In the first instalment of Wireless Watch’s Mobile World Congress special edition, we looked at a selection of operator trials of pre-5G networks and services. Now we turn our attention to the vendors’ roadmaps, and the most interesting insights they provided in Barcelona, into developments which may well find their way into future standard or de facto technologies.
Nokia was the most aggressive of the big names in claiming to be 5G-ready – although it was a heavily overused term throughout the show. The Finnish vendor went a step further and said operators would be able to offer ‘5G’ services as early as 2017 using its new AirScale RAN platform (clearly angling for those operators which are promising ever-earlier ‘5G’ services, mainly around major sporting events in Russia and Korea, but which will, of necessity, have to use pre-standard or heavily customized kit).
AirScale will accelerate the transition to 5G when it comes by providing a smooth migration path from current LTE, Nokia promised, rehashing one of the most popular messages which vendors relay when a new generation of technology is looming. Somehow, when that upgrade becomes necessary, it’s never as automatic, low cost and software-based as the roadmaps suggest – virtualized flexible cores and software-defined radios will help, but there is still the question of the antennas, for instance. But Nokia, like its rivals, needs to persuade operators to keep investing in 4G now, rather than wait for 5G over the horizon.
CTO Hossein Moiin said the AirScale demo was “the industry’s first demonstration of how 5G will work in practice, going beyond previous experimental systems”, making 5G “no longer a distant vision” – ambitious stuff, considering the work on standards has only just begun. But some crucial elements of 5G are already accepted, Nokia argues, and these are the focus of AirScale – in particular, ultra-low latency, and a system designed with machines as well as humans in mind.
AirScale’s claim to be a vision of the future rests on its cloud-based architecture and open interfaces, which allow it to support all the radio technologies simultaneously in one base station; and to use any architecture topology with huge levels of scalability, all defined in software from the cloud. It also claims to use 60% less energy than Nokia’s current platforms. The server end of its Cloud-RAN solution uses Nokia’s AirFrame IT hardware, launched at MWC 2015, and Mobile Edge Computing is implemented on those same servers in order to harness information from the radio effectively and support low latency services.
Baseband units can be chained to support massive capacity and IoT connectivity, and a step-by-step road to virtualization is supported by Nokia’s NetAct and CloudBand offerings, which can work with legacy RANs and C-RAN at once. As well as the multiband AirScale base station, the vendor added AirScale WiFi (access points plus a WiFi controller, also running on AirFrame), and a common software layer which runs across small cells, macrocells and WiFi.
CEO Rajeev Suri said: “I believe that 5G not only must happen faster than expected – it will happen faster than expected”, which was why vendors could not wait for standards to be finalized before launching 5G products – a line also taken by ZTE with its Pre5G portfolio, though not by Huawei, which prefers the term 4.5G for its most advanced network offerings, and argues that these will meet operators’ needs for years to come, certainly until fully standardized 5G can be launched.
“5G is different. 5G must happen fast because important use cases demand it. If we know that 5G can help save lives, improve our environment and make our lives better, we need to move faster,” Suri said.
ZTE has unveiled the latest developments in its Pre5G range, the Ultra Dense Network (UDN), claiming this can provide a highly functional bridge to emerging 5G platforms. The UDN works with existing networking models but aims to enhance the user experience with a combination of techniques including interference management, suppression and mobility enhancement.
The system adopts system frequency multiplexing to address interference caused by
overlapping cells in dense networks. According to ZTE, this technique can boost downlink rates by 10 times in areas of cell overlap and will be an important component of 5G.
The equipment also uses other expected 5G technologies, but on current network infrastrucfture and sites – like Nokia, holding out the hope of a smooth migration down the road. These include massive MIMO and Multi-User Shared Access (MUSA), which ZTE has been testing for over a year. Early in 2015, it announced the first commercial base station to implement its pre5G architecture, particularly massive MIMO and MUSA, and this has completed field tests with a number of global operators, including China Mobile and Softbank.
Zhang Jianguo, wireless general manager at ZTE, said Massive MIMO “will be in commercial use in China and in other countries later this year”.
Qualcomm and Ericsson:
Qualcomm and Ericsson have announced their latest collaboration, and will work together on early trials and verification of key 5G technology components, to support the technical work required for 3GPP standardization in Release 15. The companies also said they would drive interoperability in alignment with 3GPP to enable rapid adoption of new 5G standards.
