5G roll-out: a marathon not a sprint

Article By : Sylvia Lu

Although the transformative nature of 5G makes it a potentially disruptive technology, it is clear from the early stages of its roll-out...

Although the transformative nature of 5G makes it a potentially disruptive technology, it is clear from the early stages of its roll-out that the migration from today’s 4G/LTE infrastructures will be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. The 5G promise is real, but significant work remains to be done by the various industry players in the 5G ecosystem to realize it, with analysts predicting that the 5G adoption rate will be around half that of 4G by 2025.

The 5G roll-out can be considered to be in its first phase, with global operators beginning to launch services based on the specifications in 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Release 15, the 5G foundation level. Although these services will generate incremental revenues for operators, the real value from 5G for vertical segments will only be unlocked when the features and capabilities specified in Release 16 and being developed in 17 are deployed.

The accelerated development of 5G thus far has been accomplished in no small part by the efforts of a strong 5G ecosystem, particularly with standards development, where key industry players have been heavily involved, ensuring a pragmatic and consistent prioritization of features. The future 5G roadmap will draw even more heavily on this ecosystem as government, industry and academia contribute to the development, validation, and realization of new technologies, targeted at key verticals.

As a key player in this ecosystem, u-blox examines some of the economic, regulatory and technical factors influencing the roll-out of 5G which inform both our view as well as that of other major ecosystem players that this evolutionary new network will complement rather than disrupt existing IoT technologies.

The three broad use cases defined by the ITU cover a wide spectrum of existing and emerging applications with highly diverse requirements. In reality there is no single 5G technology which is capable of addressing all of these requirements and, in determining how to go to market with 5G, operators must grapple with the following factors.

The strength of the business case
With most operators still committed to ongoing 4G/LTE investment strategies and many seeing flattening and even dipping revenues, the 5G business case will require a carefully targeted approach. Confidence in 5G technology is high but there is currently less clarity over how and when some of the more revolutionary use cases can be turned into revenue generating products and services. The majority of operators are therefore focusing on the internet of things (IoT) and enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), both of which can readily leverage existing infrastructure.

5G NR non-stand alone (NSA), for example, enables throughput and capacity in the “coverage and capacity layer” (between 1 GHZ – 6 GHz), to be enhanced by upgrading existing 4G/LTE macro cells to interwork with 5G NR systems. At the same time, the adoption by 3GPP of the existing LPWA (low power wide area) technologies, LTE-M and NB-IoT, into the 5G releases underpins continuity of IoT strategies. In addition, according to the GSMA, the number of live LPWA networks doubled over the 12-month period to October 2019, with 89 NB-IoT and 34 LTE-M networks launched.

Whilst the focus may be on the IoT and eMBB, targeted deployments of mmWave infrastructure also enable high margin segments to be addressed, for example using fixed wireless access (FWA) to offer high speed broadband in urban areas.

Global regulatory policy including spectrum availability
A successful 5G roll-out requires a supportive regulatory framework in each country/region, particularly where allocation of radio spectrum is concerned. 3GPP’s standards work defines two spectrum ranges for 5G: Frequency Range 1 (FR1, <7.125GHz) and FR2 (26.25~52.6GHz).

For a number of reasons, as discussed elsewhere in this article, initial 5G NR deployments will be mainly in the 3.5 GHz band and a recent survey by GSA, highlights that most spectrum allocation activity globally has in fact focused on this band. The situation in the higher, mmWave, frequency bands, of 24 GHz and above is less defined; spectrum allocations were finalized at the ITU’s World Radio Conference.

Standards development
The availability and stability of standards are key to the launch of any new technology, allowing hardware manufacturers, chip makers, etc., to build and design global interoperable and compliant components. The ITU specified 5G NR requirements as IMT2020 target, and 3GPP was the leading standards development organization that developed the initial 5G standards in Release 15. The specifications for non-standalone 5G new radio (NSA 5G NR) were approved in December 2017, and the standalone (SA) version in June 2018. Release 15 can be considered as the foundation of 5G NR with a significant body of work having gone into the specification of a completely new radio technology, paving the way for the initial service launches at the tail end of 2018.

5G phase 2 and next stages of standards development
As the global operator community navigates its way through the above challenges in order to launch services based on Release 15 specifications, the 5G ecosystem is already focusing on the future. We now look ahead to the next developments which can be expected as the 5G roll-out continues.

Release 15 is considered as 5G NR phase 1 and Release 16 is phase 2, with the Release 16 completed in July 2020 and development work on Release 17, due for completion in late 2021, now underway (Figure 2).

Figure 1 LPWA evolution in 5G eraFigure 1: 3GPP 5G release schedule. Click on image to enlarge. (Source: u-blox)

Whereas Release 15 focused on the definition of a mobile networking technology, Releases 16 and 17 concentrate on adding the features required to support use cases required by the various vertical sectors beyond the cellular sector.

Although the features being developed or considered under Releases 16 and 17 are relevant to many verticals, the focus of the 3GPP effort is very much on at least three specific sectors where emerging applications have a latent demand for 5G capabilities – the industrial IoT (IIoT) the automotive sector and the satellite Sector.

