5G World: Apart from tactile robots, focus is on getting 5G out of the labs

As 3GPP publishes timetable for 5G standards, vendors emphasize flexible migration roadmaps while operators turn to practical challenges

Arun Bansan, head of Ericsson’s Radio business unit, entitled his keynote address at London’s 5G World ‘5G moves out of the labs and into the neighborhood’. This reflected the key theme of the show – the time for bluesky visions and clever architectural diagrams is over, and operators need to see solutions which will be deployable, robust and able to support commercial use cases within a couple of years.

In fact, the centrepiece of Ericsson’s stand was one of the most futuristic demonstrations at the show – a joint project with Kings College London in 5G tactile robotic surgery. This showed a probe as a robotic representation of a biological finger, which gave the remote surgeon a sense of touch. Amazing, but perhaps not quite ‘in the neighborhood’ yet.

Such showcases are important to keep reminding us why operators are even thinking about investing yet again in a new architecture – 5G will only justify itself if it enables radically new behaviors and business cases, many of which will involve technologies like robotics which have never before overlapped significantly with the cellular network.

But a far greater proportion of demonstrations and presentations at the show were designed to make another point which is crucial to operator confidence – that 5G is becoming real, but that it will not involve another big bang upgrade (economically and logistically unthinkable for most operators for another decade). Instead, it will be phased in gradually, alongside LTE, and on the MNOs’ own timetable.

Takehiro Nakamura, VP of 5G at Japan’s NTT Docomo – one of the frontrunners in 5G trials and deployment plans – said that his company will require at least a decade of 4G evolution, with tight integration between the two technologies as well as others in unlicensed spectrum.

The timing of the show was good – it coincided with two important announcements which gave a new stability and sense of reality to the 5G process. One was the 3GPP’s detailing of its timetable of key steps, towards freezing its first wave of 5G standards (Release 15) in 2018.

The other was the publication of Release 7 by the Small Cell Forum – this provides a practical blueprint for deploying HetNet and SON (self-optimizing networks) now, but with the flexibility, and standard interfaces, which will ease migration to 5G technologies in future (whatever, precisely, those may be).

“The mobile industry is awash with 5G predictions and roadmaps, but what operators need urgently is a clear and pragmatic process to enhance their current platforms, and prepare the groundwork for the next generation,” said the Forum’s chair, Alan Law, in a statement.

The vendors were rising to support that message. Nokia claimed to be demonstrating the first 5G-ready network running on fully commercial platforms – it showed its AirScale Radio Access technology, announced at Mobile World Congress, working with its Cloud Packet Core, running on its AirFrame data center platform. In Nokia’s mind this is a network which can be deployed now for a virtualized, cloud-oriented LTE system, but can be upgraded to presumed 5G RAN technologies – a new air interface, Massive MIMO, new spectrum bands – as those become clear.

ZTE has a similar message around its pre5G platform, which it was showing off around the world in MWC Shanghai, and so does Ericsson with its recently announced ‘5G Plug-Ins’, which promise to offer largely software-based upgrades from a flexible, programmable LTE-Advanced network to 5G radios and antennas.

“By introducing 5G-ready technologies now in our commercial solutions, which support today’s LTE-Advanced and the upcoming LTE-Advanced Pro / Pro II, our customers can smartly bridge their networks to 5G,” explained Hossein Moiin, Nokia’s CTO, Mobile Networks, Nokia.

In the week of Brexit and Iceland, a London event perhaps did not need any more reminders about falling behind the rest of the world – but a final, unavoidable conclusion from the event was that the east Asian operators, always very technically progressive, are in a league of their own when it comes to detailed deployment plans too. NTT Docomo, China Mobile, KT and other trailblazers are not just showing off the smartest semi-proprietary technologies – they are close to a commercially viable model for 5G too.

But not before they have sufficient 4G scale on which to build the next wave – which in China Mobile’s case is almost mind-boggling. In 2011 the operator hit the landmark of 600m mobile customers – by the end of this year it aims to have 500m users on LTE alone, which would be more than 60% of its total base, and will rely on a network expanded to 1.4m base stations.

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