All roads point to 5G for the future of mobile networks, but commercial deployment for the technology is still at least a year away. However, as mobile operators and industry giants begin to trial this technology, certain features and functionality of 5G networks are coming into focus. It’s clear that 5G is more than just another “G” in the mobile network progression. Instead, it’s a huge transformation to the network and to the business models that have been prevalent in the mobile industry.
With that in mind, SDxCentral has compiled a list of 5G terms that we think everyone should know as we get closer to 5G becoming a reality.
4G LTE is the current network infrastructure, and it has been widely adopted and used globally. Until the 5G standard comes into prominence and full-realization, the current 4G LTE infrastructure will be vital to the evolution and functionality of the coming 5G network. In the past, transitions to new networks — 1G to 2G, 2G to 3G, 3G to 4G — involved the construction of entirely new networks. However, 4G LTE will remain a viable option for the foreseeable future.
There will be a full transition, eventually however, as the current LTE network is being pushed to its technological limits.
5G’s arrival may be imminent, but there is still no standard, meaning its definition remains fluid. One of the organizations working to develop this standard is 3GPP. 3GPP is the mobile industry standards body that will submit a proposed specification to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), which will release the final standard, also referred to as IMT-2020.
3GPP unites seven telecommunications standards development organizations and oversees all cellular telecommunications network technologies. Mobile operators and vendors are participating in the specification process by undergoing trials. As a result of industry pressure, 3GPP will complete the first 5G non-standalone New Radio (NR) specification by December 2017.
Cloud Radio Access Network (cRAN)
Cloud Radio Access Network (cRAN) is a proposed architecture for future cellular networks, the deployment of which will not occur without virtualized networks. cRAN, would move baseband processing, currently attached to the radio, into the cloud. This pooling of mobile resources in the cloud will centralize the RAN and make mobile connections more efficient.
The move would transition broadband processing, currently on the RAN, and move it into the cloud, improving performance and decreasing operational costs. Early tests by Verizon and Nokia indicated the architecture can provide the same level of service as 4G LTE, while meeting network throughput, capacity, and resiliency; with additional flexibility and scalability.
The network edge refers to the most dynamic part of a network where the programmability allows for easier control of the workload. The increased flexibility of computing at the network edge makes it ideal for diverse use cases. It will allow providers to test new services — moving and uninstalling where needed and scale out when needed with greater ease and efficiency, all in real-time.
When pushing 5G applications to the network edge, the application will run faster due to its physical closeness to the user. Innovation across technologies today are using the network edge, and 5G will be no different.
Edge computing is also sometimes referred to as multi-access edge computing (MEC), and the distinction is getting more blurred. MEC is a cloud-based IT service environment that operates at the network edge, allowing operators to host at the edge, while improving performance and connectivity.
One of the core network technologies pertaining to 5G is network slicing, which refers to the segmentation of a single network to make the network dynamic. This technology is crucial because of the multitude of use cases and new services 5G will need to support. Based on the demands of a particular use case or market segment, network slicing will enable operators to allocate speed, capacity, and coverage by creating logical slices of a single network.
This will work — as it is in current infrastructures — as though the user were on a separate network, though there will be multiple virtual networks in the same shared physical infrastructure. However, early reports indicate that initial 5G deployments may not use this.
Millimeter Wave (mmWave)
Millimeter wave (mmWave) is spectrum that is at frequencies between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. Today’s 4G LTE networks use spectrum frequencies below 6 GHz. The need for mmWave spectrum for 5G stems from cramped space on the current radio-frequency spectrum. As more data is consumed on the wireless network, it leads to slower service and an increase in dropped connections. Some 5G networks will likely use mmWave spectrum because that spectrum has a higher frequency and will enable extremely fast 5G speeds.
The one major drawback to mmWave spectrum is its short propagation range, making it difficult to travel through buildings or obstacles. In using the mmWave band spectrum instead of the traditional cell towers, a new technology — small cells — will come into play.
5G requires a larger infrastructure than the one currently in place for 4G LTE. In order to achieve this, engineers have developed portable mini base stations, deemed small cells. Small cells require minimal power and can be placed every 250 meters throughout cities to create a dense, flexible network. mmWave spectrum requires smaller antennas, and as such, they are less obtrusive than traditional antennas, providing more targeted and efficient use of the spectrum.
However, while their portability makes them ideal for urban environments, there are concerns that they will be difficult to arrange in rural areas due to the sheer numbers that would be required.
In March of this year 3GPP began a study, led by Qualcomm, about 5G operating on unlicensed spectrum bands, all the way to mmWave. Defined by the FCC as “license exempt,” users do not need an FCC license to operate in this spectrum. In bringing this to 5G, it will offer greater capacity, better spectrum usage, and unique deployment scenarios primarily because a wider variety of use cases will have access to the technology, regardless of whether they have a license or not.
While 5G will likely not operate solely on unlicensed spectrum, the pairing of both licensed and unlicensed spectrum will allow mobile operators to provide more capacity and bandwidth, making 5G faster for consumers. This model is one that Google supports on the premise of “abundant bandwidth for everyone.”
One of the reasons it’s taking so long for 5G to be defined is 5G will be used in a diverse group of use cases. The substantial growth of mobile networks requires these higher 5G speeds for everything ranging from video streaming to virtual reality to automated cars.
One likely use case will be health care where 5G might be used for wireless remote surgery, for example. For automated cars, 5G will enable enhanced safety, awareness, and overall connectivity in cars. Intel has been heading up a lot of the work in this particular use case.
Commercial use cases and trials for 5G consistently include video streaming at unprecedented speeds, the solving of video traffic dilemmas, and virtual reality uses. Additional tests and trials are being run by 5G operators.
Virtual Radio Access Network (vRAN)
The virtual radio access network (vRAN) involves virtualizing the functions in the RAN.
This translates to separating functions from a traditional remote radio unit or base station and running them as virtual network functions (VNFs). This will reduce the total cost of ownership and increase performance and scalability. The deployment of vRAN, ahead of 5G standardization, will enable mobile operators to future-proof their networks in anticipation of 5G updates.