With 4G only recently becoming a mature market, service providers are beginning to set their sights on 5G. But, this will be a gradual process with LTE-A Pro (aka 4.5G) taking on many of the features and capabilities touted for 5G. That’s the conclusion reached by Stéphane Téral, Executive Director – Research and Analysis, Mobile Infrastructure & Carrier Economics, IHS Markit, in that firm’s 2017 survey of twenty-one 4G service providers to find out how they’re faring with preparing for 5G and how they perceive the evolution toward next generation mobile.
“The long-term evolution of LTE is exactly that: still improving and becoming — at least in part — what 5G was supposed to be, perhaps reducing the need for 5G to happen quickly, or rather allowing 5G to be mature for longer before deployment,” Téral said in the report summarizing findings from the survey.
The evolution of mobile: LTE-A Pro ramping up
The report starts by characterizing various steps in the mobile evolution as follows:
- 2G – declining
- 3G – mature
- 4G (LTE) – peaked in 2015
- 4.5G (LTE-A) – ramping up
- 5G – a work in progress
Most service providers surveyed (71%) have already implemented some LTE-A Pro features, such as enhanced inter-cell interference coordination (eICIC), three-component carrier aggregation (CA), and coordinated multipoint operation (CoMP).
Service providers also talked about deploying:
- 4×4 multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) to add capacity and improve network quality
- 256 quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) to achieve faster data rates and increase spectral efficiency
- License-assisted access (LAA)
- LTE + Wi-Fi link aggregation (LWA)
- NarrowBand Internet of Things (NB-IoT), the most deployed LTE-A Pro feature so far
- MulteFire, which is gaining momentum
Needed: virtual packet core
Service providers who responded to the survey indicated that virtual packet core is a key part of 4G, and a prerequisite for 5G. Yet, only 46% of respondents had moved to a virtual evolved packet core (EPC) or its components.
Standards bodies—ITU IMT-2020, 3GPP, ETSI—are working on virtual packet core as a critical item, the report noted.
5G coming soon
The evolution to 5G is moving faster than previous generation of mobile, with service providers continuing to shift their pre-commercial and commercial readiness dates earlier, the report said. 14% of respondents indicated they planned to launch pre-commercial 5G services by end of 2017.
A third of early commercial rollouts are planned to involve spectrum above 6GHz, illustrating the role that short range, narrow beamwidth frequencies (with increased frequency reuse potential) will play in high data rate delivery for 5G.
Don’t expect to see full-scale, commercial 5G before 2020, though; three-quarters of respondents don’t expect to have this deployed until the start of a new decade. Massive IoT has a similar timeframe.
5G uses cases
The number one driver for 5G rollouts: ultra-low latency (target: 1 millisecond). With a focus on that capability, most service providers (81%) indicated they expect the top 5G use cases will be:
- Extreme mobile broadband
- Real-time gaming
- Tactile low-latency touch and steer
The low-latency needed for these use cases will be achieved through use of millimeter wave spectrum, mobile edge computing, and programmable core networks, respondents said.
What’s holding 5G back?
The main barrier to rolling out 5G, respondents indicated, is not technological but rather financial: ‘undefined business model.’ Service providers are challenged to figure out business cases and models that will make 5G profitable.
On the technology side, radio is the area needing most research and development effort, respondents said.