“As we did in both 3G and 4G, we are excited about collaborating with leading operators and industry stakeholders such as Ericsson in the development of a unified, more capable 5G platform” said Matt Grob, Qualcomm’s CTO. “Now that the vision and interest for 5G are well established, it is time to focus on the technical and engineering work required to support operator trials and commercial network launches.”
Intel was determined to put paid to any perception that it might be an outsider in the 5G race. Not only was it focusing heavily on virtualization and Cloud-RAN – changes to the mobile network where it has the most obvious opportunity to enter the inner circle – but it was talking up partnerships with Ericsson, Nokia, LG, Cisco and Verizon to develop technologies for the IoT, smart cities, driverless vehicles and augmented reality – all important drivers of 5G development.
“5G represents a significant shift for these networks and we think it’s essential to get ready ahead of the curve,” said Aicha Evans, general manager of the Intel communication and services group. “Rather than just being about a personal computing platform, it’s about everything that computing can connect and how it connects.”
Among the specific announcements were IoT-oriented connectivity solutions like the
Atom x3-M7272 wireless communication platform for “automotive applications capable of powering advanced security features”; and the XMM 7120M LTE modem, optimized for machine-to-machine applications.
Intel also announced a new collaboration with Cisco and its strategic partner Ericsson, to develop a 5G router. This will be submitted to the Verizon 5G Technology Forum, of which all there vendors are members, and will aim to improve speed, latency and IoT scalability for business and residential customers.
NEC has developed a prototype of a compact, A4-sized massive-element Active Antenna System (AAS) for 5G small cells operating in the lower SHF (super high frequency) bands, from 3 GHz to 6 GHz.
As well as its small form factor, the combined antenna/RF solution boasts fully digitized antenna beam control and MIMO pre-coding to improve the precision of beamforming and increase. The vendor said that, used in conjunction with NEC’s spatial multiplexing technologies, the AAS can achieve more than 10 times greater per-cell throughput than conventional LTE base stations. It is now working on trials of the AAS with NTT Docomo.
“5G communications achieve higher speeds and increased capacity through the utilization of high frequency bands which are capable of securing wider bandwidth. On the other hand, high frequency bands face the issue of heavy propagation loss in communications. As a solution to this issue, NEC has focused on beamforming technologies which improve communication distances and reduce interference,” said Nozomu Watanabe, general manager of the firm’s mobile RAN division.
NEC also issued three white papers related to 5G – ‘Optimum Network Architecture for Full-scale IoT’; ‘NFV C-RAN for efficient RAN resource allocation’; and ‘Massive MIMO for High-capacity Mobile Access’. These are the three areas which the company believes will be most central to 5G’s architecture and business case.
For the IoT, it considers coordination between Mobile Edge Computing and the cloud as well as full context awareness when allocating resources. The C-RAN paper outlines NEC’s approach to this architecture, including its proprietatry inter-cell interference mitigation techniques and its fronthaul design, and describes a migration to 5G based on “virtualization of cells”. And the third paper shows how Massive MIMO can be applied to small cells, using technologies like NEC’s new AAS.
NEC is also working with MediaTek to develop 5G air interface and chipsets.
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These were the biggest themes this year in Barcelona – no big surprises on the topic list, though there were plenty of unexpected twists within each area, many of them concerned with unexpected new alliances (Qualcomm joining the rebranded Open Interconnect Consortium; Facebook luring Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom into its Telecom Infra Project). In Wireless Watch’s two special MWC editions, published today and on Friday, we distil the essence of each of these big topics from a mass of announcements, debates and hype.
Inevitably at the center of serious discussions and marketing hype, though lent a touch of reality by the start of the first meeting of the ITU’s IMT-2020 working party, which will specify frameworks and assess candidate technologies and spectrum, around the world in Beijing. In addition to R&D wizardry, there was much discussion of real world use cases, many of them in vertical and Internet of Things markets; and endless permutations of operators, vendors and academic bodies announcing 5G alliances.
Small cells and densification:
Small cells have been on the ‘best of MWC’ list for years now, but in 2016 they are no longer in their own ghetto, but underpinning many of the year’s big architectural themes. Operators are starting to densify their 4G networks in the bid for massive capacity, and small cells are intrinsically connected to several of this year’s bid ideas, including LTE-Unlicensed and true HetNets. A significant uptick in adoption is being driven by the enterprise need for excellent mobile coverage indoors, and will be further increased by the additional of virtualization and multi-operator platforms to the small cell mix.
