Wider net: 5G and the connection between the wireless connections
Where the thing that most clearly distinguishes a 5G installation from a 4G or a 3G when you look at it, collides against a new reality: Equipment manufacturers, fearing they may earn less revenue from producing cheaper equipment, promote something else instead - something that looks more like 3G than 5G.
According to industry trade group India Brand Equity Foundation, that country has some 446 million internet users, and nearly 1.18 billion mobile phone users. A mere 2 percent of phones in India are wireline; the rest are wireless. About seven of every eight people there access the internet via their mobile devices. The Slimline phone, the PC, and the red Royal Mail letter-boxes are all dying relics there. And yet up until last year, the rate of decline in 2G usage moving to a new generation of phones, was only about 3 percent.
The huge catalyst for change has been a service provider called Reliance Jio. Ranked No. 150 among the country's ISPs as of 2014, it stunned the entire industry by winning a 4G broadband spectrum auction, in a process that one government regulator at the time had planned to declare was rigged, according to The Times of India. The company then reportedly began giving away as many as 3 million 4G SIM cards, before making the bold move of selling wireless data plans for as low as $2.50 per 10GB, and subsidizing 4G feature phones for as much as 40 percent of their retail price.
Incumbent players such as Bharti Airtel were forced -- forced, mind you -- to discontinue their 2G service, as sudden revenue declines as a result of being undercut led them to abandon their reliance on existing infrastructure. Granted, new government relief programs instituted last March give telcos there the option of holding on to their existing spectrum for six years beyond their original ten-year license. But the cost of sustaining the old antenna system into infinity had almost completely eroded the average revenue per user (ARPU) upon which the incumbents were relying.
Let's be honest: India never really experienced 3G, and perhaps only one quarter of mobile users there today use some form of 4G regularly. For that country to find its footing again, it needs a sensible, achievable plan for skipping another grade, and proceeding straight to 5G.
In this concluding stop in this stage of our 5G adventure in ZDNet Scale, we find ourselves at the opposite edge of the world from which we began. 5G is a coalition of technologies which can only succeed together, and on a global scale, if they are to succeed at all. This means the world's second-largest wireless economy must be airlifted out of the 20th century somehow. 5G does have a plan to do essentially this: An intentional, non-accidental, method of deploying reasonable service in both urban and rural areas, with more affordable equipment that is easier to cool, especially in one of the world's hottest climates.
It's the part of the 5G promise that seems so easy to pull off, at least in all the telco animations: Lightweight transmitters with maybe no more than 200 yards of coverage range, exposed to the open air and controlled from a secure cloud-based data center. But it's a part of the bargain that not every stakeholder has signed off on yet.
The littlest cell
The uptick in investment and interest in 5G now, at least a whole decade prior to the projected end-of-life for 4G, wasn't triggered so much by a renaissance as a reality check. The business model for 4G is becoming unsustainable in the world's largest economies.
In 2011, China Mobile began experimenting with moving the processing of instructions for its 3G radio access networks from the radio access network (RAN) alongside the wireless transmitter (WTF), to a cloud data center connected by fiber optic cable.
If you can pardon some of the grammar that gets lost in China Mobile's English translation of its 2011 white paper on C-RAN, the meaning still comes through clearly enough. The subject of this excerpt is the baseband unit (BBU), which is the core radio signal processor. In C-RAN, the remote radio head (RRH) is separated from the BBU, enabling multiple RRH units to be deployed on much smaller, cooler antennas.
The centralized baseband pool consisted of large-scale BBUs by a high bandwidth, low latency network, combined with some system software, can constitute a large 'real time baseband cloud,' just like the cloud computing environment in IT industry. The difference is that the baseband processing tasks are real-time computing tasks in a real time baseband pool. Through the cooperation of BBU in the baseband pool and RRH to send and receive wireless signals, it can be achieved that multi-standard wireless network functions in the same platform.
This was what made the world's telcos, including AT&T, interested in C-RAN. In September 2016, AT&T began trials of what it called Project AirGig, equipping existing electric and telephone poles with access point appliances. Each of these units would make the pole no more than 10 feet taller, and would include the RRH from the C-RAN framework. But rather than connect radio heads to one another using fiber optic cable, they would leverage the existing power lines as subcarriers.
