5G is here but what is it?

So 5G is finally here with Verizon launching (as reported on 1st Oct 2018) in four US cities; Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. They are offering a wireless broadband solution for the home and promising ‘typical speeds’ of 300 Mbps, and peaks of 940 Mbps. AT&T is due to launch at the end of the year. Sprint’s 5G network is planned to be turned on in the first half of 2019 in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington D.C

Earlier in 2018 in June, Finnish operator Elisa claimed a global first in launching a commercial 5G network in the Finnish city of Tampere and the Estonian capital Tallinn.

In the UK EE is due to launch the UKs first live 5G trial network in East London in October 2018. A while back O2 was also reported as deploying a 5G system to the Millennium Dome with a view to conducting demos of virtual reality, augmented reality and live streaming in late 2018.

Devices are finally on the horizon with LG claiming it will launch a 5G ready smartphone with Sprint in the first half of 2019. Qualcomm is also reported as expecting to see 5G device launches in early 2019.

The standards groups in 3GPP signed off the new 5G New Radio standalone variant specifications in June after having already signed off the non-standalone variant in December 2017.

So progress is looking good towards 5G finally becoming a reality.

But what will 5G deliver?

On the radio side, there will be a new radio (5G NR) interface. Currently the scenarios or user cases that the design standards are considering to utilise a new radio interface are:

Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) Including – Indoor Hotspot, Dense urban coverage, Urban Macro, Rural coverage, High speed, Extreme long distance cells

Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) For Indoor Hotspot and Urban Macro coverage

Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) Urban coverage for massive connections

Vehicle to X (V2X) Urban Grid for connected car, and highway coverage.

Let’s look at these in a bit more detail:


The main thrust appears to be another hike in data speeds with DL targets of 20Gbps compared to LTE-A pro which is targeting in excess of 3Gbps. Allied to this is a target for lower latency of 10ms (current networks are delivering 40 to 50ms in the UK). So high bandwidth low latency services will benefit significantly. For the MNO the question is whether they need such speeds or indeed whether 5G will become another hygiene factor and without it you are simply not keeping up with the competition. How to monetise another step in data rates is another obvious question


There appears to be general consensus that the future of many industrial control, traffic safety, medical, and internet services depends on wireless connectivity with guaranteed consistent latencies of 1ms or less.

Some emerging URLLC applications include:

  • Tele surgery for remote surgical consultations or indeed surgical procedures.
  • Intelligent Transportation – fully automated driving with automatic overtake and cooperative collision avoidance
  • Industry Automation – Factory process, and power system automation
  • Other possible applications of uRLLC include Tactile Internet, augmented/virtual reality, fault detection, frequency and voltage control in smart grids.

For the MNO the question is do they want to play in any of these potential application spaces, do they want to have niche segments as part of their propositions etc?

Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC)

mMTC is aiming to provide connectivity with densities of devices of 1 million per sq km allied to battery life targets of in excess of 10 years. This is obviously to serve a mass deployment of IoT type devices.

However, mMTC is as much a challenge for the commercial and pricing models for equipment suppliers as it is a technical one. Typical commercial pricing for HLR/HSS not to mention SIMs is way above what is needed for mass device deployment in often low volume communications with low associated revenues. Whilst technically of course such a solution would work it is probably more complicated than is actually necessary which contributes to the cost/pricing problem.  With mass market deployment of IoT type devices MNOs will have to stop thinking about customer value in terms of $’s per month and instead think in terms of Cents per year. This means the complete mMTC solution needs to be massively optimised for cost.

Again the question is does an MNO want to compete in the IoT space or not, particularly considering the cost optimisation challenges above. There are alternatives in 4G technology such as NB-IOT and with LTE-Advanced Pro targeting further improvements in device power levels and subsequent battery life plus more efficient use of spectrum for IoT devices, it’s clear that 5G is not the be all and end all of competing in the IoT space. However the cost scalability remains a challenge.


V2X is the framework that will allow vehicles to communicate with each other and beyond. This includes vehicle to infrastructure (e.g. traffic signals) vehicle to network (for real time routing information) vehicle to vehicle (e.g. collision avoidance) and vehicle to pedestrian (for safety alerts etc.)  The functionalities to assist driver safety are numerous.