Virtualization and Mobile Edge Computing:
Rather like 5G, these key architectures made the shift from interesting R&D activities to concrete element of operators’ plans, in most cases a couple of years ahead of 5G, as well as being a key future enabler of the next generation of services. The European stakeholders may be concerned about dwindling influence over core modem standards, but ETSI is asserting huge influence in these higher level frameworks, via its NFV, Mobile Edge Computing and new MANO (management and orchestration) efforts, all of them creating a common platform for the most important new approaches to mobile networking.
Facebook and Google:
The two web giants had a very high profile in Barcelona, and while some of their activities mirror one another – like last year, there was plenty of talk of drones and balloons – they are certainly not forgetting that they are engaged in a bitter head-to-head, to drive the next generation of the web experience, which will be predominantly wireless. Epitomizing this fight was Google’s endorsement of RCS (Rich Communications Services), the GSMA’s ailing attempt to defend operators’ voice and messaging businesses against over-the-top alternatives like Facebook’s WhatsApp and Messenger; and Facebook’s Telecoms Infra Project (TIP), which seeks to bring open source and hyperscale technologies into the telecoms networks, not just the data center, to shake up operator economics.
While there was plenty of analysis of the decisions of November’s World Radio Conference about 4G and potential 5G spectrum, there was also a heavy emphasis on integrating unlicensed frequencies into the carriers’ mix, as well as adopting new, flexible licensing schemes such as dynamic spectrum access. The expansion of the Qualcomm-led MuLTEFire Alliance and the imminent trials of LTE-Unlicensed set the scene, and the US’s 3.5 GHz scheme was also under the spotlight.
Internet of Things:
Since the many manifestations of the IoT are the biggest hope, for most of the mobile industry, that revenues and profits can continue to grow in future, it was unsurprising that MWC was a show about connected objects, not smartphones (despite the high profile launch of the Samsung Galaxy S7 and the LG G5). There was a real attempt to relate IoT technologies to real business models, and an improved presence for the vertical industries which will work with – or compete with – the MNOs to drive the new services. Connected and driverless cars grabbed center stage as usual, but there were many other aspects to the IoT-fest, from smart factories and Industry 4.0 frameworks; to an unexpected rapprochement between Intel and Qualcomm in the relaunched Open Connectivity Foundation. And in the home of the GSMA community, there was a starring role for the upcoming 3GPP standards for low power wide area networks (LPWANs) – NB-IoT and LTE Category-M – as they embarked on the quest to fend off unlicensed spectrum challengers.
In last week’s edition, we looked at how the major OEMs will need to tread a careful balance, at this year’s Mobile World Congress, between being ahead of the pack on the 5G roadmap, and injecting plenty of life into that nearer term source of revenues, LTE-Advanced – in particular, the last full 3GPP 4G releases, 13 and 14, known as LTE-Advanced Pro.
Huawei has been calling these ‘4.5G’ for some time, and for once this is not just a marketing slogan but a real summary of how the Chinese vendor – and much of the industry – sees LTE-A Pro. A stepping stone to 5G, yes, but one which will continue to evolve in parallel with the new generation, and with significant overlap. Operators will not tolerate a complete step upgrade again, and even if new air interface technologies are introduced alongside the current OFDM-based ones (especially for the IoT), they will look to virtualization and software-defined networking to enable them to evolve their platforms gradually, in line with real customer need, and to support multiple technologies at once.
All of which makes 4.5G quite a meaningful label, for once. Huawei, the last of the big OEMs to preview its major MWC announcements, said it believed more than 60 commercial 4.5G networks would be deployed this year, ushering in a “golden five-year period” for Releases 13 and 14. “4.5G is the natural evolution of 4G and necessary transition to the 5G,” said Ryan Ding, president of products and solutions. “It can effectively protect operators’ investments and enable them to provide faster services and better user experience on the basis of existing infrastructures.”
Huawei’s definition of 4.5G, which it unveiled over a year ago, includes gigabit download speeds – which are supported in Qualcomm’s latest modem, the X16 – and sub-10ms latency. In particular, the new releases will make LTE – initially designed almost exclusively for faster mobile broadband – more suited to the Internet of Things, with new specifications like Category-M and NB-IoT, and the ability to support up to 100,000 connections per cell (the latter another of Huawei’s 4.5G criteria).
