Four days before Christmas in 2017, Sherif Hanna tweeted: the first specs for 5G was declared complete by the “3GPP”. Three years later today, people are already talking about the top 12 challenges confronting 5G in 2020.
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was formed in December 1998 by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) in partnership with other standard development organizations (SDOs). The 3GPP’s (1998) original scope was to produce Technical Specifications and Technical Reports for a 3G Mobile System. The organization periodically sends technical reports to the “International Telecommunications (ITU)[^2]”, a specialized agency of the United Nations; the agency gives recommendations for issues that concern information and communications technologies that countries may adapt if turned into law. The 3GPP doesn’t seek ITU approval; it sends technical information to receive reciprocal information from ITU.
Before the advent of 5G, the fourth generation of mobile connectivity (4G) supported HD TV on mobile, high-quality video calls, and fast mobile browsing by introducing internet speeds up to 500 times faster than 3G. The development of 4G massively enhanced global mobile technology, especially in the evolution of smartphones and tablets.
The 4G technology ushered the era of the Internet of Things (IoT) by enabling the interconnection of over 20bn active devices by 2020. But the steadily increasing number of connected devices requires a corresponding enhancement of the 4G capability to sustain the increased volume of internet traffic. This prompted the 3GPP to undertake studies, establish updated technical specifications and set a new standard to respond to the rapidly evolving situation.
As new features are introduced into the cellular system, the 3GPP issues a pertinent Release; these updates are very similar to periodic software updates issued for smartphones or personal computers. Consequently, the 3GPP had issued Release 16 and plans for Release 17 to address the said evolving concerns. Release 16 set and spelled out the standard for a technology that would be smarter, faster and more efficient than 4G. It promises to carry massive mobile data with speeds of up to 100 gigabits per second that outstrip the then fastest home broadband network available to consumers.
Moreover, the new standard features a mmWave with a very short roundtrip latency – below 10 milliseconds as a key enhancement over 4G. Latency in computer science refers to “the delay in the transfer of data following an instruction for its transfer”. You experience it as the time that passes from the moment you send information from a device until it reaches the device of your receiver. Minimized latency means that you’ll be able to::
1. Use your mobile device connection as a replacement for cable modem and Wi-Fi.
2. To download and upload content/ files more quickly and easily,
3. Watch a 4K video without waiting for your device to finish buffering.
4. Conveniently use your enabled-devices without having to worry about the network or device suddenly crashing.
The 5G technology promises to fix bandwidth issues. Currently, there are many different devices connected to 3G and 4G networks that aren’t compatible with the existing infrastructures. The 5G standard seeks to support varying devices, including said devices, and the emerging technologies such as driverless cars and connected home products.
The 5G technology is no longer purely theoretical. We have witnessed how 5G capabilities were demonstrated in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Games making that event remarkable for the participants and home-viewers.
The Evolution of the Standalone 5G Network
The 3GPP throughout its almost two decades of history had undertaken numerous studies that provided technical specifications, essential protocols, and global standards for generations of cellular technology. Thus far, the 3GPP Release 15 and Release 16 (scheduled for completion in June 2020) had covered the 5th Generation (5G) for cellular networks, which cellular phone companies began deploying worldwide in 2019. Release 17 is scheduled for 2023. To many people, 5G promises to deliver new capabilities that have previously been impossible with 3G and 4G networks.
The 5G networks are cellular networks wherein the service area is divided into small geographical areas called cells. All 5G wireless devices in a cell are connected to the Internet and telephone network by radio waves through a local antenna in the cell. According to reports, the deployment of 5G networks means for most people:
- Faster speeds in downloading and uploading content.
- Quicker uninterrupted streaming of online content.
- HD-quality voice and video calls.
- Reliable mobile connections.
- Advancement of useful technologies – self-driving cars, smart cities, industrial automation, Internet of Things (IoT), virtual reality, augmented reality, and gaming.
The reports coincide with how analysts used to describe the significance of the 5G standard.
The “two main deployment options for new 5G networks are:
1. As Non-standalone (NSA) 5G Core/add-on to 4G – In this case, the new radio base stations are connected thru the 4G network. Here, a long-term evolution (LTE) anchor controls plane communication and mobility management. A 4G evolved packet core (EPC) is enhanced for this purpose.