AirGig is an application of existing and updated distributed antenna systems (DAS), on 4G spectrum today but tunable to 5G in the future. But for even AirGig to flourish, it would require one technology being discussed exclusively in the 5G context (even if it's not officially part of the 5G itinerary): Called Integrated Access and Backhaul (IAB, with apologies to the internet Advertising Bureau), it's a distribution system for access to the complete array of network content and services (the "backhaul") that would avoid the pitfalls of rigging every single antenna in a cluster with fiber optic cable. In a vast, three-dimensional tangle of antennae up and down flagpoles, church steeples, the sides of buildings, and even the tops of moving city busses, IAB would be designed to make the nearest DAS antenna "the edge" for every user, everywhere.
An AT&T company video which premiered during the recent Brooklyn 5G Summit depicts IAB as "a multi-hub relay network to backhaul data across multiple small cells to a fiber location, using the same air interface used to provide access to mobile devices." Wherever an antenna may be installed within range of the fiber hub, it is automatically located and enrolled.
Here, AT&T carefully uses the phrase "small cells," which in general use may be interpreted to mean "cells that are small." Deeper in the industry, a small cell tower is a different order of beast than a DAS antenna, such as a millimeter-wave (mmWave) antenna -- the very low-range, high-throughput transmitter 5G will use to beam gigabit connections. This particular class of DAS utilizes a phased array (the subject of many of those dire warnings you see echoed by concerned citizens in city council meetings) to steer and form focused signals toward customers directly.
Speaking as part of an industry panel, Samsung Research America lab director Boon Loong Ng warned that a similar system for LTE Relay had gone into production for Release 10 of 3GPP's wireless standards, but it didn't gain much traction then. With 5G, however, "it feels that it could be different," Ng said, "although I think the verdict is still open. We're not sure.
"We do need to provide mmWave access; we do have the fundamental problem of small cell size," he continued. "So if you want to deploy mmWave network as close to nationwide as possible, this will be the problem we have to solve. IAB is one of the solutions out there, and I think it would be a competitive one. There will be other solutions available in microwave; there are already over 20 companies providing wireless backhaul products today. They will still be there."
"There is a need now for multi-hub backhauling," remarked Georg Hampel, Qualcomm's lead developer for 5G. "We have mmWave access, which is very small cell size, so we need a highly densified network. I think we didn't have this need before. You always had the opportunity to deploy a macro cell. You could always obtain macro cellular coverage, and then you could do hotspot fill-ins. This opportunity doesn't exist anymore with mmWave."
Hampel seemed frustrated with the entire value proposition for mmWave, characterizing it as depending mainly on its ability to hit high-density hotspots such as the nearest Starbucks. "I think that's not enough to justify this whole use case, and the rollout of a whole technology, and to have it in the mobiles and the chips and all that stuff. From that perspective, you have to have a solution that can cover a large area deployment, and can provide coverage as well as hotspot fill-ins at the same time."
The Qualcomm engineer's quarrel is not with IAB, but with how it's being pitched as a solution for providing accessibility to an antenna system he perceives has having limited usefulness. In reality, few anticipate that mmWave can be deployed in suburban and rural areas, and some have already counted this out as technically impossible. Still, IAB appears to be capable of providing backhaul for multiple antenna types. Though AT&T's existing AirGig trials rely on power lines for their relay scheme, it's conceivable that IAB could replace the power line conduits while maintaining the antennas' locations atop utility poles.
What equipment makers appear to be saying here is that a trap is being set for the distributed antenna scheme. For any type of DAS to become successful, including mmWave, it would need to demonstrate its usefulness in a network which also uses the same type of IAB to provide backhaul for larger cells (some of which are, maddeningly, called "small cells"). But then DAS would face competition from those same larger cells, working in concert with stopgap antennas to fill in dead zones.
