by Peter White
The love-in that is the annual Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona has focused squarely on the mass hysteria surrounding the creation of an all-encompassing 5G network which will solve the ills of all cellular participants. How likely is that?
We have already covered the technology directions of a variety of vendors as they prepared for the show - all puling in slightly different directions and yesterday it was the turn of the European Commission, which fronted an inaugural 5G vision in a paper which "explained" 5G and talked about the 5G Public Private Partnership (5GPPP) and how it would solve every radio problem known to man - all within 5 years.
The whiff of hysteria that the industry is in was clearly evident by the breadth and ambition of the paper - but stating the problems is fairly easy - creating the technologies which will provide the solutions - and especially if this happens over the next five years - will be miraculous.
There is the increasing sensation that cellular is pulling together to bail the sinking cellular boat in a similar way to how it responded to the threat of WIMAX when it created LTE over a decade ago. Suddenly all of the rival players are beginning the process of defining what needs to be done, to fend off falling voice revenues, rising data volumes and the dual threats of absorbing WiFi into the fold and acknowledging the possibilities of the Internet of Things.
But how helpful are reciting mantras such as data volumes of 10 terabytes per square kilometer; or 1 million terminals per square kilometer, or reduction to one tenth of the energy consumption or to one fifth of the current latency, or cutting network management to 20% of today's costs, or offering data rates of 50 Mbps to every user, and providing location services to within a meter?
As we say, that is only stating the problem, but Günther Oettinger, European Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Society stood alongside CTOs from Alcatel-Lucent, DoCoMo, Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia, Orange, Samsung and Thales Alenia Space and told us what he hoped the future might bring.
This amounts to the largest R&D program ever mounted, but this is not to win a war or get a man on the moon. This is to save the momentum of one of the richest industries in the world, which is beset with nothing more prosaic than problems of cost and the hunger of an expectant public.
Here are the list of 5G ingredients if you take the 5GPPP vision; it will be a heterogeneous network (using multiple spectrum and radio technologies); it will in fact support three different kinds of traffic profiles, high throughput for video services, low energy for long-lived IoT sensors and low latency for mission critical enterprise services. Small cells will drift slowly towards Ultra Dense Networks.
And all of this will be on a single network, not some on WiFi, some on cellular and some on specialist IoT networks - no! Because if the cellular community doesn't own ALL of it there won't be enough money to go around. Public safety will be part and parcel of 5G too.
It will integrate networking, computing and storage into one programmable and unified infrastructure and leverage from the characteristic of current cloud computing, and create the opportunity for virtual pan European operators. There will be variants for vertical markets such as automotive, energy, food and agriculture, city management, government, healthcare, manufacturing and public transportation.
5G will support many more devices simultaneously and improve terminal battery life and help European citizens manage their personal data, tune their exposure over the Internet and protect their privacy.
The new air interface will use enhanced spectral efficiency, which we presume will come from someone getting past the Shannon limit.
Somehow in there the 5GPPP threw in the idea that satellites would be involved, but perhaps this is just a sop thrown to Alcatel and Thales, given that European mobile satellite services were still-born and will do nothing for latency.
The new 5G will use simultaneous radio technologies to increase reliability and availability and it will rely on better interference mitigation, backhauling and installation techniques.
We could go on, but the paper is quite clearly all things to all people, it places cellular at the heart of all IT services, and absorbs fiber as if cellular operators all owned all the fiber in the world. Well if they keep buying fixed line operators they soon will. It naturally has a high dosage of Software Defined Networking, Network Functions Virtualization, Mobile Edge Computing and Fog Computing (Cloud to the edge), and uses Data Analytics and Big Data to monitor QoS through new metrics.
For the past five years we have talked to people chasing that simple problem of how to be sure that cellular customers are getting the experience that we imagine we are sending to them OTT - simple QoS and no-one has been able to agree on a simple process for it. Solving that alone in five years would be an accomplishment, never mind the rest.
One interesting hard fact pushed was the involvement of 6 GHz into the mix. Certainly this high volume, low penetrating spectrum, which could make lots of bandwidth for heavy data lifting is a distinct possibility, in the same way that WiFi has flirted with 60 GHz for same room communication in what is a layered approach - so cellular could talk long distance in 700 MHz, shorter distance in 3G and 4G spectrum, and shorter distances in high volume in both 5 GHz and 6 GHz, in a multi-layered network. There is at least a basis in that statement for 5G planning and lobbying for spectrum clearance.
The start of commercial deployment of 5G systems is expected by 2020 it says, though we think this is unlikely, but the exploratory phase to understand detailed requirements is already under way said the 5GPPP.
Not one word was said throughout this indulgent fantasy, about data and services costs, and until the cellular community at large comes up with a pricing formula which consumers are willing to continue paying beyond 2020, they will find that whatever they bring to market may stumble on what is in consumer pockets.
Meanwhile just to give even greater clout to the Chinese voice over what 5G may look like, Indian operator Bharti Airtel this week signed a partnership deal with China Mobile. Initially they will work towards growth of the LTE ecosystem and go in for joint procurement of devices such as Mifi, smart phones, data cards, LTE CPEs and USIM. Later they will collaborate on promoting their own robust ecosystem to accelerate the commercialization of TD-LTE across 4.5G and 5G technologies.