Our conversations and demonstrations in London last week centered around three major topics, each showing different aspects of 5G’s momentum:
1. 5G use cases
This was by far the most heard phrase throughout the entire event, and no surprise, since new 5G applications for consumers and industries will drive the adoption and monetization of 5G. The biggest difference between 5G and previous ’Gs‘ is the diversity of applications that 5G networks need to support. It is common sense that these can be broadly grouped into the notion of ‘extreme’ mobile broadband, delivering multiple Gbps, massive connectivity for billions of IoT devices, and highly reliable, virtually zero-latency communication for connecting healthcare, robots, self-driving vehicles and more examples yet to be thought of. And while even the well defined 5G use cases are still under development, the race is on to identify the application that will fire the initial growth of this technology.
It is no coincidence that the 5G World show was co-located with its sister event, Connected Cars 16 since 5G holds a lot of promise for enabling fully automated driving. Current autonomous car prototypes work truly independently in the sense that they are trying to find their way with a lot of onboard intelligence. But without networking with other vehicles, pedestrians, cyclists and the road infrastructure around them - such as traffic lights and emergency road signs - these cars in large numbers would create the same problems that individual drivers can create today. Alignment and communication between all road users is needed, requiring a highly reliable, low-latency network. With short and long range, high bit rates, very low latency and enhanced security, 5G offers exactly what is needed and complements existing communication technologies in the automotive sector, such as the ETSI ITS G5 intelligent transport system proposal.
5G-enabled automated driving will not happen overnight, but let’s start with assisted driving, which warns road users in advance about road hazards or helps when overtaking other vehicles. There is a lot that can be done already with 4G LTE building the foundation for 5G. Motoring applications of 5G will not only be about cars - other vehicles like fork-lift trucks, mining vehicles and even trains can be automated or automated further. At Nokia’s booth at 5G World visitors could see both: what is possible today with LTE as well as automated driving enabled by a real life 5G network containing a latency-optimized 5G protocol stack and dynamic edge cloud computing supporting fast mobility. This world’s first demo gave a first impression of the gain 5G provides over legacy technology in terms of road throughput, security, vehicle speed, and energy consumption.
Use cases need to evolve over time. Autonomous driving is one example of what the evolution towards 5G could look like. But in order to create autonomous driving for tomorrow, one needs to start with assisted driving already today. Operators need to start the transition to 5G now because even by 2020 we won’t have a totally clear picture of all the applications possible through this technology. Nobody is able to calculate an accurate business case today but we can already create the ecosystem and start developing applications for target industries.
Beyond connecting vehicles we also saw some very promising 5G applications that could be trialed at some of the major international sport events coming in the next two years. For example, the ability to provide spectators with a holographic view of athletes; 360-degree virtual reality coverage in the stadium, viewing action from the athlete’s perspective without any noticeable latency; free selection of different camera angles; and safety and facial recognition. Although there is still a lot to do the industry is moving fast.
2. 5G-ready technology
There is nearly complete industry consensus about the technology foundation of 5G resulting in an ambitious and accelerated standardization roadmap. Already by the end of 2017 the standardization of 5G radio Phase 1 is supposed to be done, ahead of the original timeline. At the same time LTE evolution (with LTE Advanced Pro) provides significant progress in spectral efficiency, network latency and IoT, which enables higher capacity and enhanced applications. Despite the progress in LTE it should be noted that the performance targets for 5G are much higher and that, at a certain point in time, we will have to move to a new technology. This is similar to what we saw with the introduction of LTE and 3G: now we are seeing LTE-Advanced Pro features being labeled ‘5G’ which has the potential to not only create confusion but also inherits the danger of lowering the aspiration for 5G which should truly focus on totally new capabilities.
What really matters are 5G-ready platforms and products. At 5G World, Nokia made the first ever demonstration of a 5G network running on commercially-available platforms. We implemented all the key 5G technology ingredients that are currently in standardization, including an entirely new 5G frame structure on Nokia’s AirScale radio access working together with the commercially available Cloud Packet Core, running on a Nokia AirFrame data center platform - the foundation of a commercial 5G architecture. No matter how the standard will look in detail, these commercial platforms can handle it and they have the necessary performance and scalabilty.
3. 5G Architecture beyond radio
Beside the radio platforms, the overall architecture for 5G is key to keeping the system versatile. A means to do this is through Network Slicing, another key topic at 5G World. The basic idea of Network Slicing is to use a single physical network for a variety of 5G applications with diverse requirements (such as delivering 4K video, which has completely different requirements than, say, connecting body sensors) by creating virtual sub-networks. These sub-networks are assembled from existing resources in radio, core, transport, application servers, edge clouds and central clouds. From Nokia’s perspective it is important to slice the network truly end to end as this allows operators to manage and monetize each sub-network. Operators will be able to configure resources dynamically on demand, supporting centralized and distributed cloud architectures, ensuring resources are optimally utilized all the time. And this is exactly what Nokia demonstrated at 5G World.
Despite the work that still needs to be done the industry is quite ahead in the standardization process, more ahead than we thought we would be a year ago. We can expect the first standards to be finalized by the end of 2017, which means commercial 5G services could be deployed even before 2020 when the whole set of standards are expected to be complete. The foundations and even some walls are available for the future 5G ‘home’. The broad industry interested in 5G is yet to fully imagine all the possibilities of what 5G will deliver or what it will create for people. But Nokia has made a valuable start, demonstrating to operators what they will need - an architecture versatile enough to provide the seamless fabric for our future connected lives.
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