2019 has seen 5G services taking off. The results are outpacing all expectations we had only a couple of years ago. Korea has taken the lead in 5G growth and is on pace to surpass 5 million 5G subscribers by the end of this year, all major US carriers have launched 5G commercially on low/mid bands as well as mmWave spectrum. Many other countries around the world plan to follow with the launch of their own commercial 5G services.
In parallel, industrial 5G is starting to take shape. As part of its leadership ambition in Industry 4.0, Germany is issuing local, private licenses of premium 5G spectrum to enterprises. We see regulators in key industrial nations adopting similar approaches. In the US, deployments of industrial wireless networks are possible in the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) band.
We’ve made tremendous progress this year on the commercial foundation of 5G, but further steps need to be taken toward the 5G vision, steps both in the evolution of the 5G technology as well as in the spectrum regulatory framework. In that respect, there were two events in fall 2019 which significantly set the course toward the completion of the 5G vision: the WRC19 and the 3GPP plenary meetings.
WRC19 provides significant additional spectrum for 5G growth
The international treaties governing the use of radio-frequency spectrum are reviewed every four years, and 2019 was one such year for revisiting the agreements that govern international spectrum policy. In a positive contrast to previous conferences, this year’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) held in November in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, recognized the significance of 5G growth as a top priority. As a result, a large amount of spectrum, for a total of 17.25 GHz, was identified to further 5G growth.
In particular, the mmWave bands at 26 GHz, 40 GHz and 66 GHz were globally harmonized and identified for 5G to drive economies of scale and facilitate roaming that will spur 5G deployments around the world. These mmWave bands will allow ultra-fast 5G use cases such as augmented reality and virtual reality. Equally important, WRC19 agreed on reasonable technical conditions that will govern the 5G use of these bands while protecting other services such as satellite communications. This will positively influence the cost of 5G equipment, ensure that regulators can make the entirety of these bands available, and that 5G services can be deployed indoors and outdoors while coexisting with other services.
In addition, the WRC agreed that new mid-bands in the 3-11 GHz range will be studied for eventual identification for 5G use in four years’ time. There will also be a review of the UHF band (470-960 MHz), which could lead to additional spectrum for 5G in the low bands.
3GPP Technical Specification Group Plenary meetings setting the agenda for Release 17
Making use of new bands and the evolution of the 5G standard go hand in hand. In 2019, 5G deployments were based on 3GPP Release 15 Non-stand-alone, which allows for a 5G service to work in conjunction with 4G connection to allow for faster broadband. Starting in 2020, we expect markets to move to the next version of the standard where 5G connections no longer require a 4G foundation. This 5G Stand-alone will offer greater possibilities to tap new 5G use cases that require ultra-low latency and exceptional reliability and security. The Release 16 version of 3GPP is approaching finalization, and it includes, as one of the more transformative functions, the ability for 5G to operate in unlicensed bands (“NR-U”) such as 5 GHz or 6 GHz.
In December, the plenary meetings of the 3GPP took place in Sitges, Spain. The most important decision was the definition of the Release 17 content of 5G, or “New Radio” (NR) as 3GPP calls it. This Release will be a substantial step forward from the 5G as we know it today. The Release will enhance the capability of 5G in multiple dimensions.
Firstly, in accordance with the WRC decision to identify the 66 GHz band for 5G (IMT), the 3GPP will extend its radio design to include this band, extending 5G’s operational reach up to 71GHz for both licensed and unlicensed operation. In future releases we expect 5G/NR to cover even higher frequencies into the Terahertz Range, with the next step expected to be up to 114 GHz.
The completion of Industrial 5G was another big headline from Release 17, by which we mean a version of 5G fully optimized for industry-grade Wireless 5G networks. A couple of features of Release 17 contribute to that. Industrial networks typically highly depend on cables and bus-systems, and these will be replaced by wireless 5G E2E connections. These connections must be at the same time ultra-reliable while providing service with low latency and deterministic time. The control of robotic moving parts and similar tasks need these properties to function normally, and Release 17’s set of functionalities does provide for that. Precise positioning services will enable unmanned guided vehicles to precisely navigate around shop or factory floors. New types of deployment models between operators and private networks will be enabled with the Release 17 version of non-public networks.
Meanwhile, the possible 5G deployment scenarios and coverage will be expanded by the enabling of 5G links to non-terrestrial networks such as satellites and high-altitude platform systems.
5G support for broadcast and multicast as well as proximity services will enable use cases for public safety, mission critical communication and vehicle-to-everything connections required for autonomous driving.
In addition, the operation of 5G in mmWave bands will be made more efficient thanks to further enhanced MIMO functionality. The 3GPP will perform coverage enhancement studies to prove the feasibility of 5G for rural deployments, which is increasingly important for developing countries.
Some Release 17 functions are supporting the journey of 5G networks and service automation toward zero touch with machine learning/artificial intelligence.
In history, the last couple of months of a decade often belong to the next one. The next decade will be the decade of the 5G, and both the WRC19’s and the 3GPP’s Release 17 decisions will be remembered for having set a firm course towards the fulfilment of the world’s 5G vision.