Huawei said it had already demonstrated or tested 4.5G technology with more than 20 operators in nine countries (Canada, China, Germany, Hong Kong, Kuwait, Norway, Singapore, Turkey and the UAE.). It added that operators in China, Hong Kong and Singapore had all achieved gigabit transmissions using pre-standard Huawei 4.5G kit. In addition, it added that Korea and the UK had started building LTE integrated trunked radio networks, and MNOs in Korea and China had launched commercial trials of NB-IoT.
By 2020, Huawei predicts the average mobile customer will be using about 5GB of data per month and there will be around 3bn “connected things” on cellular networks. “The answer to this vision now is 4.5G,” it says.
It also said it was engaged in 5G trials with some operators, but refused to follow Ericsson in putting a number on it this (the Swedish firm claims “nearly 20”). “We will have to wait for five years or even longer for 5G,” said William Xu, Huawei’s chief marketing strategy officer. “That is why Huawei has proposed 4.5G.”
Among the actual products to support 4.5G, Huawei unveiled a new family called GigaRadio. The first members are a blade remote radio unit (RRU) and an active antenna unit. The former is 20% smaller and 50% faster than other products targeting the same space, Huawei claimed, and can support gigabit speeds.
The OEM was not only reiterating its 4.5G mantra at its pre-announcements, even though its label is coming into line with the wider LTE platform with the appearance of LTE-A Pro on the horizon. It also set out a five-point plan to address the future needs of telecoms operators undergoing the transformation to digital. The five are Big Video or video everywhere; Big IT; Big Operations, mainly focused on agility; Big Architecture, or elastic networks; and Big Pipe for ubiquitous connectivity.
The big message was clear – for digital transformation, telcos need to rethink their platforms from end to end, and only very few vendors can address every link in the chain (Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson/Cisco). And as many observers pointed out, there was a clear overlap between Huawei’s five initiatives and the key areas Ericsson identified as growth drivers in 2014. The Swedish firm saw those growth areas – video and media, cloud platforms, IP, OSS/BSS and ‘industry and society’ – growing their revenues by 20% to total $5.3bn in 2015.
To achieve similar results from its new five-point plan, Huawei said it would invest $1bn over five years in a “developer enablement program” to expand the ecosystem around its framework, and says it already has 600 partners in its 10 open labs in China, Europe and other regions.
Meanwhile, other vendors were far less coy about overusing the ‘5G’ term than Huawei. The head of Samsung’s Network business unit, Youngky Kim, previewed the Korean firm’s own MWC infrastructure plans, including what it said were key enablers of 5G such as “multilink connectivity technology, centralized radio, IoT and mmWave radio access solutions”. Kim said: “5G technology will offer us a new level of experience, which is immersive, tactile and ubiquitous. Thanks to seamless mobility, higher throughput and low latency of 5G technology, new services like hologram calls, virtual reality broadcasting of live football games and self-driving cars will enrich our lives.”
In Barcelona, Samsung promises to “make 5G technology a reality” with a demonstration of millimeter wave radios, transmitting eight UHD 4K videos at once with latency below 1ms.
On the LTE-A Pro side, it will also launch solutions to support LTE in 5 GHz spectrum (LTE-U and LTE-LAA), plus MP-TCP (multipath transfer control protocol), Distributed-RAN Inter-site Carrier Aggregation and Samsung Smart Multi-Link. It names MP-TCP as one of its “key priorities”. The technology allows aggregation of two or more separate networks running different RATs, such as WiFi, 3G, 4G, 5G and LPWA. It does not just connect to them simultaneously, as in dual or multi-connectivity, but merges the data streams from each network at the IP layer, to make aggregation simpler and faster. The technology has already been commercialized in Korea.
Meanwhile, Smart Multi-Link is based on Samsung’s Unified Core architecture. This is designed to support backward and forward compatibility by supporting cellular networks from 2G to 5G, plus non-3GPP technologies, using NFV and SDN approaches to enable multiple distributed RANs to behave as a single pool of capacity around a single core.
Also on the virtualization front, it has upgraded its Cloud-RAN platform to version 2.0+, integrating new SON (self-optimizing network) and scheduler elements. Among the improvements are the ability for base stations to detect interference at the cell edge and control radio transmission power in real time, to boost data throughput by an average of 40-50%.
For the IoT, Samsung will show off a range of offerings including an IoT-optimized core, a specialized standalone base station for IoT, gateways, and support for the LPWA technology LoRa. It will also be offering a package of equipment, sensors and services for public safety IoT applications, claiming to be preparing “beyond standards” implementations to address mission critical use cases, as well as supporting Cat-0, Cat-1, Cat-M and NB-IoT.
