By Anne Morris
"If we get 5G right there may not be a 6G." These are the much-quoted words of Andy Sutton, principal network architect at UK-based operator EE.
To put it in context, Sutton contends that "5G" networks involve more than just a shift to a new generation of mobile networks as with 2G, 3G and 4G. With 5G, he said, the industry is developing a solution that could fundamentally change society. "It's more subtle," he added.
Others echo that message. Mike Short, vice president of public affairs at Telefónica, said 5G is not a discussion about what the next radio interface should be. "What will the digital economy look like in 2020? 5G should address that," he said.
Hakan Andersson, experienced researcher at Ericsson and an expert spokesman for 5G at the Swedish company, concurs: "It's about a networked society," he said "The challenge is understand the new opportunities…We have to try not to fall back into our comfort zone and just talk about mobile broadband and faster speeds."
Working on a standard
The stakes are high: operators, equipment manufacturers, regulators, and standards bodies are all now working in various collaborative ways to turn what is currently a long list of requirements into a standard for 5G. At present, standardisation work is expected to take place in 2015 or 2016, with 2020 currently extolled as the magic date when elements of 5G networks will appear in commercial networks.
5G will be a global phenomenon--of that there is no doubt--and Japan, China, South Korea, the United States, and Europe are all involved in various research efforts.
Although international collaboration is strongly promoted by all regions, there is also a competitive element that will see different countries and regions strive to secure some sort of leadership with 5G. This may not necessarily mean being the first to deploy a 5G network, said Bernard Barani, deputy head of the European Commission's DG Connect unit, but it will mean being ahead in the race for 5G technology adoption.
In Europe, 5G momentum has accelerated this year. The EU's Seventh Framework Programme for Research and Technological Development (FP7), which included funding for the flagship METIS project that was established to lay the foundations for the concept of 5G, ended in 2013 and the EU has now moved onto a new framework under FP8, better known as Horizon 2020.
Click here for a larger version of this image.
The Horizon 2020 research budget is set at €6.2 billion ($7.7 billion), of which €700 million has been allocated to 5G research. In December 2013, the European Commission also kicked off a public-private partnership within the Horizon 2020 framework called 5G PPP that will now also see the private sector invest a combined €4.2 billion.
Establishing the 5G PPP marked a further and deeper commitment by the European Union to take a leading role in 5G development and innovation. Indeed, Neelie Kroes, the former European Commission vice president responsible for the Digital Agenda, instilled a sense of urgency, saying the next generation technology is essential to boost the region's economy and show the world that Europe remains at the forefront of technology innovation.
Getting back on track after being late on LTE
The EC has previously lamented the fact that Europe has fallen behind other countries on LTE or "4G," and Kroes has previously suggested that Europe should "forget" 4G as it had missed the opportunity to be ahead in that market, and instead focus on taking the lead in 5G network technology.
Polite horror is one way of describing the response to this by Europe's operators. As Telefónica's Short said, one of the problems with defining 5G is that it is not going to replace LTE, and indeed LTE still has a long way to go. "How will 5G work alongside 4G and LTE-A? That's a big question," Short said.
Nevertheless, Short thinks that Kroes' remarks were helpful for putting 5G in the headlines and encouraging the market to galvanise itself further still.
EE's Sutton agrees, saying he regarded Kroes' remarks as a call to arms. "It has focused minds," he said, adding that EE also fully intends to maintain its leadership in the UK market with 5G and "will absolutely try to be first" with the technology as it was with 4G.
So a year on from the launch of the 5G PPP, how far has Europe--as well as 5G development generally--actually come?
Barani said in terms of pure technology, European companies so far appear to be very much in line with what other regions are doing, as demonstrated by the fact that other regions are very willing to cooperate with Europe. "We get a lot of requests to cooperate with others," he said. "We are not lagging behind in technology; the question is on deployment."
To clarify, Barani does not think that Europe will have the first 5G network--although he concedes that "would be nice." South Korea and Japan are both believed to be favouring earlier 5G deployments in order to showcase the technologies, at the winter Olympics in 2018 in South Korea and the summer Olympics in 2020 in Japan.
However, what is important, said Barani, is that Europe has to be ready to take part even if the market develops first outside of Europe. "We want to be a fast mover," he added.
A quick glance at some of the research collaborations with European involvement only hints at the extent of the activity. Nokia, for example, lists a raft of programmes and projects ranging from METIS and 5G PPP through to collaborations with customers including NTT DoCoMo, China Mobile Research Institute, and SK Telecom, as well as cooperation agreements with governmental bodies, universities and 5G labs and test beds.
"We started looking at 5G five years ago," said Peter Merz head of radio systems, technology and innovation at Nokia Networks. "We are now getting more clarity, but there is still much work to be done."
Operators such as EE, Telefónica, and Vodafone have also joined a long list of big-name industry players like Huawei in throwing their weight behind the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey in the UK and work on 5G under the Next Generation Mobile Network (NGMN) alliance.
Telefónica's Short said the progress made since Mobile World Congress in 2014 "is quite stunning." Nine months after the conference, he said, more people are interested and there is also greater clarity on spectrum candidates, the needs of the market, the likely use cases for the technology and collaboration mechanisms.
Coming to a consensus proves difficult
However, this enormous level of activity also means there are many disparate elements to bring together, and there are signs of some divergence in views of what 5G will be. The EC's Barani said METIS has already put forward a vision of 5G, while South Korea has also delivered its high-level requirements.
"This does not coincide entirely with Europe," added Barani, who notes that the South Koreans are pushing on very high data rates while the Europeans are more focused on applications such as machine-to-machine, indoor access, and lower latency.
Ericsson's Andersson agrees, saying South Korea is more focused on peak rates and a desire to show something that is dramatically different. Europe, on the other hand, has a desire to seek new revenue opportunities through the involvement of different vertical industries ranging from cars through to the utility industry, security, robotics, health, automation, insurance, and others.
Andy Sutton, EE principal network architect
"We need to engage more," he said. "We can't just meet up with our old friends; we need to meet new players."
Sutton from EE agrees that it will be important to engage more vertical markets: "We can save them a lot of money," he noted.
Next year will bring some important developments, not least because the World Radiocommunications Conference (WRC-2015) will look at spectrum allocations up to 6 GHz and also set the agenda for WRC-19, when allocations in millimetre wave bands are expected to be considered.
"We see a picture of 5G that is emerging," said Barani. "2015 will be the moment of truth."