5G is heating up. Mobile phone users are never satisfied. Everyone wants a faster and better mobile connection. Plans are coming together to make that happen in the form of 5th-generation mobile telephony. Here are some observations on the current state of play. (For more on 5G, see Everything You Need to Know About 5G So Far.)

5G Pretenders?

Most mobile providers are looking toward a 2020 timescale for 5G deployment, but some companies are more aggressive. Verizon communications, for instance, plans to deploy 5G in 2017, with potential download speeds of 1 Gbit/s (gigabits per second). This would be 200 times faster than today's network, according to the CEO. However, the 5G specification is not yet defined.

LightReading's mobile editor Dan Jones, in a December 2015 article “Watch Out for 5G Pretenders,” contends that Verizon's 2017 deadline “doesn't appear very realistic.” If the past is indicative of the future, some companies may provide services with the “5G” name prematurely. Jones points to the previous transition from 3G to 4G, where the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) “acquiesced to market pressure” when carriers began selling upgraded 3G services as “4G.” Jones says that the 1 Gbit/s download speed proposed by Verizon falls far short of the 20 Gbit/s called for in ITU's 5G Roadmap.

ITU projects 5G development in a program called “IMT for 2020 and beyond.” IMT-2020 has joined IMT-2000 and IMT-Advanced as a standard for International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT). The framework and objectives are laid out in ITU-R M.2083. Such topics as frequency bands, traffic estimates and radio parameters are dealt with in various other ITU Recommendations. The actual specifications for IMT-2020 are not expected until 2020.

IMT Vision

ITU's IMT Vision anticipates expansion into new markets, an increase of applications related to the Internet of Things (IoT), and the proliferation of user devices and mobile applications, among other things. “Mobile communication has become closely integrated in the daily life of the whole society,” the ITU-R states. In addition to expanding services and affordability, consideration is given to a better quality of user experience (QoE). Other trends discussed include:

  • High user density
  • Maintaining high quality at high mobility
  • Enhanced multimedia services
  • Convergence of applications
  • Growth in IMT traffic

Advanced technologies will be integrated into IMT-2020. These may include new multiple access schemes, such as filtered OFDM (FOFDM), filter bank multi-carrier modulation (FBMC), pattern division multiple access (PDMA), sparse code multiple access (SCMA), interleave division multiple access (IDMA) and low density spreading (LDS). Spectral efficiency is the objective.

Along with new radio interface technologies, advancements are expected in a variety of areas. The self-organizing network (SON) will build on the legacy of the Radio Access Network (RAN). Direct device-to-device (D2D) communication is expected, as well as push-to-talk. Wearable smart devices are anticipated. Significant enhancements to both the data and control planes will enable ultra-reliable and low latency communication. (For more on mobile communication, see Can Apps Replace Your Cell Phone Carrier?)

The IMT Vision document goes on to state that “broadband connectivity will acquire the same level of importance as access to electricity,” and that IMT will continue to play a major role in mobile service delivery within this context. IMT anticipates a significant contribution toward education, social changes, and new art and culture. Eight parameters are identified as key to IMT-2020:

  1. Peak data rate
  2. User-experienced data rate
  3. Latency
  4. Mobility
  5. Connection density
  6. Energy efficiency
  7. Spectrum efficiency
  8. Area traffic capacity

Planned Deployments

How do current planned deployments measure up? We have already discussed Verizon's 2017 plans. But it may be premature to attempt to apply standards that haven't been written yet to deployments that haven't been initiated yet. However, we can list a selected few planned deployments:

Company Partners When
Verizon (U.S.) Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung, Qualcomm 2017
MTS (Russia) Ericsson 2018 Football World Cup
SK Telecom (South Korea) Nokia, Ericsson, Samsung, Intel, Rhode & Schwartz 2018 Winter Olympics
MegaFon (Russia) Huawei 2018 World Cup
NTT DoCoMo (Japan) Nokia 2018 Winter Olympics

In an interview in January 2016, industry expert Gabriel Brown stated that 5G faces key decisions in 2016. It may turn out that the work is somehow divided into a “Phase One” and “Phase Two,” where the more readily achievable results are achieved early on. The most “transformative use cases” may be left for later. The important decisions, he notes, are critical because they will impact the industry 10–20 years down the road. Among them are the formal standards definitions that will be hammered out by consensus. He says that there is significant pressure on early 5G leaders at this stage.

Everyone wants to be first out of the 5G chute. Whether the earliest 5G deployments offer true 5G – or something short of it – remains to be seen. What is clear is that the development of 5G and the IMT-2020 is ongoing. It will be fast, capable, and expensive. The details will come later.