Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: The Future of IT: A Strategic Guide

The impending crunch in the race to 5G

2020 is shaping up to be crunch time for the next generation of wireless telecommunications technology, and although most industry players are still vague on the specifics of what it will look like, the 5G era is set to see plenty of bandwidth sharing and carrier aggregation, and lots of cheap, fast devices.

It's not here yet, and although we may not have it within the next five years, we will probably have it not long after. There is a good chance that by 2020 — or thereabouts — we will start seeing the global rollout of the telecommunication industry's next big wireless leap: 5G.

future-it-5g-thumb

One of the big issues that needs to be settled prior to the development and commercialisation of the so-called fifth-generation wireless mobile telecommunications technology will be how to squeeze a lot more data through an essentially finite bandwidth spectrum — or, rather, how to standardise such a move.

While it is generally agreed that the specifics of what 5G will look like are still rather vague, there are some markers in the ongoing progress being made on the long-term evolution (LTE) technology behind 4G and 4G Plus that can give us an idea of what to expect.

As has been the case since the commercial introduction of wireless telecommunications technology, infrastructure and the devices used with it are still being developed in a sort of staggered parallel — with the infrastructure side of things often working to be at least half a step ahead, and device manufacturers competing to be the first to market with products able to draw the maximum functionality from that infrastructure.

Without a sufficiently advanced network, new smartphones coming onto the market would not be able to work. However, there have been some surprising leaps from device manufacturers — notably, Apple's first-generation iPhone, launched in 2007.

With the exception of such surprises from device manufacturers, the post-LTE evolution of mobile products — specifically smartphones — is likely to be guided by developments spearheaded by telecommunications infrastructure providers, according to Vodafone Hutchison Australia's chief technology officer Benoit Hanssen.

Although stressing that the industry could always be thrown another surprise device, like the iPhone, Hanssen said that the development of mobile devices over the next five years will be largely dictated by the capabilities of the infrastructure required for them to work.

"Different components of the ecosystem don't move at the same time. A phone is of little use if you don't have a network. The network is of little use if it doesn't match the phone," he said. "It is often the case that the networks are slightly ahead, because a phone is of little use without the network."

From Hanssen's perspective, and based on Vodafone Australia's infrastructure developments, the mobile telecommunications market can expect to see much more carrier aggregation functionality introduced to devices and infrastructure alike.

The need for aggregated speed

Carrier aggregation capability, also known as LTE-Advanced or 4G Plus, allows mobile devices to use multiple radio wavelength bands simultaneously for increased data speeds. It is being steadily rolled out by telcos around the world in a bid to maximise their existing bandwidth licences to meet the market's rapacious demand for data.

"It's actually quite hard to anticipate what's next," Hanssen told ZDNet. "But one thing that is really clear is that smartphones continue to drive, and the internet in general continues to drive, is that more and more of the network gets consumed due to data."

Because carrier aggregation requires multiple bandwidth capability, providers are moving to add spectrum bands to their networks. In July, Australia's two largest telcos, Telstra and Optus, announced that a number of 4G 700 megahertz (MHz) sites in their networks would be turned on, with a general launch of the networks set for January 2015.

In the Australian market, however, 700MHz device functionality is restricted to only a handful of handsets, including the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus. 

According to Optus, however, the Samsung Note 4, Note Edge, HTC One M8, Sony Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact, Alcatel Pop S3, the Nokia 830, and the Samsung Galaxy S5 have all been tested by the telco and approved for the 700MHz range.

The launch of the iPhone 6 and 6 Plus saw the arrival of the first commercial handset in the market to claim a network connectivity capacity of up to 20 LTE bands, one of which is the 700MHz range.

Meanwhile, Vodafone Australia is ramping up its low-band 850MHz coverage from 3G to 4G connectivity, providing users with a broader spectrum with which to tap into high-speed carrier aggregation technology.

There are far more handsets on the market with the capability to incorporate the 850MHz range than those with the potential for the 700MHz band, according to Hanssen.

"We've launched in South Australia, and we'll do Victoria in the next few weeks, followed by NSW, and by the end we'll have the capital cities also activated on the low band," said Hanssen.

