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CHAPTER V - Moving Toward 5G

Much of the technical work involved with development of standards for cellular network technology in the United States is conducted through the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) that brings together national standards-development organizations from the United States, Japan, China, India, Korea and Europe (the U.S. is represented by ATIS, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, which, in turn, is made up of 150 private companies, industry groups and government agencies). 3GPP’s most important output has been a series of “releases” which contain the detailed specifications for each generation of wireless technology. For example, Release 8 in 2007 provided the basis for the LTE standard, while subsequent releases (9-11) have described enhancements and extensions to LTE.

3GPP is still primarily focused on further evolving LTE by incorporating new technologies such as channel aggregation, MIMO and dense heterogeneous networks. But even as the current standard continues to evolve (perhaps to a 4.5G standard), increasing attention is being given to the effort to develop the next-generation 5G standard. 3GPP kicked off this process in 2013 with a Future Mobile Summit that concluded that among the high priority requirements for 5G are enabling “massive machine communications” and supporting “ultra-reliable/low-latency communications” as well as “enhanced mobile broadband.” The conference ended with a call for a network that can provide “perceived infinite capacity.”

Getting a Head Start on 5G Development

Even before a 5G standard is completed, many companies and organizations are actively developing and testing 5G technologies and have even made commitments to early deployments. As one observer noted, “Everyone is rushing to demonstrate they are a leading player for 5G.”

In the U.S., both Verizon and AT&T are testing advanced high-speed wireless technologies that will lay the groundwork for 5G, and Verizon announced that it will begin limited commercial deployments in 2017. In early 2016, Facebook announced that it was launching the Telecom Infra Project, an “engineering focused” effort to support open source development of 5G technologies by a consortium of companies that includes Intel, Nokia, Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom.

In Japan, NTT DoCoMo conducted a demonstration that used beam forming and millimeter wavelength bands to achieve transmission speeds in excess of 2 Gbps. In the UK, University of Surrey opened a 5G Innovation Centre in 2015 that includes industry partners such as Huawei, O2, Vodafone, Samsung and Fujitsu. In China, the Academy of Telecommunication Research announced that it is undertaking a three-year program of 5G experimentation beginning in 2016, and plans to conduct field trials in 2018.

Beyond R&D projects, high profile 5G demonstrations are being planned by telecom providers to take place at major international sporting events, including the 2018 World Cup in Russia, the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea and the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, Japan.

There are a number of basic questions related to a future 5G standard that remain unanswered. These include:

  • Will 5G be revolutionary or evolutionary?
  • Can a single standard effectively address the breadth of technical requirements?
  • What will be the architecture for integrating low-, mid- and high-band spectrum?
  • What new protocols, interfaces, channel models, security enforcement mechanisms, etc., will be required?
  • Is a single 5G international standard feasible?

In reference to the last question, Mary Brown, Senior Director, Technology and Spectrum Policy of Cisco suggested that, given its size and global ambitions, “China will always do its own thing” when it comes to setting standards. Even though equipment vendors very much want a single international standard, China is likely to insist on having its own “flavor” of 5G for its domestic market. The U.S. has been working to achieve at least regional harmonization, particularly in the area of spectrum allocation and favors the creation of a relatively flexible framework that will allow different parties to make different choices within it.

One challenge to achieving global harmonization is that different countries “want so many different bands” that it will be difficult to accommodate all of them in a single schema. Hopefully, technical studies will provide a basis for guiding future choices. But there was considerable pressure for different countries and different interests to stake out positions at the ITU’s 2015 World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC15) that took place in November 2015, in anticipation of the next iteration of the Conference in 2019 that will play an important role in shaping the 5G standard.

Another challenge to development of a unitary standard is that the wide range of use cases that have emerged for wireless communications may require a variety of technical solutions that will be difficult to encompass in a single standard. For example, Jeffrey Carlisle, Executive Vice President for Regulatory Affairs at LightSquared, questioned whether extremely high frequency mmW spectrum will be able to provide the density and ubiquity of access needed for applications such as autonomous vehicles, drones or the Internet of Things. Dennis Roberson responded by stating that while mmW technology is “new and shiny”—and will certainly be an important component of 5G—there will still be a need for lower frequency “beachfront spectrum,” and 3G- and 4G-based networks will still be widely used for many years after introduction of 5G networks.

Dale Hatfield, Senior Fellow at the Silicon Flatirons Center at the University of Colorado, pointed out that there is inevitably a conflict between squeezing out the maximum capacity from a given bit of spectrum and providing for flexibility of use. Deciding on how usage of various parts of the spectrum will be regulated will require making decisions about that tradeoff, and may entail regulators abandoning strict neutrality. Peter Pitsch, Executive Director for Communications Policy at Intel, added that making such decisions is difficult as long as the ultimate uses for spectrum remain unclear. A regulatory agency like the FCC can encourage companies to invest in 5G technologies by developing a framework that gives them flexibility to balance business and technical tradeoffs as they become more apparent in the future, while eliminating regulatory uncertainty in the present.

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