A 5G primer - separating Mobile World Congress hype from reality

Profile picture for user kmarko By Kurt Marko February 22, 2017
Mobile World Congress is just around the corner but beware the hype over the much talked about 5G. There's a lot of smoke and mirrors.

With the Mobile World Congress (MWC) poised to takeover Barcelona and a week of the technology news cycle, we're guaranteed a hefty dose of humdrum phone announcements, VR-fueled hyperventilation and IoT-washing for any device sporting a wireless network interface.

Like each of tech's mega events, MWC is a mix of consumer gadgetry, infrastructure plumbing and digital transformation strategizing, but for business leaders, one important theme to watch will be the ample news around 5G networks.

Unfortunately, like any huge, generational change, 5G is subject to so much hype that it creates more confusion than enlightenment.  We've already been subjected to a preview as both Intel and Qualcomm have announced so-called 5G modems that promise to deliver gigabit-plus download speeds with backward compatibility to existing GSM, CDMA and LTE networks.

While these chips are impressive technical achievements, don't expect to see them in your phone anytime soon — neither will reach production quantities until late this year or early 2018 — and don't confuse them with actual 5G, which is a broad and ambitious network architecture that's years away from widescale deployment.

5G is set of specifications directing product developments, technology demonstrations and trial installations that cover all aspects of a mobile network platform including system architecture, service requirements, radio standards, security, system operations and maintenance. The work is chartered and managed by the 3GPP, a consortium of seven telecommunications standards-development organizations, that gave us LTE and earlier 3G mobile standards.

As stated by its new logo guidelines, 5G specifically refers to the next two versions of 3GPP specifications, Release 15 to be completed next year and Release 16 in 2020. Much of the technology is meant to be backward compatible with LTE, which will create confusion from MWC hype for products bridging the 4G-to-5G gap.

Although the Intel modem is designed to the Release 13 LTE Advanced-Pro (aka 4.5G) radio spec, not true 5G, the standards are being developed with the expectation that as with prior mobile transitions, carriers will gradually migrate to a new 5G-NR radio spec and that it will coexist with legacy LTE and LTE Advanced for many years.

5G performance mobile world congress
5G performance improvement vectors

It is easy to conflate 5G with being solely about more phone bandwidth since mobile network standards have traditionally focused on increasing data throughput and, with VoLTE, converging voice and data onto a single digital pipe. However, enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) that delivers more throughput, higher densities and better coverage is only one of four performance vectors that 5G seeks to improve, the others being:

  • Massive Internet of Things capable of handling billions of connected sensors, machines and wearables in much higher densities than are currently possible while minimizing device power requirements.
  • Critical Machine (IoT) Communications to improve mobile network latency, reliability, and availability via an improved radio interface, optimized network architecture and dedicated resources both in the network core and device.
  • Improved Network Operation to handle network slicing and reconfiguration, connecting and routing disparate endpoints and improve internetworking between carriers. Indeed, network slicing is a critical concept that this EU 5G PPP white paper defines as "the ability to create various logical architectures on top of a single physical architecture." By exploiting SDN and virtual network functions, slicing allows service providers to use a common physical infrastructure for different customers or use cases, avoiding the deployment of parallel physical networks.

Meeting eMBB requirements is more about improving performance in vehicles, including high-speed trains and planes or between cars (so-called V2V), than it is about raw throughput. As the Intel and Qualcomm modem announcements make clear, interim 4.5G products will be capable of gigabit performance in many situations, making it a legitimate fiber replacement well before 5G is deployed.

Although LTE enhancements such as these do contribute to the 5G technology portfolio, as this article at the 3GPP site points out,

The transition to 5G also opens up the possibility of introducing an entirely new air interface; also referred to as New Radio (NR), and creating network architecture and designs that are not necessarily backward compatible with LTE.

Nevertheless, 5G includes some important and incompatible new technologies. According to a 3GPP white paper on the technology evolution to 5G,

One of the requirements for 5G is to be able to optimally support a wider range of frequency bands in 5G, and in particular mmWave bands. Given that radio accesses like LTE and HSPA were not designed to be optimized for mmWave frequency bands, 3GPP has agreed that Rel-14/15 will introduce a New Radio (NR) access technology for 5G that will be flexible enough to support not only frequency bands < 6 Ghz but also mmWave bands up to 100 GHz.

For those unfamiliar with RF engineering jargon, millimeter wave refers to the wavelength of the carrier frequency. Unfortunately, electrical engineers have a confusing habit of switching between the wavelength and frequency. Light (and radio waves) travel roughly 300 million meters in a second, meaning a 300 GHz frequency has a wavelength of about a millimeter (trust me on the math).

As we've seen with 5 GHz Wi-Fi, higher frequencies mean higher data bandwidth, but also poorer coverage and susceptibility to physical interference like walls or heavy precipitation. The first step in LTE radio evolution will be the use of sub-6 GHz frequencies, as supported by both the new Intel and Qualcomm modems.

More importantly, Intel also supports a 28 GHz band for 5G trials in the U.S., Japan and Korea. "Trials" is the operative word, since as we've seen with previous evolutions of 3G-to-LTE or Wi-Fi, anytime you start changing the radio specifications, it's a lengthy process of both technology development and government regulation.

My take

Mobile World Congress observers should avoid the temptation to get caught up in the 5G hype and focus on the longer-term picture by watching announcements from the network equipment vendors like Cisco, Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, ZTE and carriers like AT&T, China Mobile, NTT DoCoMo, SK Telecom and Verizon.

Although the news will highlight speeds and feeds, focus on the architectural details to see how companies across the 5G ecosystem are working together to develop new, more distributed 5G system architectures that move more network intelligence, control and content distribution using smart carrier base stations and so-called edge clouds.

A significant part of Intel's mobile strategy is adapting its processor and switch hardware to 5G edge network scenarios. Lost in the company's modem announcement were two new processor products, an Atom C3000 and Xeon D-1500, designed for network edge devices, base stations and IoT gateways.

Don't expect to see gigabit speeds on your phone anytime soon. The first LTE advanced implementations using modems like those just announced by Intel and Qualcomm will be fixed wireless base stations serving as fiber replacements. Indeed, Verizon was first to announce 5G trials working with Ericsson to deliver 10 Gbps speeds to fixed wireless installations.

5G is the foundation for pervasive wireless business processes that employ intelligent sensors, wearables, vehicles and other devices. While VR phone headsets may generate the most buzz at Mobile World Congress, organizations that look for ways to exploit the infrastructure have the most to gain.