The operators will be vying for 5G glory as enthusiastically as the vendors. Vodafone, AT&T, NTT Docomo, Telefonica and SK Telecom are among those which will demonstrate pre-5G technologies or announce major trials. Vodafone, has announced an extended set of partnerships – with Huawei, Nokia, Ericsson, Intel and Qualcomm – to research 5G technologies and prepare its networks for the transition, whatever that may involve in the real world.
Pre-standard operator trials are important because they help to define real requirements and shape the platforms in the direction of concrete business cases rather than technical wizardry. Vodafone aims to work with its partners to “define industry standards, establish technical guidelines and prepare product roadmaps”. It will evaluate the emerging 5G technologies to decide which it believes should be part of the standards; test hardware and software in its group Innovation Labs in the UK; conduct trials in global markets; and prioritize the benefits of 5G that can be brought to market by 2020.
CTO Johan Wibergh said: “The telecoms industry is still establishing what technology will deliver the benefits we expect from 5G, so it is important to establish dedicated research programmes with these leading global companies.”
Vodafone also chairs the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) 5G Requirements and Architecture group.
Over the pond, AT&T is working with Ericsson and Intel to launch a trial 5G network in Austin, Texas, in order to test emerging concepts like millimeter wave radios and virtualized RAN. Lab tests will take place in the second quarter of this year, and outdoor trials in the second half. By the end of this year, AT&T says it will provide real world connectivity to certain locations in Austin, using its selected ‘5G’ technologies, though these will initially be for fixed access only.
John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of technology and operations, said: “New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities and more are about to test networks like never before. These technologies will be immersive, pervasive and responsive to customers. 5G will help make them a reality. 5G will reach its full potential because we will build it on a software-centric architecture that can adapt quickly to new demands and give customers more control of their network services. Our approach is simple – deliver a unified experience built with 5G, SDN, big data, security and open source software.”
Ericsson will also be showing off its 5G partnerships with Korea Telecom and NTT Docomo at MWC, demonstrating radio prototypes which support Multiuser MIMO, and beam tracking in millimeter wave bands, to boost throughput beyond 25Gbps.
Seizo Onoe, Docomo’s CTO, said in a statement: “Both companies are already conducting joint outdoor trials to understand how 5G will really perform in the field. This will enable us to plan for the new and enhanced services that we will be able to offer with 5G. We will be in a good position to highlight our commercial 5G capabilities in 2020.”
by Caroline Gabriel, Research Director
There are some '5G' discussions and claims which are completely legitimate to have in 2015, especially if next generation networks really are to start appearing from 2020. Vendors, operators and research institutes need to identify the areas in which R&D dollars will be best spent, and it is vital for regulators and policy makers that there are some clear directions on how spectrum will be used in future networks.
There are others which are dramatically premature, particularly all the talk of the '5G air interface' in Barcelona at the recent Mobile World Congress, probably the aspect on which fewest parties are in agreement, and which really does have to wait for the 3GPP to kick off activities.
There are interesting projects in this area - for instance, Alcatel-Lucent and Intel are working on the Universal Filtered OFDM air interface, which had its origins in WiMAX, and could be one candidate for the next generation.
Separate air interfaces may be needed to support IoT nodes in lower frequency bands and high bandwidth applications in the 10-100GHz range. Since the official spectrum policies above 6GHz may not be decided until WRC-19, the industry faces the interesting challenge of "designing new air interfaces ahead of when spectrum is released", as Intel put it.
But there is not even consensus on whether a new air interface is needed at all. "I suspect that it will require a new air interface," said Alex Jinsung Choi, head of SK Telecom's corporate R&D center in South Korea, and Eduardo Esteves, VP of product management for Qualcomm, echoed this as both took part in a panel discussion at Mobile World Congress. But Tom Keathley, SVP of wireless network architecture and design at AT&T, told the same session: "I don't think we know at this stage whether a new air interface will be required. I think it will be a bit of time before we can answer that with certainty."
In general, despite all the marketing hype attached to so-called pre-5G demonstrations, Barcelona attendees were firmly focused on the short to medium term and the achievable. But that did not stop a large number of organizations using the event to launch their 5G manifestos, and seek to place themselves and their particular agendas in the driving seat.
