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Riding the 5G Wave

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Wireless telecommunications is one of the few industries to have thrived since the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the world. At a basic level, many of us resorted even more than before to using mobile devices to communicate with friends and family, stream video, or work from home. Government track-and-trace systems to curtail the virus are dependent on our reliance on mobile. More than that, though, 5G is seen as instrumental in leading economies out of the dire straits many are in.

"To the extent there was any doubt about the importance of connectivity, that doubt has been completely erased," says Alex Rogers, EVP and president of Qualcomm Technology Licensing in a video interview on the company's blog. "While broadband has done well, you need connectivity that solves all the problems. You need it to be ubiquitous, reliable, you need throughput, speed, and security. You will see 5G become essential everywhere. It's going to be in very high demand."

Despite the pandemic and the recession it spurred, 5G is still on track to become the quickest generation of wireless cellular technology to be widely adopted. According to Omdia's projections, 5G will have nearly 2 billion subscribers by the end of 2024, 6 years into the cycle versus 8 for 4G LTE.

5G Omdia survey

Omdia projects 238 million 5G connections by the end of 2020.

Globally, there are now 82 5G commercial networks, a number that's expected to reach 206 by the end of 2020, per TeleGeography. In addition, there are more than 100 commercial 5G device models available worldwide, according to the "Ericsson Mobility Report" from June 2020. Omdia projects that 5G connections will reach 238 million globally by the end of 2020, of which North America will account for 10 million, spanning seven network rollouts.

Omdia 5G Chart 2

The number of 5G connections in North America will hit nearly 300 million by 2024, as LTE continues a slow but steady decline.

"Globally, 5G remains the fast-growing generation of wireless cellular technology ever, even as the world is gripped with a pandemic," says Chris Pearson, president of industry trade association 5G Americas. "In North America, we are seeing consistent, strong up­take of new 5G subscribers as new devices have been released that can take advantage of low-band and millimeter wave [mmWave] frequencies. At the same time, new network capabilities are being added." 

At the peak of the lockdown, mobile networks held up remarkably well to the strain of additional data traffic as work-from-home data usage spiked dramatically. For instance, AT&T reported a 22% increase in its core network traffic and a 30% increase in wireless voice minutes. The new combined T-Mobile/Sprint saw mobile hotspot usage spike 60%, while tethering was up 57% for T-Mobile and 70% for Sprint.

These increases in traffic seem to have persisted. OTT streaming has soared as we have stayed at home, while COVID-19 has forced a rise in working from home and the need for additional bandwidth. 

"Work from anywhere is going to be the new normal, not just from home," Rogers says. "Companies are already evaluating [how] to push the enterprise out to a wireless connected environment."

Nokia reports that peak traffic "normalizes" at 25%–30% above pre-pandemic levels and that aggregate traffic volumes continue to be more than 25% over pre-pandemic levels. A survey from IBM found that 54% of people want to continue working from home even after the pandemic has passed. 

"There is no doubt COVID-19 has had a huge impact on our industry, however, in the midst of the pandemic, Verizon has been able to maintain and, in some cases, accelerate its 5G deployment by being nimble, flexible, and downright scrappy," says Heidi Hemmer, VP of network engineering at Verizon. This has been possible by focusing efforts on 5G antenna attachments where social distancing has been easier to maintain and by taking advantage of the dramatic drop in road traffic to extend the company's hours of operation when working outside on fiber trenching and laying.

"Our engineers conducted virtual site walks with municipalities, providing pictures, videos, and access to our engineers remotely, and we worked with municipalities to deploy digital permitting solutions (to submit applications for licensing without entering an office)," says Hemmer.

So 5G has moved from hype to reality. None­theless, as GSMA pointed out in March, 4G is still king. Its "The Mobile Economy 2020" report finds that 4G will continue to grow, increasing to account for 56% of global connections by 2025.

