo in 3G and 4G, some Asian operators will deploy pre-standard 5G before the 2020 date, and do almost as much as the ITU to shape how the new networks perform in reality.

In terms of performance targets, IMT-Advanced (4G) was supposed to achieve at least 100Mbps downlink data rates to a mobile end user and 1Gbps to a stationary one. The candidate technologies were actually LTE-Advanced (Release 10 and above) and WiMAX 2, but the former is only now being rolled out, while real world 4G was based on lower-spec'd LTE (and, in the early days, original WiMAX).

In other words, the market, industry alliances, and technical standards bodies like the 3GPP, decide how far vendors and carriers push a new technology to its limits.

So does the ITU have a real role to play? The answer is yes - it does provide a framework which draws in spectrum allocation, operator requirements, regulatory policies and many other factors on a global basis, which helps avoid fragmentation and keep everyone on a single track which is defined without the same level of vendor politics as the technology standards (though of course the ITU has politics of its own).

Nevertheless, defining the framework for IMT-2020 technologies will be an unprecedented test of the ITU's processes and value to the industry. It is clear that '5G' will encompass a vastly larger range of spectrum bands, use cases, power levels and (probably) connectivity standards than the relatively single-minded standards of the past, which relied on a single air interface geared mainly to increasing bandwidth/data rate.

This time, as the ITU acknowledged in its statement of vision for 2020, there will a far more multi-faceted platform to consider. There will be connected 'things' of all kinds, virtualization, massively dense networks, ultra-low power applications, and many other considerations. The ITU's secretary-general, Houlin Zhao, said in his statement: "The buzz in the industry on future steps in mobile technology - 5G - has seen a sharp increase, with attention now focused on enabling a seamlessly connected society in the 2020 timeframe and beyond that brings together people along with things, data, applications, transport systems and cities in a smart networked communications environment."

The body gave few hints about the specific technology attributes it envisages for IMT-2020. Its next meeting, on July 21, will approve the recommendations of the San Diego event, and more detailed work will be presented at the October ITU-R Radiocommunication Assembly.

It will now work with the telecoms industry and other players to specify detailed technical requirements, and the criteria against which to evaluate candidate technologies, probably by year end. It promised to take into account the needs of a wide range of future scenarios and use cases.

Only then will would-be 5G standard technologies be able to compete to be accredited as official IMT-2020 systems. Not that acceptance by the ITU ensures commercial success - for IMT-Advanced, WiMAX2 was selected alongside LTE-Advanced, while IMT-2000 (3G) included the little-deployed TD-CDMA.

In the absence of many hard details as yet, there was plenty of speculation about how the ITU perceives 5G. The organization itself said it had defined overall goals, process and timelines and that "this process is now well underway within ITU, in close collaboration with governments and the global mobile industry".

Some delegates to the San Diego summit were more forthcoming - according to the Korea Times - citing the country's Ministry of Science, ICT and Future Planning, a contributor to the ITU-R process - the ITU believes 5G networks must have the capacity to transmit data at over 1000Mbps to over one million IoT devices within one square kilometer.

However, another report emanating from Korea, that the ITU will mandate baseline data speeds of 20Gbps for 5G, proved to be false. Indeed, the ITU itself told Inside5G that, "as of now, the peak data rate of IMT-2020 for enhanced mobile broadband is expected to reach 10Gbps. However, under certain conditions and scenarios, IMT-2020 would support up to 20Gbps peak data rate."

It will be no surprise that Korea and Japan are prominent in the ITU-R process, and are already engaged in one-upmanship about the importance of their contributions, as well as their plans to be the first in the world to deploy '5G' services, albeit it with pre-standard kit. Of course, 5G may well be a wireless generation that is shaped by China, whose vendors and operators are also engaged in advanced R&D and standards body participation, though making somewhat less public noise than their neighbors.

At the recent CommunicAsia 2015 conference, the only significant point of consensus, in a debate between four organizations contributing to the ITU-R deliberations, was that ultra-low latency, machine-to-machine communications would be the top priority for 5G, and this would be even more important to enabling future services and business models than increased speeds.

In other respects, there were clear disagreements between various 5G projects, and between Japan and Korea. As noted by TelecomAsia, representatives from the four groups agreed to disagree on the KPIs (key performance indicators) for 5G, during a panel debate at the show.

The ITU-R itself, the Korea 5G Forum, the Fifth Generation Mobile Communications Promotion Forum (5GMCPF), and the 5G World Alliance all had somewhat different approaches. Colin Langtry, leader of the 5G study group at ITU-R, was the least controversial, telling the conference that the main aim is to enable ultra-reliable communications and low latency, among other capabilities. He also said that "co-opetition" between different 5G groups would be positive for the end result.

Meanwhile, Youngnam Han from the Korea 5G Forum called for three new KPIs to be added to the ITU-R's framework. The Forum published three white papers in March, setting out KPIs and promising candidate technologies, as well as spectrum requirements and candidate bands. The KPIs tie into the eight core requirements set out by the ITU-R, which include peak data rates up to tens of Gbps, 1ms latency and mobile hand-off at 500 kilometers per hour. However, Han wants to add others which go beyond the ITU remit, including the handling of interruption time, and pinpointing a terminal's location to "within a few centimeters".

Hiroyuki Morikawa, a Japanese member of the 5GMCPF, was more focused on timelines and called for a schedule of milestones to be laid down. The two Asian powerhouses may have different priorities, but they are keen to lead the world in 5G roll-out, and especially to stay ahead of the US. "Korea and Japan are the leading countries" in 5G, partly because of their large concentration of device makers, Han said. He graciously said that the US and Europe were "welcome" to join the debate about 5G KPIs, with Langtry hastily saying that the western regions were already involved, but not leading the discussions.

Korea aims to launch pre-standard 5G in time for its Winter Olympics in 2018, though Han was vague about exactly what that would entail, only commenting that the network could be based on "anything that meets the eight KPIs laid down by the ITU-R". Japan hopes to conduct a proof of concept, at least, by the end of 2017 and will outline the details of that late this year. "Not surprisingly, the Japanese plan is very similar to the Korean plan - it's because we're neighbours," said Morikawa.

Another group, the 5G World Alliance, was heavily focused on IPv6 to enable the IoT - unsurprisingly since its chair, Latif Ladid, is also founder and chair of the IPv6 Forum. He told the conference that users would soon need millions of IP addresses, not one, and urged the mobile industry fully to embrace IPv6 this time around, something it had failed to do in 3G and even partially in 4G

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