Insight: Making Sense of 5G's Crowded Confusion

Posted by Mae Kowalke on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 with No comments

Making sense of what 5G is (or ought to be) is a task made difficult by the sheer amount of noise from many industry consortiums, associations, and research institutes all working to define use cases, standards, and spectrum needed for the next generation of mobile networks. 

Light Reading recently identified no fewer than 12 of these groups, which collectively represent wireless operators and other stakeholders.  

Among those groups are often referenced names like 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), International Telecommunications Union (ITU), Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN), and GSM Association (GSMA) as well as somewhat lesser-known partnerships like 5G:haus, CableLabs + NYU, and 5G Innovation Centre. 

So many stakeholders involved, it's not surprising that consensus around 5G is hard to come by. But, as Light Reading Mobile Editor Dan Jones recently observed, that is starting to change. In particular, he thinks agreement is forming about the characteristics of an air interface technology that will be used to transmit information between the 5G network and mobile devices. 

An idea is emerging to create a 5G unified air interface capable of scaling up to high-speed services, and also supporting less demanding Internet of Things (IoT) services, Jones explained. With some adaptations, it would use Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (OFDM)--which splits the data stream into narrowband channels at different frequencies--as its core. 

Of course, it's more complicated than just basing an air interface off OFDM, and there are lots of other considerations for achieving a multi-megabit capable mobile network that also supports extremely low latency IoT applications. 

For one thing, despite its touted impact as a major step-change in mobile communications, 5G won't be a clean break from the past, Light Reading pointed out. Operators have invested too much in 4G technologies like SDN, NFV, and various flavors of LTE, to abandon them overnight in favor of something better. 

Well-performing 4G and 5G networks will be necessary as the transition to next generation mobile happens gradually, Light Reading predicted. After all, many problems remain to be resolved around how 5G will work and how improving on 4G can get us there. 

The in-between place of evolution from 4G to 5G is being described as 4.5G, Fierce Wireless noted. This type of fractional-G step is nothing new (2.5G and 2.75G were once discussed in earlier mobile generations, for example), and the concept is about extending tech capabilities and ensuring backwards compatibility before jumping to an entirely new architecture and/or air interface. (Of course, it's also about marketing.) 

But what exactly is 4.5G? Fierce Wireless defined it as being several things: the wireless technology between 4G and 5G, 3GPP's R12/13 enhancements to LTE-A, and a collection of LTE-A technologies that include tighter cell-WiFi integration and massive carrier aggregation. 

Results from a recent Light Reading poll indicate that the biggest 5G challenge will be upgrading backhaul to support the huge amount of traffic expected to come with 5G. It does always come back to data volume, doesn't it?

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