At this time of year, all sorts of commentators typically review the previous year and pontificate about what the future will hold for the next. On this occasion, I have decided to extend the time horizon to ponder what new mobile communications capabilities are coming that may not be launched until well into the next decade. I've also decided to use the format from the popular game show, "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?"
Standardisation work is already well underway in 3GPP for technologies that will likely be used from around 2020. I wrote about these, vying for inclusion in 3GPP Release 12, here, and also in longer form on the 3GPP web site, 18 months ago. With massive capacity increases from 6x better spectral efficiency, 56x higher average cell density and 3x more spectrum, even faster user speeds, sophisticated machine-type communications, extensive automation including self-organizing networks and other goodies are already on the way. What else could justify the next step from "4G" and what should "5G" be?
Ask the audience
As conference chairman of the 5G Forum at LTE North America in Dallas last month, I had the excellent vantage point, and control over participant speakers and audience, to investigate. I polled this well-informed, but self-selected group with some questions at the outset to see what their expectations were for 5G. There is not yet any official definition for 5G, so I thought it would be worthwhile asking the attendees what they think 5G is and why we need it. My preconceptions, that there would not be significant call for creating a new air interface, and that capacity would be the most important driver, were typical but unimaginative. Their responses are presented below.
Significantly, by the end of forum discussions, several more people believed that a new air interface was a significant possibility with 5G. We all learned that there will most likely be a whole lot more to 5G than simply increasing capacity and speed.
Switch the question
As correctly explained in a recent FierceWirelessTech article, and in agreement with several of the forum attendees, "[s]truggling to catch up with Asia and North America, which have set the pace for LTE deployments, Europe is focusing on the next generation of mobile communications, commonly called 5G. The flagship project leading this effort is METIS 2020, which aims to position Europe as a 5G leader." METIS stands for "Mobile and wireless communications Enablers for the Twenty-twenty (2020) Information Society." Europe feels it needs the next "G" to get back in the mobile communications leadership game. With a lacklustre position in 4G LTE, the 5G moniker and the METIS project clearly create some focus and a rallying point for Europe. The European Commission is priming the pump by committing €50 million ($68.4 million) in research grants to develop 5G technology by 2020. Nearly one-third of that total has gone to the METIS 2020 research project.
A significant challenge will be to condense a wide variety of possibilities into a distinct set of initiatives and target applications which can transform or significantly supplement what is already in the pipeline with LTE Advanced and that are technically and commercially viable. METIS released a list of five 5G "scenarios" and a set of requirements derived from these scenarios. The scenarios are broken down as "amazingly fast," "great service in a crowd," "ubiquitous things communicating," "best experience follows you," and "super real-time and reliable connections." METIS hopes to address include device-to-device communications, massive machine communications, moving networks, ultra-dense networks and ultra-reliable communications. The METIS project is pre-standardization: it has a finite and relatively short life of couple of years. There will still be much to done in 3GPP standardisation workgroups and in commercialising technologies after the project is wrapped up.
How and why would we use such capabilities? What is needed and which will make money? The METIS project has considered a number of test cases--such as wireless use in a shopping mall, an open-air festival and a virtual-reality office--and mapped those onto the five scenarios. We had some fun fantasising in our brainstorming session about what which prospective applications and services would require our mobile networks to be taken to radically higher levels than we conceive--let alone experience-- today.
One suggestion was a highly interactive augmented reality experience on Google Glass requiring ultra-low latency, intense and rich cloud-based services with support from extremely low-latency baseband processors and content caching on the network periphery.
My favourite is driverless vehicles. It is one thing taking Heathrow Pod from Terminal 5 to Business Parking with the cars travelling on their dedicated track with manual CCTV surveillance, a solid median and side bumpers (i.e., like bowling lanes for kids) that can prevent catastrophes if vehicles stray. It is quite another to mix driverless cars with all the existing traffic on busy local roads, winding country lanes and motorways with multiple lanes merely painted on the tarmac. There are numerous and various stationary and mobile hazards. Just imagine the demands in sensing, processing and communications with the network and among vehicles to make all that safe and reliable. Coverage gaps, dropped and blocked sessions would be totally unacceptable with the high-performance and fault-tolerant communications capabilities required for that application.
Technology makes so much possible. We are principally constrained by the limits to our imagination and reluctance to try doing things that are new and different. It is quite incredible that only 15 years ago we could only make calls, and send texts if were on certain networks worldwide. We have come a long way with 2G, 3G and 4G, but there is clearly still enormous scope for innovation and improvement on our mobile networks with 5G. Perhaps Europe will regain its former glory and fortune by making this happen?
Keith Mallinson is a leading industry expert, analyst and consultant. Solving business problems in wireless and mobile communications, he founded consulting firm WiseHarbor in 2007. WiseHarbor publishes an Extended Mobile Broadband Forecast. This includes network equipment, devices and carrier services to 2025. Further details are available at: http://www.wiseharbor.com/forecast.html. Find WiseHarbor on Twitter @WiseHarbor.