2. As 5G standalone (SA) – This applies to both 5G Core and 5G New Radio (NR). In standalone 5G Core, the NR and 3GPP standardized 5G Core are independent of the 4G network. The main advantages of 5G Core and NR SA includes end-to-end network slicing, enhanced QoS handling, improved security, and edge computing.
The 5G potential capabilities could unlock new desirable possibilities such as:
- Better user experiences
- Untapped revenue streams
- Opportunities for OPEX (operational expenditure) savings for providers.
But making those potentials come true necessarily entails putting in place corresponding technical, operational, and financial requirements.
Promised VS Actual 5G Network Performances
To have a reasonable view of 5G, identify some challenges it met on the field, and be able to study how to overcome them, let’s take a peek at how 5G actually works:
5G ON VERIZON
By the end of 2019, Verizon 5G had reached parts of 31 cities. In Chicago, U.S., speeds of up to 1.4Gbps were recorded; this is much faster than 4G’s theoretical top speed of 300Mbps (although average 4G speeds tend to be below 100Mbps).
However, Verizon’s 5G coverage is patchy due to its use of the ultra-high-speed but low-area mmWave tech in the 28Ghz and 39Ghz spectrums.
5G on T-MOBILE
T-Mobile uses some 28Ghz mmWave frequencies. But it also includes sub-600Mhz frequencies that reach much farther to serve suburban and rural communities but delivers there lower speeds.
The only phone that supported 5G at the time was the Samsung Galaxy S10. A sweeping nationwide 5G launch employing the lower 600Mhz frequencies, activated coverage across 1 million square miles of US area to reach 60% of Americans.
By June 2020, T-Mobile’s 5G smartphone alternative models included Samsung Galaxy S20 phones, the S20 Plus and S20 Ultra, the LG V60 ThinQ, and the OnePlus 8 5G. This final move brought T-Mobile 5G to all 50 states, though speeds and coverage areas are still not universal.
5G on Sprint
Following partnerships with T-Mobile, Sprint opted for a middle-of-the-road frequency – ‘mid-band’ 2.5Ghz. This was selected to complement its partner T-Mobile’s high and low bands. Sprint’s choosing middle-level signal frequency illustrates how the existing 3G and 4G servers could temporarily be used by a 5G server as accessories or conduits while completing the full-fledged infrastructures.
5G on AT&T
AT&T, after a late 2018 launch, went only as far as seven more cities including Austin, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Orlando in April 2019. It relied on the 5G Netgear Nighthawk mobile hotspot for service in the absence of a 5G – enabled telephone system.
This 3GPP 5G NR standards-based mobile 5G connection is made possible by AT&T’s mobile network leadership. It’s supported by Ericsson equipment, NETGEAR’s device, and powered by the world’s first commercial 5G NR modem with millimeter-wave capability – the Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem.
But the carrier had lost consumer confidence for hyping claims- ‘5Ge’ or 5G Evolution, a souped-up 4G service included 5G tech – that was criticized across the tech and telecom spheres.
5G IN U.K.
EE was the first UK carrier to launch its 5G network. By June 2020, 5G coverage was available in 80 towns and cities. However, like the US networks, EE 5G had covered only some but not all areas in each city. The recorded speeds here were around the 200-400Mbps range, far below the promised 1Gbps possible speed. In other areas where 5G is available, speeds of around 200Mbps were recorded (versus around 15-20Mbps on 4G devices).
5G IN AUSTRALIA
Telstra’s 5G coverage started in May 2019, with the launch of the first 5G smartphone in Australia – the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. At that time, Telstra had covered only 10 major cities and regions. The coverage within those regions was limited and patchy.
5G Challenges to Overcome
Considering what we now know, we can already identify the areas where 5G networks face big challenges. Here are the top 12:
1. The 5G mmWave signals cannot travel as far as the lower-frequency 4G waves. Many cellular communications towers must be manufactured and installed to deliver the optimum signal to users; for example, according to one estimate, as many as 250,000 towers are needed to achieve widespread access across the U.S.. Investors must be willing and ready to pour money to put the needed infrastructures. Expectant consumers must be willing to wait.
2. According to Heavy Reading’s Mobile Operator 5G Capex, the total global spending on 5G is set to reach $88 billion by 2023. The ultimate consumers must be prepared to eventually be at the receiving end of that cost.