In addition, consumer devices still lag behind 5G network rollout, curtailing usage. Most mobile devices in the market are not 5G-enabled, according to Ampere. In fact, there is not currently an iPhone model that supports 5G—despite 57% of U.S. internet users owning an Apple smartphone—as reported in Ampere's Q1 2020 consumer survey.

"Currently, devices which are 5G-enabled are also higher cost, which will also limit the short-term uptake and wider market uptake," says Ampere research manager Daniel Gadher. "However, as with any new tech when it first launches, prices will be high due to low economies of scale for manufacturing. With the network coverage having been scaled up nationwide, it will lead to greater scale, and prices of devices should come down, as long as consumer demand is there, supporting wider uptake."


All operators initially launched non-standalone (NSA) network architectures, which combine 600-MHz 5G radio access networks (RAN) tied to 4G LTE equipment at the core. The next step is to migrate to standalone (SA) networks, which boast 5G in both RAN and the core.

In North America, the first to reach this mark is T-Mobile, fueled by its completion in April of the merger with Sprint, and in partnership with Cisco, Nokia, and Ericsson. T-Mobile says its new 5G SA network has been tested to deliver up to 40% lower latency and 20%–30% improvements in download and upload speeds over prior performance.

T-Mobile has passed AT&T to become the nation's second largest carrier and to claim the "5G coverage crown," boasting that its 5G network is more than two times larger than AT&T's and more than 10,000 times that of Verizon's.

In the near-term, T-Mobile explains that SA allows it to unleash its entire 600-MHz footprint for 5G unhindered by using mid-band LTE, with a signal that's able to cover hundreds of square miles from a single tower and go deeper into buildings than before. 

Verizon and AT&T suddenly find themselves playing catch-up—but not for long. Verizon plans to start moving traffic onto its new 5G SA core in the second half of this year, with full commercialization in 2021.

"Verizon was the first carrier in the world to launch a commercial 5G mobile network with a commercially available 5G-enabled smartphone in early April 2019," asserts Hemmer. "To date, we have launched our 5G Ultra Wideband network in parts of 36 cities using mmWave spectrum—a keenly differentiated experience from low-band 5G—and we plan to reach 60 markets this year. Our Dynamic Spectrum Sharing work is on track, which will pave the way for the most efficient use of spectrum to deploy the nationwide coverage layer of 5G on our other spectrum assets. We will launch 5G nationwide by the end of the year. 

"We have also completed successful trials of our 5G SA core. Built with a strategically different architecture of virtualization from the ground up, this will provide the foundation [that] a non-cloud native core simply will not support," says Hemmer.

"Our strategy of deploying 5G in both sub-6 (5G) and mmWave (5G+) spectrum bands will provide the best mix of speeds, latency, and coverage that are needed to enable revolutionary new capabilities to fuel 5G experiences," says Chris Sambar, AT&T's EVP of technology operations. "Our competitors are still working to provide that same mix, which for them could take months or even years. What we offer is available to consumers and businesses today, and we're not slowing down."

AT&T announced in its Q2 2020 financial results an additional $1 billion invested to purchase 5G spectrum, "showing its commitment to growing its 5G coverage nationwide," according to Gadher. "Typically, the major U.S. carriers have focused deployment in highly populated major cities, with rural deployment being slower."

3GPP Release 16 and SA

SA architectures are based on the latest release from the standardization body 3GPP. Release 16, finalized in March, paves the way for deployment of fully virtualized networks using 5G SA cores and the facilitation of edge computing, network slicing, and massive IoT.

Release 16 introduces enhanced ultra-reliable low-latency communication (eURLLC) to deliver millisecond latency, time-sensitive networking, and improvements to "high-power high-tower" transmissions for supporting higher mobility and better coverage of terrestrial TV. Also introduced in Release 16 is high-reliability 5G positioning, which enables a broad set of 5G IoT use cases, such as as­set tracking.

According to a recent Nevion global survey of broadcasters, 82% believe that cellular networks like 5G will eventually replace traditional broadcast distribution as the preferred way to access TV content. More than a third (37%) expect this to happen within 2 years.