Industry 4.0 and the industrial IoT
With the twin drivers of the exponentially growing IoT and the current focus on realizing the Industry 4.0 vision, it is no surprise that IIoT technologies comprise a significant body of the work under Releases 16 and 17 (Figure 2).

Figure 2Figure 2: 5G Technology Evolution through the 3GPP Releases. Click on image to enlarge. (Source: u-blox) 

IIoT specific features being developed in Releases 16 and 17 include:

  • Ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC): Rel-16 industrial IoT work item is expected to deliver the “six nines” levels of reliability required by IIoT applications, such as smart factory assembly and control operations.
  • Time-sensitive communication (TSC): Rel-16 introduced TSC support based on integration with IEEE time-sensitive networking (TSN), currently the main protocol in factory automation. Rel-17 will develop native TSC support, i.e. independent of IEEE TSN, enabling a wide range of use cases, including logistics, shipping harbors and program-making and special events (PMSEs).
  • Support for non-public networks and neutral hosts: 3GPP Rel-16 supports both stand-alone NPNs and public network integrated NPNs with authentication methods for both. Rel-17, introduces support for neutral hosts by enabling access stand-alone private networks using credentials from third-party service providers, including public network operators. Rel-17 will also bring support for onboarding and provisioning of UEs to access private networks.
  • NR unlicensed: Linked to the above, Rel-16 introduces support for NR to operate in unlicensed spectrum, providing an important tool for both service providers and private networks to increase capacity. Rel-16’s initial focus on NR-U is on eMBB services in the 5 GHz and 6 GHz frequency bands. Rel-17, will include enhancements which enable the use of URLLC features in unlicensed spectrum.
  • NR-Light: Rel-17 will introduce support for “reduced-capability NR devices”, also known as “NR-Light”, such as surveillance cameras, industrial sensors, wearables, and consumer IoT devices. Since these devices are constrained by form factor and power consumption and may require narrower bandwidths and lower peak data rates than high-end tier 5G NR devices. NR-Light intends to reduce 5G NR device cost and complexity, while still enabling 5G NR connectivity.
  • High-precision positioning: Rel-16 extends the positioning support in Rel-15, introducing the capability to locate devices using the 5G radio signals themselves, giving a potential accuracy in the order of a few meters. Further enhancements under Rel-17 may deliver accuracy levels down to centimeters, as required by many indoor industrial process applications.
  • LPWA technologies – NB-IoT and LTE-M: Introduced by 3GPP in 2015 as part of Release 13, NB-IoT and LTE-M recognized the simplified requirements of the elemental IoT services which comprise the bulk of the IoT market. Rel-16 specifies how NB-IoT and LTE-M transmissions will be incorporated directly into 5G NR deployments, underpinning their future status as 5G standards, and ensuring compatibility with existing NB-IoT and LTE-M deployments. Further LPWA developments in Rel-17 include enhancements to latency and power efficiency along with increases to peak transmission rates.

The resurgence of satellite communications
The falling costs of space access have driven substantial growth in the numbers of small, low earth orbit (LEO) satellites, making satellite communication economically and technically feasible for remote IoT applications. In Rel-17 3GPP will begin work on 5G NR enhancements to enable support of non-terrestrial networks (NTN), as well as study the feasibility of satellite based IoT leveraging both NB-IoT and eMTC connectivity.

The ongoing role of the 5G ecosystem
A key enabler of the 5G roll-out is the close collaboration between industry, government, regulators, standards bodies, and academia. A number of such partnerships are working on a series of trials and testbeds globally in order to demonstrate, validate and evaluate the potential of 5G in various verticals, thus confirming the future 5G roadmap. Within Europe, the 5G infrastructure public private partnership (5G PPP) is a key initiative, set up by the European Commission to fund and coordinate relevant projects to build European leadership in 5G, with a strong focus on the improvement of industrial efficiency and productivity.

The 5G-SMART project is a key example of a trial funded by 5G-PPP; based on a collaboration between Ericsson, Bosch, ABB and leading technology companies including Switzerland’s u-blox. 5G-SMART aims to test the most advanced 5G integrated manufacturing applications such as digital twin, industrial collaborative robotics and machine vision assisted real-time human robot interactions. Similar initiatives can be found at country-level, such as the UK’s UK5G initiative, funded by the department for culture, media and sport (DCMS), demonstrating the strong motivation of government to harness the potential of 5G.

Now time to deliver the promise of Releases 16 and 17
The first phase of the eagerly awaited 5G roll-out is now well underway, with operators around the world deploying services based on 3GPP Release 15 capabilities. Although necessary to build the foundations for the 5G evolution, this first phase is not sufficient to unlock the full power of this transformational networking technology.

As Releases 16 and 17 develop advanced technologies, it falls to the powerful 5G ecosystem to test and validate these features and ensure that they are brought to market. This ecosystem, based on a unique collaboration between government, industry and academia, has succeeded in accelerating the rapid deployment of 5G NR and is now poised to deliver the architectures, solutions and business models required to ensure the realization of the 5G promise.

— Sylvia Lu, head of technology strategy, product center cellular at u-blox

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