By Nicolas Ott, managing director telecoms and M2M, Arqiva
Recent media coverage on the race to roll out a fifth generation mobile network has all the hallmarks of a Hollywood blockbuster action movie. The basic plot follows the heavyweights of the mobile world embarking on a heroic mission to bring 5G to the hands of every smartphone user, all of whom face a daily struggle for survival on data speeds of under 100Mbps.
It is a plot that isn’t short of potential starring roles. Smartphone manufacturers such as Samsung and Huawei have already made their pitch, committing to launching trial versions of 5G by the 2018 Winter Olympic Games and 2018 World Cup respectively.
Meanwhile, Britain has also stepped up with the launch of Europe’s largest academic research centre for 5G innovation at the University of Surrey, which will employ more than 170 researchers and use over £80 million in funding.
Set against this backdrop, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has declared that we will be basking in the glory of 5G networks, and ‘mind-blowing’ data speeds within five years.
It is a truly compelling story that reels in the audience and leaves them wanting more; but how close to real life is it?
An ongoing battle
We face a number of challenges in the ongoing battle to roll out 5G, not least that the promise of 4G hasn’t yet been fully realised.
Mobile infrastructure providers are continuing to work tirelessly to support the provision of a core footprint for 4G in the UK, but despite the technology undergoing a huge transformation since the days of 3G, we haven’t even come close to utilising its potential. For example, many smartphone users may be unaware that they aren’t using 4G at all but are actually still using 3G, as there is no voice connection commercially available in the UK on 4G yet.
Operators are now investigating LTE-Advanced, which can offer potential data rates of 300Mbps. While this is a step in the right direction however, it is still a long way off the dizzying heights of 5G.
Current uptake of 4G isn’t the only issue. There will need to be significant changes in terms of energy efficiency and the way we manage electricity to run these vastly powerful networks.
Feeding the monster
One of the key aims of 5G is to deliver power efficiency of over 90% against today’s 4G networks. This will require increased electrical efficiency in the radio heads used to transmit and receive LTE signals, and the servers that power IP networks continuing to reduce the amount of power they consume, all while maintaining the same physical footprint and increasing processing power.
In addition, there are still no agreed standards or specifications in place. According to the ETSI mobile future workshop, the following timeframes for 5G roll out were regarded as feasible: research, development and innovation to be carried out up to 2020; scoping 5G up to 2020; operational deployment after 2020; optimised 5G for technology expected to be available and cost effective around 2025.
Until this time, Wi-Fi technology is advancing rapidly and can already deliver multiple Gbps (theoretically up to 8Gbps with the availability of 802.11ac). So where ultra-high bandwidths are required, there will be a technology available much earlier than we can expect 5G.
In fact, our research has found that the move to 4G has not reduced demand for public Wi-Fi infrastructure, with 4G subscribers only marginally less likely to use public Wi-Fi networks than others (75% versus 76%). We can also see the LTE-U progressing to allow ‘LTE-over-Wi-Fi’ networks.
Joining Wi-Fi and LTE networks together is an area of rapid development. LTE-U is already ratified and the European version LTE-Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) will be added to the 3GPP Release 13, in early 2016. This will allow a mobile network to create a joint Wi-Fi and LTE solution that behaves as a single LTE network.
Not satisfied with this, a number of providers are exploring technologies that will make the join simpler with the ‘heterogeneous network’ (Het-Net). Most notably, Alcatel-Lucent’s LTE-H demonstrator and Qualcomm’s MuLTEfire are both slated for commercial deployment later this year.
Moving to the sequel too soon?
The thirst for 5G to be rolled out is putting pressure on infrastructure providers, mobile network operators and integrators to work faster and harder.
The digital revolution has created an impatient world. As soon as we make a step forward in technology, we are automatically demanding the next leap in that particular area.
Heavyweights of the mobile world are invested in constantly developing the quality of 4G for the current market. By moving on to 5G so soon, are we halting the development of the technologies our consumers are using in the present?
The 2018 targets only serve to increase the pressure on network operators and infrastructure providers, before the technology is fully ready.
Wi-Fi and LTE are very much the present and I would suggest we need to stay calm and carry on rolling out W-iFi and 4G to fully leverage their potential before we start to chase the bright lights of 5G, no matter how sparkly they may be.
Arqiva is a communications infrastructure and media services company, that among other firsts, provided the transmission capability for the UK Government’s first budget broadcast in 1928.