As telecommunications operations prepare their networks for 5G, John Delaney, associate vice-president: mobility at IDC unpacks what 5G actually is

Although there is no technical specification for 5G networks yet, when it comes to using 5G as a marketing tool the mobile network equipment providers (NEPs) are definitely cranking up the volume.

So what is 5G? There is no formal specification for 5G mobile networks yet. But it can be plausibly argued that we do not need to wait for the whole specification process to be complete before we can know what 5G is.

Formal ratification of the standard is the end-point of a lengthy process, during the course of which it becomes increasingly clear what the specification will contain. Thus, before we have a full definition of 5G, touchstones will emerge which will enable us to assess the merits of a claim to be “5G ready”, or even “5G”.

3GPP is the body that defines standards for public cellular networks in licensed spectrum (despite the scope for confusion arising from its increasingly anachronistic name). 3GPP’s work on specifying 5G was kicked off at its conference entitled RAN Workshop on 5G, in September 2015. The conference set out a timeline for the 5G specification process, comprising two phases:

  • Phase 1 to be completed around June 2018, with the “freezing” of 3GPP Release 15. This will essentially result in a working definition of 5G
  • Phase 2 to be completed at the end of 2019, with the “freezing” of 3GPP Release 16. This will be a complete 5G specification, coinciding with two other key events: firstly, completion of IMT-2020, the International Telecom Union (ITU)’s framework for development of mobile networks in the 2020s and 2030s; and secondly, the allocation of new spectrum for mobile at the next session of the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC)
  • The 3GPP’s RAN Workshop reached agreement on three broad use cases that 5G should address:
  • Enhanced mobile broadband
  • Massive machine-type communications
  • Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications”Massive” communications, for example, indicates the need to use higher-frequency spectrum, which in turn points to advanced MIMO, advanced beam forming and beam tracking. Another example is “low-latency” communications, which points to the need for a more decentralized network architecture, a design goal of ETSI’s mobile edge computing (MEC) initiative. These use case-related technologies can therefore be seen as touchstones for 5G relevance. We don’t know exactly what 5G is yet. But we’ve reached the point where we know enough about 5G to see what it will not be, and to get growing clarity about what it is likely to be. On that basis, we believe we’re now entering the period in which vendors’ claims to have 5G products need to be considered on their merits.
  • Another touchstone for 5G is “new radio” (NR). The 3GPP’s RAN Workshop noted an “emerging consensus” that 5G will include a new technology for the RAN that is not compatible with the RAN technologies used in previous generations. It is too soon to know what technology will be adopted to fulfill the NR requirement, but on the basis of this statement we can at least say that if a RAN uses the technologies of previous mobile generations, then it is probably not a 5G RAN.
  • Although these use cases do not mandate any technologies, they do indicate certain groups of technology that are prime candidates to fulfil the use cases.