Why 2017 will be pivotal for 5G

Article By : James Kimery

Investments in research and development using the latest cutting edge technology are shaping up for a clearer 5G realisation and deployment.

As the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain is about to conclude, one interesting issue there is the 5G technology. Test will play a significant role in how 5G moves towards deployment. National Instruments' director of SDR marketing James Kimery explains what to look for.

Three months into 2017 and 5G continues to capture headlines. At CES in early January, Qualcomm featured 5G prominently in their keynote, making it clear that the company has embraced the 5G challenge in a big way. When you take into account that AT&T and Verizon have also recently announced their intent to conduct 5G field trials in the U.S. this year and early 2018, it's beginning to look like 2017 will be a pivotal year for 5G. Here are a few speculative prognostications as we stand at the precipice of a new wireless world.

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Figure 1: Steve Mollenkopf, Qualcomm CEO, at his CES keynote speech.

Standards taking shape

The 3GPP standardisation body has defined two phases of 5G standards development appropriately named Phase 1 and Phase 2. In 2017, the 3GPP will be driving to define the first unified standard for Phase 1. This month, the 3GPP is set to kick off the first 5G work item with an expected completion in September 2018.

Although 5G Phase 1, otherwise known as 3GPP Release 15, is expected to complete in 2018, we should get a clear picture of what will be included in the standard throughout 2017 as researchers around the world take on the monumental task of defining and standardising each component of a new end-to-end network.

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Figure 2: Three high-level 5G use cases defined by 3GPP and IMT 2020.

5G prototypes get real

Wireless researchers in academia and industries such as telecom and mobile equipment manufacturers have demonstrated 5G concepts in a variety of venues in the last few years, and the public demonstrations should start taking on a more "productised" look and feel as technologies mature. Because the standard won't be finalised until 2018, companies need to begin commercialising the technology in 2017 to ensure mass deployments in 2018. Conferences such as this week's Mobile World Congress, May's ICC, and December's IEEE GLOBECOM will most likely feature first looks at these pre-commercial systems.

mmWave moves forward

Behind landmark announcements from the FCC, Verizon and AT&T, mmWave gained a lot of momentum in 2016 and we expect that to continue in 2017 with the first field trials of pre-release mmWave technology. Behind Verizon's own "5G" specification infrastructure, customer premises equipment and smart device companies will be working furiously to deliver products that address the service operator’s aggressive timelines. Although the U.S. deployments may be focused on fixed wireless broadband access—in other words, delivering broadband access to homes—this may be one of the first commercial deployments of mmWave technology for outdoor use.

As South Korea has earmarked the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics to showcase 5G technologies, we will also be looking for more testing of mmWave use in a true mobile environment. Such testing will include over-the-air (OTA) testing connected to a core network where researchers will be evaluating the coverage, the main unknown with mmWave technologies. Tests will need to determine the distance and geometrical area that a link covers because the beams are highly directional. In addition, sensitivity, gain, output power, error-vector magnitude (EVM), bit-error-ration (BER) and block error-rate (BLER) are important metrics in 5G networks, but OTA testing in a real network will answer a lot of questions related to the viability and feasibility of mmWave. Simulation and cabled tests are not as good of a proxy as with they were with 4G (under 6GHz) technologies because of the directional nature of the mmWave antenna beams.

2017 is shaping up to be a pivotal year with monumental milestones for 5G. Commercial companies will shift investments from research to product development using the latest cutting edge technology—an unpredictable exercise as mmWave is still very new and not widely commercialised yet. While there are still several unknowns, expect a clearer picture of 5G by December as these new technologies take shape. We should also have a better idea by that time if true commercial deployments will occur in 2018 or delay until 2019 or later.

First published by EE Times.

James Kimery is the director of marketing for RF, communications, and software defined radio (SDR) initiatives at National Instruments.

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