Just ahead of the show, the European Commission fronted a paper which set out an inaugural 5G vision based around its previously announced '5G Public Private Partnership' (5GPPP). It stated the issues (the easy bit) and recited the usual mantras - data volumes of 10 terabytes per square kilometer; one million terminals per square kilometer; one-tenth of the energy consumption and one-fifth of the latency of current platforms; cutting network management to 20% of today's costs; data rates of 50Mbps to every user; location services to within a meter. Then it gave itself the familiar, but perhaps unachievable, deadline of five years to solve all that.
The EC received a lot of attention, but there were plenty of other alliances and proposals. Here is Rethink's selection of the ones which are likely to have a real impact on how '5G' pans out:
The IPv6 Forum has launched a new 5G World Alliance, with the lofty aim of achieving "seamless global network interoperability". President Latif Ladid said: "We are talking here about a 5G world where technologies such as an all-IPv6-based M2M, the mobile IoT, mobile cloud computing, SDN, NFV, fringe and tactile internet will converge over fixed and mobile networks to change lives and businesses everywhere." Ladid said the alliance was currently establishing board members and said it would work alongside the ETSI IPv6 ISG to share its findings.
Among the objectives that the 5GWA is looking to achieve are:
- Global harmonization and synergies of the telecom and internet worlds
- The creation of large-scale worldwide interoperable testbeds
- Promotion of end-user empowering applications and global solutions
- Promotion of interoperable implementation of converging and integrated standards
- Developing educational and '5G-ready' programs
- Resolving issues that could create barriers to 5G deployment
4G Americas has signed a memorandum of understanding with the 5GPPP, outlining the basis for cooperation and collaboration between the two organizations. The MoU specifically agrees to share information on basic system concepts for 5G frequencies to support the global regulatory process, and preparation of future global 5G standards by identification of common interest and consensus building.
The NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance has published a white paper detailing end-to-end operator requirements for 5G, intended to guide the development of future technology platforms and standards. A global team of more than 100 experts contributed to the white paper by developing the consolidated operator requirements. These are summarized predictably enough - "the capabilities of the network need to be expanded to support much greater throughput, lower latency and higher connection density. To cope with a wide range of use cases and business models, 5G has to provide a high degree of flexibility and scalability by design. In addition, it should show foundational shifts in cost and energy efficiency. On the end user side, a key requirement for 5G will be that a consistent customer experience is achieved across time and service footprint. NGMN envisages a 5G ecosystem that is truly global, free of fragmentation and open for innovations."
Ericsson announced its new '5G for Sweden' research program, involving companies such as Scania and Volvo, as well as several academic and research partners from across the country.
Ericsson said it wanted to develop and roll in ICT solutions into products and services built upon emerging 5G standards. An example of this is work it is doing with Scania, which will examine future transport solutions.
Nokia and Ericsson will collaborate with Korea Telecom on 5G and IoT following the signing of new memorandums of understanding. The first sets up an IoT and LTE-M lab to develop business models aimed at convergence and the automotive industry. This will be on KT premises and will involve all three Nokia business units (Networks, Here and Labs). The second builds on an existing 5G cooperation with Ericsson.
Nokia and NTT Docomo carried out a joint demonstration in Barcelona, of technologies they say will be part of the '5G' networks the pair plan to showcase at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. They achieved above 2Gbps in the 70GHz band.
China Mobile, NTT Docomo and KT announced that they would conduct a three-way 5G technical collaboration in an attempt to accelerate commercial deployments and drive standardization efforts. They will explore new services and vertical markets enabled by 5G, jointly identify 5G key technologies and prove the validity of system concepts. The operators will also work with global organizations such as ITU, 3GPP, GSMA, NGMN and GTI to facilitate global harmonized spectrum planning and a unified global 5G standard, the companies said in a joint statement.
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by Caroline Gabriel, Research Director
So Mobile World Congress (MWC) is over for another year, amid the usual record-breaking statistics (from 93,000 visitors, up 45% on the first Barcelona event in 2006; to 7.55Gbps wireless transmission speeds demonstrated by SK Telecom and Samsung).
There were plenty of eye-catching devices, with the Galaxy S6 Edge undoubtedly the star of the show in terms of headline power, though otherwise the mobile gadget space is fragmenting rapidly. The days of a line-up of remarkably similar large-screened smartphones are over - those handsets are there, at ever cheaper price points, but they jostle for attention with virtual reality headsets, connected clothing, smart coffee makers and whisky bottles, and of course the connected cars (Fiat 500 seemed to be the most popular model on display). Indeed, wearables and associated IoT (internet of things) apps virtually colonized MWC's second venue (its previous home in the Fira complex at Plaza Espanya).