3. On the technical side, 5G’s high-frequency range needs more power to reach the bandwidth and sustain the mobility of large data required. Backhaul becomes a problem should 5G delivers the promised fast transfer of enormous data rates between the user, device, and cell tower. Many territories worldwide lack the required infrastructure to keep such high-speed networks up and running. Building intermediate link-networks takes time.
4. The initial deployment of the 5G paradigm will initialize a new ecosystem. This will lead to changes in doing things- from personal to social activities. For example, the digital service provider becomes more preferred over the communication service provider (CSP), identification cards will be digitized, travel time will be lessened, etc. All such charges boil down to what necessary adjustments everyone should do to be able to benefit from the features the new 5G network will bring in 2020.
5. The providers of 4G and lower generation services must be prepared to upgrade to the 5G standard. They may seek to become junior partners to 5G providers, be absorbed into 5G companies, or find a new business type altogether.
6. The new Standalone (SA) 5G is far from being perfect. There’s a need for more research to make 5G’s short-range mmWave travel longer distances. In the meantime, 5G providers have to rely on 4G providers as conduits to reach a wider consumer base while putting in place permanent infrastructures.
7. There’s more talk than the supply of 5G-enabled smartphones and other devices; this was actually true in the U.S., U.K., and Europe.
The concept behind the Internet of Things (IoT) requires a fast network that can tie devices and services together. Analysts say 5G has this potential. In fact, the initial introduction of autonomous cars gives credence to this. However, people want to see how 5G will enrich their lives.
8. It’s wise to prepare for 5G standalone now. Attaining a full 5G standalone standard is a long journey and organizations will need time to adapt to working with a cloud-native telecom infrastructure. We learned from 4G experience that it is advantageous to move ahead, especially in 5G where the cost and effort of adapting are greater compared to 4G.
9. Prospective 5G users will expect new low latency services. Consumers should be well advised that the optimum performance of the 5G in millimeter-wave depends on location, deployment type, device, and sometimes the server. Beware of suppliers of fake gadgets that claim to support 5G in millimeter wave (mmWave).
10. In some markets, enterprises are already starting to build dedicated networks based on 5G SA. Some of them will eventually connect to 5G providers to avail of a wider application ecosystem and edge computing. Beware that some of them may do what AT&T in the U.S. did; the company initially lost consumer confidence “for hyping claims that ‘5Ge’ or 5G Evolution, a souped-up 4G service included 5G tech”.
11. Even the “Authentication and Key Agreement (AKA)”, a system designed to establish trust between networks, was inadequate to eradicate the practices of live eavesdropping and tracking people nearby using smart phones. These are standard cyber threats that the awesome capabilities of 5G could mitigate or worsen, depending on which side are you; likewise is possible with identify theft and other serious cyber offenses. The burden to provide a digital safety net for customers mainly lies on the carriers and network consortiums; but for everyone, vigilance and continuous learning are called for. The strengthening of existing cyber laws and relevant statues would likewise be needed to cope with the full rollout of the promised 5G features.
Moreover, the 3GPP is a member-driven organization; its achievements rely on the initiative of individual members. Hence, members tend to compete with each other for primacy in the organization and, by extension, in the industry. For that matter, the members are in the position to vie for leadership by loading their inventions with foolproof security measures.
12. Owing to 5G’s enormous capabilities, it could potentially open new markets for new and enhanced existing highly-patronized ones to heterogeneous consumers. Converting these potentials into reality entails designing multiple dynamic, universal, user-centric, and data-rich wireless services − supported by appropriate networks, technologies, and devices-that could operate in different geographic regions and fulfill the varying expectation of people. Offering standardized- as opposed to customized- services would be a real challenge to service providers in 2020.
The Core Takeaways
In telecommunications, 5G is the fifth generation technology standard for cellular networks, It’s already here but it remains a mystery to many people, even to many computer-literates. This is because the infrastructure and other requisites for 5G deployment are existing in limited locations, depriving most of us the opportunity to experience the much-hyped technology..
Experiencing the full fledged Standalone (SA) 5G is a not-so-distant reality. Simply overcoming the enormous challenges- that the limited trials had disclosed- brings us away from that reality . But the 3GPP’s scheduling the completion of Release 17 in 2023 indicates the peak of the 5th Generation (5G) technology Standard is within our sight.