“5G won’t just be a bit faster, a bit higher capacity, or a linear progression from what we know today. The change will not be incremental, but exponential,” said the EU’s Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes in February this year. A big endorsement for Europe’s digital future, but is it not a little early to be thinking about fifth-generation internet?

After all, many Europeans are just getting access to 4G and “today’s networks have a lot more mileage left in them and there are lots of things in 4G that still need to be done,” according to Marcus Weldon, Corporate Chief Technology Officer and President of Bell Labs.

But 5G will not be simply the next step along the mobile connectivity path as its predecessors were. Instead, it is part of a vision of integrated mobile, wireless and wired networks, interlinking data, things and people in a seamless exchange of information.

No single definition

Speaking to industry leaders, it soon becomes clear that there is no single definition of 5G. For Ericsson’s Chief Technology Officer Ulf Ewaldsson, 5G will be an open innovation platform for industry. For Weldon, 5G is “shorthand for expanding capability for anywhere, anytime, anyhow connectivity for any application, or the network that optimises itself for you”, having become synonymous with the Internet of Things.

For Nicola Ciulli, Head of Research and Development at the Italian start-up Nextworks, 5G is a nice “brand name” or “umbrella term” that groups together recent and future architectures, technologies and paradigm shifts emerging on the telecommunications landscape.

What is certain is that while 5G will address specific technical limitations experienced today, it will also go further, extending connectivity and managing it in an entirely new way, and enabling novel classes of application, not possible today.

Limitations looming

As mobile traffic increases – by 70% between the last quarter of 2013 and the last quarter of 2014 – pressure on current networks is growing.

“The mobile industry has so much excess demand, there is a lack of spectrum, which is key for evolution,” says Ewaldsson. “Frequency will become a more scarce resource – so scarce that you can compare it to the oil industry. We need to explore other frequencies.”

Weldon has developed a ‘triangle of truth’ to illustrate how 5G will boost wireless capacity.

Spectrum, spectral efficiency and spatial efficiency are the keywords:

  • More spectrum – getting access to more spectrum and to more (new) frequency bands. 5G is likely to use high frequencies for the first time. While these frequencies don’t travel far, much more capacity is available on so-called mmWave (>20 GHz) spectrum.
  • More spatial efficiency – by deploying more base stations/small cells and re-using them. This will become increasingly important as capacity replaces coverage as the key network design criterion and we move to higher frequencies.
  • More spectral efficiency – for example, using new types of waveform that do not require strict timing and frequency synchronisation could make the network more efficient for machines. New radio and antenna designs will also increase the number of bits/seconds per frequency slice.

A new philosophy

But 5G will do more than fix a few technical limitations, suggests Ciulli. It is not just “4G + 1”. And as we move towards the Internet of Things, “Anything that can benefit from a connection in the future will have one,” adds Ewaldsson. Other industries are looking at the mobile industry to see how they can transform themselves.

Examples include:

  • E-health – the first transatlantic surgical procedure took place between New York and Strasbourg in 2001. While a huge success, the procedure was extremely expensive, requiring high-capacity leased lines, and commands were carried out with a small delay. Although that was carried out over wired networks, which will still be essential for core networks, 5G will bring mobility to tele-surgery like this, meaning it could be used to wirelessly connect a remote surgeon, or a field surgeon, with high fidelity and with a response time close to zero, to provide the required accuracy and precision.
  • Connected homes – devices from fridges to ovens and smoke detectors to lighting will in future be able to provide information about their environment and communicate with each other. A thermostat might ‘talk’ to a smoke detector; together they will provide quite detailed information in the event of a fire, which could be communicated to the owners and the fire brigade.
  • Secure transport – the roads will be a safer place when vehicles are able to communicate with the outside world and each other. Stuck behind a lorry on a rainy day and can’t see what’s ahead? If you could hook into the lorry driver’s view via a camera, both driving comfort and safety would immediately increase. Traffic control could also be dynamically optimised to improve flow using an optimal set of dynamic routes.
  • Asset tracking – locating and tracking your personal or business assets will be possible anywhere, anytime, helping you to find your keys but, more importantly, making it possible to conduct business more efficiently thanks to the tracking and optimisation of materials, goods, transportation, manufacturing, warehousing, and delivery.

Fifth-generation will also be optimised for each user. Long-term evolution (LTE), 5G, 4G, 3G and wireless – a collection of everything so far in addition to new technologies – will be packaged together to provide a seamless mobile experience for each individual user.

Tackling the technical challenges – the 5G-PPP

How to use all of these technologies together is just one of the challenges facing the telecommunications industry. Another is the use of waveforms, radios and antennas to improve spectral efficiency, which are still very much in the research phase. Then there is the more efficient use of all spectra at once, which is driving the new model forwards, and the concepts of software defined networking (SDN) and network virtualisation. “We get what we need to do, we just don’t know how to do it yet,” says Weldon.

Visions of anywhere/anytime/anyhow connectivity will be addressed within the EU’s new public-private partnership (PPP), known as the ‘5G Infrastructure Partnership’. The European Commission has set aside €700 million for the research needed to get 5G up and running, while industry partners are seeking a five-fold return on their part of the investment.

“Frequency will become a more scarce resource – so scarce that you can compare it to the oil industry.”

“It’s not just a question of getting the different parts working separately or just having papers written on interesting technology topics – it is about actually building something.”

Ewaldsson, Weldon and Ciulli are all involved in the PPP and report good progress. Ewaldsson highlights the importance of good collaboration, emphasising that competition can come later.

More than 20 priority research areas have already been listed, and companies are signing up to sponsor them. Research areas are reflected in the PPP’s working group structure.

The PPP’s vision includes:

  • wireless capacity that is 1 000 times higher than in 2010;
  • energy savings of up to 90% per service;
  • communication networks in which the majority of the energy consumed comes from the radio access network;
  • reducing service creation time from around 90 hours to 90 minutes;
  • a network that can support connections from over 7 trillion wireless devices, serving over 7 billion people.

The difference between this and any previous initiatives is the focus on providing a proof of concept, says Weldon. “It’s not just a question of getting the different parts working separately or just having papers written on interesting technology topics – it is about actually building something,” he says.

The PPP’s steering board also includes SME representatives like Ciulli. The agenda has so far been driven by the PPP’s founders, he says, and the process is now opening up. SMEs like Ciulli’s are in a position to start innovating as soon as the core agenda takes shape. “As an SME, I am a follower for the core 5G topics, and I have to be. My clients are operators and vendors. But our business depends on being informed – and in good time.”

He welcomes the initiative’s transparency and inclusive nature, although emphasises that the Commission must ensure the process remains transparent for all stakeholders.

On the horizon for 2020

All stakeholders are surprisingly precise on the timetable for introducing 5G. For large-scale deployments, 2020 is the date to watch out for, while standardisation is likely to start in 2016.

Standards are structured as releases – every 18 months, a new release incorporates hundreds of individual standards documents. Release 14 will be the first with 5G capabilities in late 2017/early 2018, and it will take 9 to 12 months to roll this out, predicts Weldon. Trial deployments are likely to take place from 2017 onwards, but full commercial deployments will not begin in earnest until 2019, and with real momentum from 2020.