Preparing for a 5G World
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From 1G to 5G
Barack Obama, Unleashing the Wireless Broadband Revolution
National Broadband Plan
The explosive growth of wireless communications is an indicator of its importance. According to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index (VNI), which tracks the growth of digital communications, “Mobile data traffic has grown 4,000-fold over the past ten years, and almost 400-million fold over the past 15 years.” In just the past year, wireless data traffic grew 74 percent, from 2.1 exabyte per month at the end of 2014 to 3.7 exabyte per month at the end of 2015.
In fact, the growth of wireless communications in the U.S., and globally, over the past three decades has been remarkable. In 1985, just 0.1 percent of Americans owned a mobile phone. Ten years later, penetration of cell phone had grown to 11 percent, and by 2005, two-thirds of all Americans had a mobile phone. In 2015, penetration reached 111 percent, meaning that there were more cell phone subscriptions than people in the United States. Perhaps even more amazing, in 2014, mobile phone subscriptions globally surpassed the total number of people on earth. At the same time, the uses of mobile telephony have expanded from simple voice communications to voice plus data (initially, just text messaging) to wireless broadband increasingly dominated by video content, not to mention an ever-expanding universe of specialized apps.
From 1G to 5G
To support the growth of wireless traffic and the demand for higher and higher performance networks, providers have migrated through successive generations of cellular technology, each of which has delivered a substantial increase in capacity and performance. Beginning with so-called 1G service first introduced in Japan in 1979 (and in the U.S. in 1983), a new generation of wireless technology has been introduced roughly once every decade, with the most recent generation, or 4G, introduced around 2010. And today, even as 4G networks continue to be rolled out globally—having reached approximately 635 million users by the beginning of 2015 and projected to reach one billion by the end of this year—attention has begun to focus on the next generation of wireless, or 5G.
But what is 5G? Unlike the previous generations of wireless standards, 5G is likely to consist of a set of different technologies, which will be introduced over time to supplement rather than wholly replace earlier generations of wireless technology to support a variety of emerging use cases.
Defining the standard (or the components of the standard) is a multi-year, multi-national process that is not scheduled to be completed until the year 2020 (see sidebar, “Development of a 5G Standard: ITU and 3GPP”). Discussions are already underway in a number of forums about what technical capabilities 5G will need to support, which, in turn, are driven by ideas about how current uses of mobile wireless will evolve and what new uses are likely to emerge.
Development of a 5G Standard: ITU and 3GPP
Two international organizations—the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project)—are actively involved, among others, with defining the standard for 5G networks.
The ITU is the United Nations agency responsible for information and communication technologies. It allocates radio spectrum and satellite orbits and develops global technical standards. The ITU’s Working Party 5D (WP5D), which is part of the ITU’s Radiocommunication sector (ITU-R), is responsible for standard for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT).
In early 2012, the ITU embarked on a program to develop “IMT for 2020 and beyond,” setting the state for 5G research efforts now emerging around the world. The ITU is committed to completing work on the 5G standard, IMT-2020, by 2020.
In 2016-2017, WP5D will define in detail the performance requirements, evaluation criteria and methodology for the assessment of new IMT radio interface. It is anticipated that the timeframe for proposals will be determined in 2018.
In 2018-2020 the evaluation by independent external evaluation groups and definition of the new radio interfaces to be included in IMT-2020 will take place. WP5D also plans to hold a workshop in late 2017 that will allow for an explanation and discussion of performance requirements and evaluation criteria and methodology for candidate technologies for IMT-2020 that have been developed by WP5D, as well as to provide an opportunity for presentations by potential proponents for IMT-2020 in an informal setting.
The whole process is planned to be completed in 2020 when a draft new ITU-R Recommendation with detailed specifications for the new radio interfaces will be submitted for approval within ITU-R.
The 3GPP is an industry-based, multi-national technical organization whose members are national telecommunications organizations from the U.S., Europe, China, Japan, Korea and India that encompass approximately 500 companies and government agencies. 3GPP is a “sector member” of the ITU-R and is an active participant in WP5D’s standards development process, including IMT-2020.
3GPP is committed to submitting a candidate technology to the IMT-2020 process. Specifically, it will meet the following ITU-R deadlines:
3GPP will submit its final specifications at the WP5D meeting in February 2020, based on functionally frozen specs available in December 2019. This early submission will allow time for the transposition of specifications by members of 3GPP prior to their own submissions to the IMT-2020 process before October 2020.
Although much remains to be defined, the broad contours of a 5G standard are becoming increasingly visible.
According to early indications, 5G will not represent a smooth, evolutionary improvement over the current standard, but will involve significant discontinuities from the earlier generations of wireless technology. And rather than being a single cohesive standard, it will likely consist of an array of different types of technologies that will support different use cases. This shift will likely confront policymakers both domestically and internationally with a number of novel legal and regulatory issues that will have to be resolved if the technology is to realize its full potential.
Even though full-fledged 5G standard remains several years off, it will begin to take shape over the next few years both through the initial work of the major international standards-setting bodies and in field trials and demonstrations conducted in many countries. Therefore, it seemed particularly timely for the Aspen Institute Roundtable on Spectrum Policy (AIRS) to explore the challenges of “Preparing for a 5G World” at its 2015 meeting.
The AIRS meeting began by taking a close look at the range of needs that 5G is intended to address, then attempting to understand what the technological options are for meeting those needs (essentially, the pieces out of which the new standard will be constructed). With this information as background, the AIRS participants focused on defining the key policy issues raised by the move to 5G and then attempted to recommend actions to address these issues.
As is often the case with emerging technologies, the question of timing kept coming up in the AIRS discussions. On the one hand, anticipating potential issues and creating a clear policy framework can provide developers with confidence about what the rules of the road will be. On the other hand, rules that are overly restrictive or are set prematurely can be counterproductive, inhibiting or distorting the optimal evolution of technology. The AIRS participants, who represented a wide range of perspectives and interests, attempted to steer a middle course between these two extremes in order to agree on a set of recommendations that would promote development of a successful 5G standard.
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