Yet what they appear to be missing is that larger "small" cells might be completely unlikely to use any form of DAS. In a recent blog post, senior global telecom analyst for GlobalData Ed Gubbins laid out the case for small RAN tower makers (using the existing Radio Access Network, which would avoid IAB) including Ericsson and China's Huawei, would make aggressive moves to build smaller and smaller RAN cells that simply push DAS operators out of their own space. At issue, wrote Gubbins, is whether smaller DAS arrays will even be capable of utilizing the high-order, multi-frequency MIMO systems that would be required for mmWave to attain its own gigabit downlink goals. The upgrade costs for existing DAS systems, including AirGig, to higher-order MIMO "could be difficult or prohibitively expensive for DAS," believes Gubbins, especially in larger quantities, compared to simply sticking a single larger cell or a macro cell in the same area.
It's the opposite of the 5G value proposition, but it's even using the name of 5G to kick out the very players that would make the original 5G feasible.
The last G
How this part of the story eventually plays out will depend in large measure on 3GPP's ability to serve as a kind of authority on what's a technology is and what it is not. Up though the implementation of 4G wireless, each "G" has championed new methods of encoding voice traffic as data: 2G with Space Division Multiplexing (SDM), 3G with Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA) and Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA), and 4G with Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM). All of these are mainly about the math and physics of carrier waves. 5G, noted Seizo Onoe, a legendary chief technology architect at NTT DoCoMo, breaks with that tradition by presenting a framework for combinations of technologies.
"We can say that 5G is at an inflection point," Onoe told the recent Brooklyn 5G Summit. "5 could be the final number. But yesterday, in the last session, I found that most of you believe that '6G' will come. Yes, I don't deny it. But just define the reasons. Marketing gimmicks may create further numbers -- 6, 7, 8, 9, forever. That's my observation."
Although 5G, for the first time, incorporates a variety of complementary technologies, it can be about a specific formula for making those technologies work together. In that event, DAS may remain part of the picture for the foreseeable future, especially if AT&T continues to wield its clout and experience as the system's champion. If we're truly being accurate about 5G's speed goals, it may not be able to achieve them without mmWave, and without the DAS model to back it up.
But if 5G instead becomes an a la carte menu of options from which the world's telcos may pick and choose, based on whatever their business models are at the time, there's a danger that some of those options will get left on the table. Already, there's evidence that 5G may be taking this latter approach, in the name of open choice and vendor agnosticism.
"The way that we at Nokia think about this is, there is a universal adaptive core that's access-agnostic," explained its director of IP mobile networking, Nick Cadwgan. "So for us in the core, we are going to get a new set of network functions defined for us, but we see 5G New Radio as another access technology. We've got 5G radio, 4G radio, 3G radio, unlicensed radio access technologies, Wi-Fi, MultiPhy, we've got fixed. Hell, we've even got shared -- all coming in. It's all about anchoring and terminating the personalities of these multiple access technologies into this common core, so we can deliver converged services."
If India's ailing telcos could pick and choose their evolutionary paths forward based on the availability of options provided to them, history tells us they'd take the least disruptive path -- the one that keeps their existing 2G (and older) investments as intact as possible. In that event, their choices probably won't be decided by whichever corporation in the ecosystem is the biggest and loudest (especially if it's in America and they're not). The loudest voice in their ears at the moment will dictate their tack. Even if DAS is the simplest and easiest system to deploy nationwide, given the country's variety of terrain and extreme climate conditions, the alteration that makes the least change may win the day. And whether that alteration is called '5G' or '7G' will be up to them.
The 5G solution to our global telecommunications issues is a radical one, and there's no guarantee that it can even get off the ground, let alone evolve into a complete system. First and foremost, it would involve dotting the global landscape with a vastly greater number of transmitters and base stations. Yet enabling those towers to exist, and to work together as clusters, would be an entirely new network of virtualized data centers.
The world's telcos could put off the job of re-architecting its base stations and transmitter towers yet again, if 4G could provide them with enough revenue to get by for now. 4G is, after all, a successful consumer technology. The problem here is, telcos' options for leveraging 4G to produce new sources of revenue, are quite limited -- in some cases by the technology itself, but in most cases by the regulations of their respective countries. And in India, telcos' ability to invest in 4G is being diminished by one competitor radically undercutting their rates ("tariffs," as India refers to them), forcing them to hang onto aging, rusting infrastructure they can no longer afford to maintain.
Though there may be a global market for wireless transmitter equipment, there is no single, undivided market for wireless service. Every country has its own unique market conditions, and in many countries, regulations prevent telecommunications carriers from charging customers what they would require just to break even. Variations of "net neutrality," in those countries where such regulations exist (until very recently, including the US) prohibit a carrier from placing a surcharge on certain facets of internet service, but not others.