Other headlines were sparked by the companies which, back in 2006, when the 3GSM show relocated from Cannes and changed its name, scarcely figured. Google's MVNO plans, Facebook's extension of its internet.org initiative, PayPal's endorsement of NFC with its acquisition of Paydiant - these were the talking points, drowning out the traditional keynote addresses by the major mobile operators.
Traditionally, the CEOs of the established cellcos have used their conference platforms to lay down their demands to the industry (remember then-CEO of Vodafone, Arun Sarin, warning the LTE sector in 2007 to speed up its efforts or face the WiMAX threat; or trading insults with his Nokia counterpart over 3G delays in 2004). These days, it is the new breed of service providers which are setting the pace - Google's Sundar Pichai may have announced a fairly cautious MVNO plan, but his speech had far wider implications, including the call for full WiFi/cellular convergence, still a divisive theme at an event dominated by the entrenched interests of 3GPP platforms.
Those interests are particularly threatened in the IoT, which was a huge theme of the show this year. As the news that Freescale and NXP are to merge neatly demonstrated, this is a dangerous world for the traditional wireless operators and vendors. It throws up significant opportunities to extend their businesses into new, high growth markets, bringing companies like Freescale and NXP - which had been squeezed badly in the smartphone segment - back to Barcelona with new connected device platforms. But the margins on those chips are low and the IoT is already sparking consolidation, as this semiconductor mega-merger illustrates, with the old-school suppliers and operators needing to huddle together for warmth in a business of scale.
Of course, the carrier's network - wireless RAN, core and transport, and increasingly virtualized versions of those - remains the heart of the serious conversations and trading at MWC. With that in mind, we selected our key themes of 2015:
The shape of the new cell site:
After several years when the ever-shrinking base station was the central theme in RAN discussions, this year saw most of the major equipment vendors announcing major refreshes of their macro layers. Massive MIMO (or at least, 8x8 arrays), carrier aggregation across three bands and including TDD, Coordinated Multipoint and Cloud-RAN - these were the important features of the new macro. This was not 5G, but technologies that will be deployable this year or in 2016 - indeed, it seems more than likely that, however '5G' turns out, it will be focused on the dense capacity layer, while the macro coverage umbrella will remain 4G for decades to come.
Small cells were out in force too, and in a widening variety of form factors. Traditional homogeneous mini-base stations are part of a very variegated approach to the capacity layer. They may form clusters with their own controller (local or virtualized) to support an enterprise or a rural deployment. For the former, the big news was that Cisco will resell the Spidercloud Enterprise-RAN solution, despite its own 2013 acquisition of small cell pioneer Ubiquisys. For the latter, the Small Cell Forum kicked off its latest Release Program, devoted to easing deployment issues in rural and remote scenarios, from villages to oil rigs to temporary situations such as disaster relief. Quortus, with its virtualized packet core, was one of the first to update its portfolio to target this important area, while Parallel Wireless was showing off its rural solution, implemented by EE in the UK.
The classic small cell is expanding its reach, seeking to provide greater value than basic coverage and capacity. Ip.access, another of the founders of this industry, has gone as far as to position its Presence Cell purely as the enabler of big data and e-commerce services - and not necessarily connected to the main network at all. Its approach has convinced Vodafone, which announced that it would deploy the retail-oriented platform.
Then there were small cells which did not follow the traditional architecture. Stripped-down antenna/radio units for Centralized-RAN; separate antennas optimized to work with urban small base stations, from companies like Kathrein and CommScope; a converged WiFi/cellular unit from Alcatel-Lucent; hosts of carrier WiFi access points and management platforms as well as lower-power DAS solutions. This is a segment where all options are open, and in which operators will pick and choose the solutions which suit their individual spectrum, business model and capacity requirements.
The virtualization of the RAN is a more distant prospect, for most operators, than the lower risk decision to run a packet core or even a CPE as software on off-the-shelf hardware. However, some pioneers were demonstrating their vRANs, notably Telefonica and China Mobile, and Intel was locked in combat with the ARM ecosystem over the market for high performance processors, optimized for C-RAN servers and accelerators, as the industry chases a general purpose chip with the horsepower to run high end network processes as well as customized silicon.
