The past several months have seen an explosion in 5G momentum. It seems that every week brings another high-profile demonstration or an announcement of a new trial. The result of all this attention has dramatically shortened everyone’s prediction for when 5G products will debut in the market. Just a year ago, the assumption was that 5G would be here in 2020 at the earliest. Now, experts are targeting 2019 with initial deployments scheduled for this year.
And why not? The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) published the first 5G specifications in December, and January’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) saw a raft of 5G product announcements. Most significantly, high-profile demonstrations of 5G technology took place this past month at Super Bowl LII and the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, showcasing real-world applications for the blisteringly fast radio connection between devices and cell towers.
However, despite the successful demonstrations from carriers and mobile device manufacturers, the 5G standards process is just now bearing fruit. The June announcement from 3GPP of a standalone specification for 5G built on the “non-standalone” specifications released in December 2017. This means, the technology that will enable IoT, automated driving, augmented reality, and whatever killer app we haven’t conceived is drawing near commercialization.
All this momentum is leading to mounting pressure to rush towards commercialization without preparation. This would be a huge mistake as we saw from the hurried results we saw for 3G and 4G. Careful planning will result in better, more sustainable products that truly deliver a transformative experience for consumers.
Fortunately, making sure we have considered all the angles doesn’t have to restrict the great 5G momentum that has been generated over the past several months. Creating a realistic environment for testing can help all parties understand the 5G operating environment. This would give manufacturers and carriers a way to move forward with 5G commercialization.
Lessons Learned from 3G
A rushed standards process created a cascade of complexities and inefficiencies for 3G and 4G through the commercialization stage, and there are important lessons to be learned. 3G focused on voice without considering the inevitable explosion in cellular data. The original 3G standards, R99 and R4 were based on ATM transport, and it wasn’t until R5 that the switch was made to IP. This transition required closer interaction with higher layers that created timing issues. At the same time, proprietary protocols such as NBAP and RRC that sit between UE and the base station created all sorts of interoperability issues between different network elements, further complicating routing and creating enormous inefficiencies. Rushing 5G commercialization would create a similar level of complexity—just manifested in different ways.
Fortunately, the standards agreed to in December allowed the reuse of existing 4G infrastructure and focuses on areas where changes are required to handle larger bandwidth and low latency applications. This allowed for a step-wise approach towards the deployment of 5G and where we could take out time crafting the remaining standards.
Creating a Realistic Testing Environment
Now that the 5G standards are set, carriers and manufacturers are eager to continue the development process. While they begin on the road to commercialization, developers can use testing to ensure they are meeting the demands of the real world. Testing can go a long way in simulating conditions that are not possible today given existing network infrastructure—but accurate, reliable testing will require a realistic testing environment which are hard to come by at this early stage.
Over the air conditions pose a major problem. As the name implies, very short range frequencies that 5G promises to leverage have a range of only a few feet, making testing in potential real-world conditions difficult. They are also extremely susceptible to line of sight issues as objects just a few inches across can cause interference.
5G developers are going to have to create a testing chamber with laboratory conditions, including simulator antennas placed to create narrow beams. Real-world conditions can be replicated by distorting signals and introducing channel model effects. But this, of course, requires sophisticated end-to-end testing expertise.
In addition to laboratory conditions, developers can take advantage of existing infrastructure to conduct real-world testing. One of the myths of 5G is that it requires mmWave bands. However, most early deployments in Asia run on sub-6 GHz bands—which are in ample supply in other global markets, especially in the 3.5, 4.5 and 4.8-5.0 GHz ranges.
As we saw with 3G and 4G, the commercialization process needs to play out in a careful, deliberate manner. But this shouldn’t stop 5G development. Developers can create real-world testing environments both in the lab and in the field to test 5G deployments. This will allow the 5G momentum that has been built up over the past several months continue smoothly.
About Kalyan Sundhar
Kalyan Sundhar has over 25 years of experience in the industry, leading multi-national teams that develop products for Operators, Network Equipment Manufacturers as well as Test and Measurement vendors.
He is currently, Vice President of Mobility, Virtualization and Applications at Ixia Solutions Group, a Keysight business.
Kalyan is responsible for creating and executing Ixia’s 5G and virtualization strategies across all product lines as well as oversight of development for Ixia products relating to 5G, LTE, Wifi, and applications in the voice, video and data areas.
He holds several patents in the wireless area. He co-authored the popular “5G for Dummies” book, and is a regular contributor to several leading magazines in this space.
(The author is Vice President for Mobility, Virtualization and Applications Products, Keysight Technologies, Inc.)