What this move means for smartphone users is more contiguous high-speed data connectivity in metropolitan areas, with the lower bands providing better penetration into office buildings than the higher bands can offer.

With networks such as Vodafone Australia ramping up 4G carrier aggregation infrastructure, Hanssen expects to see many more handsets emerge over the next year or two with substantially increased bandwidth capacity.

"What we're expecting is that the next generation of iPhone, the next generation of Galaxy, will start to have these carrier aggregation abilities," he said. "We've tested for the bands we use today, the 1800[MHz] and the 850[MHz], we've tested our carrier aggregation, and we're ready from a network perspective."

While Hanssen suggested that the market could see phones with greater capacity for carrier aggregation flood into the market as early as Christmas this year, it is not yet widely known outside of handset manufacturers' development departments what exactly will be released — or when — over the next year or two.

As for the rapidly growing smart devices and wearables market, they are likely to continue piggybacking off larger mobile devices or routers, according to Hanssen, given the expense involved in incorporating licensed stand-alone wireless network chipsets into the smaller devices.

Because the mobile device industry is so heavily competitive, smartphone makers generally keep their cards close to their proverbial chests until just before a new model's launch day; Apple unveiled the details and specifications of the iPhone just 10 days prior to its initial release.

According to Hanssen, however, one thing is certain: The next five years is going to see mobile devices that will be able to handle enormous amounts of data compared to phones on the market now, with burgeoning video streaming and other mobile-based activities becoming more prominent.

"It's hard to see what the next thing will be, but video is what consumes it now, video has really overtaken anything else as the largest driver for traffic," said Hanssen. "Other apps are continuing to proliferate as well, of course, but in the scope of things, they are relatively small compared to video."

All eyes on 2020

This increasing appetite for data is likely to result in a spectrum crunch by 2020, according to analysts, but Hanssen indicates that the Vodafone Australia network is still experiencing relatively low utilisation, given its potential with carrier aggregation.

"At the moment, Vodafone has enough pieces of the spectrum that we can aggregate, at least till 2020, and probably even a little bit longer, before we need really to start thinking again of acquiring [more] bandwidth," he said. "And, I think the other carriers are roughly in the same spot.

"On a per-customers basis, basically as an industry, we're going to need a new generation of technology probably in the early 2020s — depending on how the traffic goes," he said.

This is in line with predications by Australia's Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation's (CSIRO) findings that so-called "peak data" is on track to be reached by 2020 , with the organisation's A World Without Wires white paper suggesting user demand will outstrip the bandwidth available on current network infrastructure.

Given that 4G technology could be superseded within the next six or so years, phone manufacturers are now starting to work with telecommunications infrastructure providers in a bid to agree on what shape the next evolution will take.

"Now, the vendors of that equipment — the Ericssons, the Nokias, the Huaweis of this world — are starting to work with us, and with the standardisation to get an idea of what we call 5G, the fifth generation, will look like," said Hanssen. "And at that point, we will likely use different standards, different technologies, a different spectrum, different network topology, potentially. But now we're talking beyond 2020. And lots of things can happen.

"A lot of the technology that is developed and standardised for the network is often standardised for the other side to understand," said Hanssen. "Apple's a big part of that. They come to that party, and say let's agree on how this is all going to work."

If Hanssen seems reluctant to guess at the specifics of what phone developers will come up with in the next five years or so, it should come as no surprise that the organisation tasked with coordinating the industry standardisation for the next generation of mobile technology, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), also seems markedly reluctant at this stage to provide any clear vision as to what the telecommunications landscape will look like in 2020 and beyond.

Like the CSIRO, the ITU — a specialised agency of the United Nations — judges 2020 to be the starting point for the fifth generation of wireless mobile technology to make its commercial entrance.

The stakeholders involved, however, can at least agree on a few things. 4G Americas — one of the organisations representing ITU's collaborative body, 3GPP — released a white paper in October, outlining some of the expected attributes of 5G technology.

The organisation's 4G America's Recommendations on 5G Requirements and Solutions (PDF) white paper suggests that the emerging technology is likely to possess greater capabilities to host machine-to-machine communications via the network as part of the Internet of Things evolution.

"North American operators' best customers are no longer humans; they're increasingly machines, such as smart utility meters, digital signage, and vehicle infotainment systems," the document said. "As users begin to use more interconnected devices to play games and collaborate, the ability of the devices themselves will need to expand to create personal networks.