When and where they can, telcos may resort to bundling the main service ("the pipe") along with something else that's far more interesting and desirable on its face, like high-bandwidth television. But with the internet in the midst of absorbing that market, and with the internet being indivisible in most free-market nations by decree, telcos are running out of options for attractive bundling candidates.
Speed and reliability are two categories where telcos could wield some competitive advantage. Consumers may be willing to pay a premium to eliminate dead zones and maximize their quality of service (QoS). It's this idea of casting speed and reliability as premium features that makes the notion of retaining 4G as a kind of "regular" grade service, attractive to some carriers like T-Mobile, which has pledged to continue offering 4G into the indefinite future. But playing both sides of the field may only be viable if the increasing costs of 4G start leveling off.
5G needs to become a viable business model for telcos first and foremost, and a technology second. Its promise is to enable new services, and new classes of service, some of which could not be provided even under the 4G model. (Some others could, but tying them to 5G helps float that boat a bit more strongly.) But it will not be the only system offering many of these same services. Although momentum for fiber optic services such as fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) and fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) had appeared to stall, the fact that both wireless and wired broadband require fiber networks could ironically end up throwing these old dogs a new bone. If municipalities don't force the two service classes to share backhaul cable with one another in certain areas, then at the very least, they could reward fiber contracts to both classes of bidder simultaneously.
This would ensure that any provider of 5G service in such areas would be competing against another technology entirely, for the same customer. Meanwhile, the fiber optic industry is preparing for a bit of a growth period. Already, it's begun promoting pairing together 5G and FTTH as "convergence."
Let's be realistic here: Wireless may end up using more wire than wired. So what is a "G," truly? Better put, to G or not to G?
"Marketing gimmicks jeopardize the technical definition of 'generations,'" stated NTT's Seizo Onoe. "Probably '6G'-something will come with 5G technology -- that's my observation, I'm guessing. But I think the marketing gimmicks may give us some confusion to the market. It's not good, but it's freedom. No one can stop it."
In summing up his thoughts during an analysts' panel at the Brooklyn 5G Summit, 451 Research analyst Wally Swain noted, "The good news is, we've become indispensable to people. The bad news is, we've become indispensable to people. Because we're indispensable, all of a sudden, we become a political issue. . . As we've convinced people that 5G is nirvana, that proved how ubiquitous and important, how much we've put 5G at the center of the agenda, not just for our industry but the whole world. And I think that's both the opportunity and the threat."
I began the first edition of Scale last November with this declaration: You hold in your hand a data center. There's a bigger part that touches you indirectly, by way of the gadget with the pretty touchscreen and the voice activation. It's the product of effort, skill, competition, disaster, neglect, rebuilding, and renewal. It's as much a product of history as anything else we deem worthy of historical reverence.
The history of the railroad is one of the first great instances of competitors, by design or by unavoidable need, coming together to produce an infrastructure that brought the world forward. There is ugliness, treachery, deceit, and corruption in the annals of railroad industry history. Yet it brought us the train, the part which touched us directly, and found our hearts.
As with every great endeavor in the history of our species that touches each person in some way, a technology infrastructure project is an amalgam of brilliant engineering, clever politics, fortuitous capitalism, artistic presentation, and to varying degrees, the opposites of these things. What has been missing from our public discussion of the development of these projects is an understanding of them as history. For that reason, I've been endeavoring to present these stories to you with a view to the past. How will we look to our distant descendants -- assuming, at this point, we have them, which is what passes these days for wide-eyed optimism? If we don't perceive our own work as historically important, are we sure anyone else will?
We too often forget the greatness we as a people have already accomplished, and the catastrophes we have overcome, when we perceive these things only in the light of the present day, of our own eyes, in our own offices and homes, in a context that is too familiar to us. Today we live in the present. Yet history is only tomorrow.
This will not be the end of our journey through 5G in Scale, or elsewhere in ZDNet. We'll be here to clarify and intensify your perception of this latest effort to replenish the world's communications systems. But for now, we're headed elsewhere, hopefully together. Until our next voyage, hold true.