Looking further out, 3GPP's Release 17 (due in summer 2021) includes enhancements to NR Broadcast and Multicast, a mixed mode for enabling dynamic switching between unicast and multicast, both in the downlink and the uplink. It will also feature 5G NR-Light, targeting new efficiencies for lower-complexity devices such as industrial cameras, higher-end wearables, and lower-tier smartphones.

Future Applications

Applications for 5G capabilities are gaining ground, although most remain experimental or theoretical. 5G Americas' Pearson suggests that 5G live streaming at sporting events or concerts could bring "instantaneous feedback from thousands of mobile device users around the world in new ways to bring a mobile crowd into the experience."

For individual consumers, Hemmer says Verizon's existing 5G Ultra Wideband running on mmWave spectrum has already achieved peak speeds of a gigabit or more, allowing n enhanced, immersive NFL experience at the Super Bowl; production partnerships with Disney; enhanced gaming with partners such as Bethesda Gaming; and more.

"Many of the use cases we are seeing emerge are with our business partners," Hemmer says. "Corning is implementing smart manufacturing solutions. We recently lit up the first 5G-enabled hospital with Verizon 5G with the VA at their hospital in Palo Alto and plan to test how 5G could enhance AR/VR applications for medical training [and] enable telemedicine and remote patient monitoring."

Ericsson president and CEO Börje Ekholm summed it up neatly in an online keynote: "While 4G gave us the app economy, 5G will be the greatest open innovation platform ever."

That is predicated on 5G SA cores, which T-Mobile declares to be the future of wireless connectivity, bringing 5G closer to reaching its true potential, with faster speeds, lower latency, and massive connectivity. "SA, especially when coupled with core network slicing in the future, will lead to an environment where transformative applications are made possible—things like connected self-driving vehicles, supercharged IoT, real-time translation … and things we haven't even dreamed of yet," according to T-Mobile. 

Yet not all 5G standalone cores are created equal. Hemmer says, "Not all cores are designed to be able to fully take advantage of the more robust technologies such as network slicing and Mobile Edge Compute. By building the Verizon 5G core with cloud-native containerized architecture, we will be able to achieve new levels of operational automation, flexibility, and adaptability."

In the interview with Qualcomm's Rogers, he says the defining difference between 4G and 5G is not throughput or capacity but (with the new 3GPP releases), a drive into verticals and different industries: "Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-X is not possible without standards. Smart buildings, smart cities, ports utilities, [and] other infrastructure connected through 5G and the management of these facilities will be revolutionized based on 5G.

"As you push computing to the edge of the network," Rogers adds, "you are going to see new form factors and XR, augmented and VR experiences using new devices we've never really seen before."

A 5G SA cloud-native virtualized core, in combination with built-in AI/machine learning, will enable the dynamic allocation of the appropriate resource (network slicing). It will also allow for automated network configuration changes, including the ability to scale up or scale down network function capacity to provide the right service levels and network resources needed for each use case.

For example, network slicing is expected to play an important role in providing guaranteed QoS, which is critically important in terms of bandwidth and latency and is required for high-value content production such as sports. Operators can take advantage of network slicing to offer differentiated network services for content production.

As deployment continues and the ecosystem builds up around the technology, video applications will evolve. Some use case examples provided by Verizon include rendering high-end gaming graphics on low-cost, portable devices; creating 360 degrees of sound for a headset, allowing the user to fully experience surround sound in a virtual, mobile environment; and developing dynamic 3D image recognition to overlay virtual information on real-world objects in near real time.

The world is going to need these capabilities as it digs itself out of the COVID-19-induced economic hole and builds a stronger economy. Indeed, telcos are expected to be pivotal in dri­ving the global economy forward as the world emerges from the initial phase of the pandemic.

"[Telcos] will be key in enabling a new digital society," says ABI Research. "Beyond the obvious conclusions that we are likely to see, including more remote working, more virtual meetings, and more virtual teams, … a raft of new solutions could accelerate GDP growth and all will require a robust level of support from the telco community."

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