"Even machines that need to talk to wide-area networks for alarm monitoring, home health, fleet management, and many other applications will continue to grow. It is not inconceivable for machine customers to outnumber human customers," it said.

To meet these needs, the paper suggests that 5G technology will be designed to support reliable low-latency communications among densely deployed devices that are subject to power constraints and wide-ranging data-rate requirements.

Additionally, the paper argues that although current mobile network technology can only glean limited knowledge from users' devices and applications, with 5G's anticipated data capacity, devices and networks are likely to possess a "more flexible method for the network to obtain and utilise information relevant to deciding how network resources should be allocated in the context of operator policy".

4G Americas predicts that the next generation will allow devices to be used at high speeds, with future networks set to support mobile device connectivity while being used in high-velocity vehicles such as aeroplanes — despite the potential Doppler-shift effect at such speeds.

"Mobility support in 5G will likely extend to very high speeds, such as 350km/h and beyond, and even aircraft communications, although this possibility still remains unclear," the paper said. "Ultimately, the concept of a cell becomes blurred in favour of a more general concept of connectivity, where the network follows the movement of the user rather than the opposite (as usually conceived in previous mobile generations)."

It also estimates that by 2020, there will be a new class of data-rate-hungry services with low-latency requirements.

"Previous work has shown that applications in the future such as augmented reality, 3D gaming, and 'tactile internet' will require a 100x increase in achievable data rate compared to today and a corresponding 5x to 10x reduction in latency," the paper said.

Given these expected necessary increases in capacity, the paper argues that future wireless communication systems will support "extreme" video and gaming applications that use features such as augmented and virtual reality.

"Such immersive multimedia services would require the use of technologies such as 3D audio, 3D video, and ultra-high-definition formats and codec(s)," it said.

This requirement certainly mirrors Hanssen's experience behind Vodafone Australia's increasingly video streaming-dominated network, with the chairman of local rival Optus, Paul O'Sullivan, saying in early October that the SingTel subsidiary is looking at ways to optimise video-streaming services via its mobile network.

Finally, the paper suggests that as available bandwidth becomes scarce, the current practice of allocating specific spectrum bands to individual carriers will be infeasible.

"Additionally, the concepts of spectrum sharing and unlicensed operations must be part of any 5G vision. Wi-Fi will continue to grow in importance," it said. "The concept of a 50-band mobile is needed from a global ecosystem viewpoint.

"But in practical terms, it is not possible. Hence, the continued need to attain globally harmonised frequency bands in future spectrum allocation is still an urgent and pressing quest," it said.

As global smartphone shipments begin to creep past 300 million units per fiscal quarter — according to market analysis firm IDC — the squeeze is on for infrastructure providers and mobile device manufacturers alike.

While the world is becoming ever more connected thanks to the veritable flood of new mobile devices into the market and the upgrades carriers are continuously rolling out to their networks, there is still an estimated 4 billion people in the world who are not connected to the internet, according to the ITU.

Many of these are in developing nations and belong to a generation that is more likely to obtain its initial connection to the internet via a smartphone rather than a PC, offering phone developers an enormous untapped global market.

The ITU has embarked on an ambitious project to help connect up to 1.5 billion people not currently covered by wireless telecommunications technology to the internet by 2020.

And if François Rancy, the director of the ITU's Radiocommunication Bureau, is correct, then we can expect to see mobile devices emerging in the next five or six years that are cheaper, can provide much faster data rates, can handle multi-band and shared spectrum streams, and can accommodate lower-band frequencies, as a matter of course, than current phones.

"Existing infrastructure used for 2G and 3G for both backhaul and base stations will need to be significantly upgraded, relying, in particular, on the availability of additional spectrum below 1GHz, which provides enormous advantages for coverage of scarcely populated areas, and on higher-capacity satellites and radio relays for backhaul," said Rancy, in a blog post published on October 30.

"Obtaining access to additional spectrum for mobile broadband will inevitably require more spectrum sharing between the radiocommunication services authorised in each country," he said. "A future where we can dynamically dial up or dial down spectrum according to the needs of the customer seems possible."

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