Who will own the value in this use case is an interesting question. Trials are ongoing with various operators, vehicle manufacturers, telco vendors and engineering companies but ownership of the customer and who extracts what value is still to be understood. Is this a space for MNOs / MVNOs or will vehicle manufacturers dominate the value chain?

5G Implementation

5G NR has two variants being considered architecturally . One based upon using LTE as an anchor network for control plane traffic and the 5G radio only will be deployed. Another is for a complete standalone version with both control and user plane traffic in a new 5G radio base station.

For the first variant one can envisage simple upgrades where the 5G NR is installed into existing 4G base stations (from the same vendor) however if this is the reality delivered by the vendors remains to be seen. This first variant should start emerging as fully standardised equipment in the next year. The first 3GPP Release for 5G – Release 15 had it’s functionally frozen in Sept 18. This release will include eMBB, the other user cases outlined above will be delivered later depending upon how the standards bodies finalise the roadmap.

The second (standalone) variant will no doubt require a whole new base station infrastructure and with some operators already wondering how they can make the 5G business case work this is just further cost headache they can hardly afford.

5G will also introduce other functionalities in the RAN that go hand in hand with the higher bandwidth and speed targets such as Massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) which require new antenna arrays to be deployed. Currently MNOs have been using 2×2, 4×4 or 8×8 MIMO systems on 4G networks but 5G trials have included use of 64×64 MIMO systems to deliver the increased radio performance. MNO antenna upgrade plans will be a major factor in 5G deployment if they are to achieve some of the service levels and data rates that 5G has to offer.

5G Spectrum

5G NR will also bring more efficient use of a range of spectrum by introducing more spectrum sharing capabilities and options to use mmWave spectrum over large bandwidths for high speed mobile broadband deployments. The spectrum aspects are interesting, according the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) report “Spectrum for 5G: Plans, Licences and Trials”, 42 countries had allocated 5G spectrum, announced plans to auction spectrum or were determining spectrum to be used for 5G as of the end of 2017. The majority of allocations sit in the 3400 to 3800 MHz range and with recent awards in the UK in the 3400 MHz band it will be interesting to see if these bands are the ones the equipment vendors support first.

However some countries are allocating spectrum in various other bands including 700 MHz, 2300 MHz, 4400 to 4900 MHz and 37 to 43 GHz to name but a few.

In the USA the FCC allocated approximately 11 GHz of spectrum above 24 GHz, in various bands from 27.5 to 86.5 GHz in 2016, with 1.7 GHz in the 24 and 47 GHz bands added for licensed mobile applications in 2017. In the traditional cellular bands below 6 GHz T-Mobile USA plans to deploy 5G on the 600 MHz spectrum it acquired in a 2017 auction, and Sprint will use its 2.5 GHz spectrum. Additional spectrum in 3.7 to 7.125 GHz range is also under consideration.

In a recent auction in Italy Vodafone and Telecom Italia were both awarded 80MHz of 3.7GHz spectrum while the other two operators secured allocations of 20MHz of the same band. Telecom Italia and Vodafone Italia also bought 200MHz of 26GHz (mmWave) and 20MHz in the 700MHz band. Iliad won 200MHz in the 26GHz band, alongside its 20MHz of 3.7GHz and 10MHz in the 700MHz band. Wind Tre acquired 20MHz of 3.7GHz and 200MHz in the 26GHz band.

A we can see the spectrum picture is pretty varied and so radio network equipment availability at different bands is going to be key.

Core Network Considerations

Connectivity to and compatibility with current Core Networks is also subject to a few variants but it appears that 5G NR will be able to connect back to existing LTE EPC deployments (although some upgrades may be required). The standards are considering both existing EPC and a Next Generation Core (NGC) as options for 5G. In addition, network slicing which enables different service types to be carried on separate virtual networks from RAN through to Core is also a feature of 5G. This enables user cases with specific radio and core network end to end requirements to be deployed in virtually separate networks to make most efficient use of network resources.

MNOs will therefore need to make further investments in core network infrastructure going forwards if they want to take advantage of the full range of 5G functionalities.


Overall there are certainly some interesting technical developments coming with 5G, with even more speed and bandwidth, options for mass IoT deployment, more efficient spectrum utilisation, and potential new market segments being serviced with dedicated technology solutions there appears to be some new opportunities for MNOs to explore. However the question is whether the new opportunities can be monetised by the MNOs and can the cost of deploying 5G be fully justified?




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