Not everything can be converted to software of course, though even the physical elements like antennas and radios will be increasingly software-defined and programmable. Pushing that trend to its extreme was Cambridge Consultants, which has developed the IP for the first all-digital radio transmitter, Pizzicato. Unlike conventional software defined radio, it has no analog components, which allows many radios to work together without interference. In the first trial, Cambridge Consultants created 14 simultaneous cellular base station signals at low power, and with the radios "squashed together in a way that analog doesn't tolerate". Such solutions can be programmed to generate manhy combinations of signals at any frequency in an adaptive way. The Pizzicato transmitter consists of an integrated circuit outputting a single stream of bits, and an antenna.
Of course 5G was a massive talking point, though outside the conference halls and the big vendors' glossy demonstrations, there was less hype than expected about the next generation of wireless, with most operators more focused on technology they could deploy in the next 1-2 years, and eager to wait for key decisions at the World Radio Conference in November, and at the 3GPP and other standards bodies, before getting too excited about 5G. Many alliances were formed and roadmaps laid down, but the most tangible aspect of the discussion was the use of millimeter wave spectrum, in which there were many demonstrations for access and backhaul. The high frequency bands are almost certain to play a key role in next generation wireless, and like many supposed elements of 5G, they will start to have a real impact far earlier, as seen in technologies like 60GHz WiGig and some small cell backhaul solutions, notably InterDigital's Peraso baseband system-on-chip for this market.
There was considerable excitement about LTE-LAA (Licensed Assisted Access), which uses 5GHz spectrum for supplemental downlink to a licensed-band 4G network. Although it will not be standardized until next year, supporters like T-Mobile and Qualcomm showed off their plans, along with a companion technology which aggregates a 5GHz WiFi carrier to LTE. Cellular players were trying to dampen down talk of colonizing licence-exempt spectrum, and stressing that LTE and WiFi could coexist peacefully, both in technical terms and in carriers' business models. However, while LAA is clearly a small cell play, given the high frequencies and low power limits involved, some were arguing that the industry would do better to focus on getting 3.5GHz standardized as a specific small cell band, avoiding WiFi showdowns and the quality challenges of unlicensed spectrum.
As noted above, the IoT was an important theme, but given the nature of the event, there was a particular focus on LTE solutions to support IoT applications, and the question of whether these will prove viable as alternatives to WiFi or specialized long range networks such as Sigfox or LoRa. Huawei was demonstrating its contributions to future LTE-M standards, while the LTE-only baseband specialists, such as Sequans and Altair, have a major opportunity to push 4G-only solutions into a mass market. While the 3GPP works on LTE Category 0 as the underpinning of LTE-M, for now the vendors have resurrected Cat-1, whose low data rates made it a Cinderella specification in the broadband world, but whose ultra-low power consumption now makes it a candidate for the cellular IoT. Sequans, Ericsson and Verizon announced that they had run tests on a commercial LTE network, delivering 10Mbps data rates at very low cost and power, and with peaceful coexistence with higher-powered LTE devices.
The new operators:
Facebook and Google both tried to paint pictures in which they had ongoing close alliances with cellular operators, but they managed to visualize a world in which the MNO's role was severely constrained. They are driving new approaches to the network - full WiFi/cellular convergence; harnessing of LTE-Broadcast for social media as well as content; dynamic spectrum allocation on-demand to hundreds of providers; low cost delivery to the 'next billion' world inhabitants. All of these examples see the web giants becoming less over-the-top and actually shaping the network of the future, with the cellcos just providing part of the plumbing, however important that part. The vision will be supported by virtualization and the ability for cloud platforms to support a new generation of network as a service concepts, spanning WiFi, LTE and other connections, and eventually assigning capacity dynamically to large numbers of MVNOs. That is the end game for platforms like XCellAir, which has been spun out of InterDigital. Such services could be run by traditional operators, as AT&T's Domain 2.0 roadmap clearly envisages, but they could equally be controlled by web or IT majors.
The new operating systems:
It isn't all going Google's way though. Android dominated a show in which Apple plays not part (except in everyone's conversations), but the search giant is struggling to control and unify the user experience as large device and service providers create their own user interfaces and developer platforms. Amazon AppStore broke the 400,000 apps mark, for instance, boasting of "huge progress" with its alternative to Google Play. And as smartphones morph into many new types of connected device, many of them driven from the cloud, there may be the chance for different operating systems to break the Android/iOS duopoly. There was considerable interest in the mobile implementations of Windows 10 from Microsoft, while start-up options like Jolla's Sailfish and Mozilla's Firefox Mobile were looking, for the first time, like credible platforms with operator support, not just bright open source ideas.