5G Is Still Mostly Smoke & Mirrors

One of the big topics at Mobile World Congress this week was 5G, the next evolution of wireless networks, within which software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) promise to play significant roles. But in reality, there was very little hard 5G to be found.

The operators and vendors leading the 5G charge talked about big-picture themes such as Internet of Things (IoT) and use cases targeting verticals, but were shy on details. Or, in the words of Raj Singh, general manager of the wireless broadband group at Cavium: “Right now it’s like this pixelated screen where we see all these dots.”

“We need some really big architectural vision,” said Ericsson CTO Ulf Ewaldsson at a media briefing on Tuesday. “We want to connect all the devices in the world to all the clouds in the world with the network architecture in between.”

Yeah. That’s pretty big-picture.

Getting a little more specific, Ewaldsson said network slicing is going to be an important new use case that 5G will deliver. “Network slicing uses the same network infrastructure, but you create a slice for a particular industry for a particular need at a particular time,” he said.

For example, sensors for utility meters can use simple network functions “sliced” out of the main network topology, while an enterprise with mission-critical bandwidth requirements can have a more complex slice of the network tailored to its needs by software. Slicing also allows for optimal pricing, with the sensors’ customer paying less per bit than the mission-critical customer.

According to Ewaldsson, “Network slicing is bigger than mobile. It also includes a relationship to fixed access and WiFi. Network slicing is IP technology and will probably be standardized in IEEE.”

5G & Use Cases

TeliaSonera has previously announced it will offer some 5G services for its customers to test in Stockholm and in Tallinn, Estonia, by 2018.

“We start with the use cases: healthcare, mining, self-driving cars,” said TeliaSonera’s head of networks, Mats Svärdh. “5G for me is the new use cases – what’s not possible with today’s technology.”

To begin getting there, TeliaSonera has already built a telco cloud and is experimenting with virtualized customer premises equipment (vCPE) from Cisco and Huawei as well as virtualized evolved packet core (vEPC) technologies from Ericsson and Affirmed Networks.

“All these network functions we virtualize one by one and put on the telco cloud,” says Svärdh. “We’re now in a place where we don’t have the perfect partner defined for the orchestration layer. We have selected a partner [Ericsson] to try and be first in Europe with 5G, but we also work with other partners. The beauty of the virtual environment and SDN is that it’s open, and you’re going to take the best solution for every single part of the whole stack.”

We also caught up with AT&T at the show, speaking with Tom Keathley, senior vice president of wireless network architecture and design, who elaborated on the 5G template that the carrier announced earlier this month. That announcement mentioned that millimeter waves would be a component of its 5G strategy.

Keathley explained that millimeter waves use a different frequency that will extend the macro mobile network to small-cell areas for faster coverage in buildings.

“In-building coverage is an issue that people have with 4G, so 5G will help them with that,” said Cam Cullen, VP of marketing with Procera. Although offloading traffic from the macro wireless network to in-building WiFi is sometimes touted as a good thing, “operators want to control the customer as much as possible,” Cullen says. “With offloading, they get no revenue and visibility.”

But besides some more detail about millimeter waves, some focus on emerging 5G use cases, and a lot of talk about network slicing, there wasn’t much 5G news to be found. One reason cited for the slow progress was network standards. The 3GPP won’t issue its first-phase 5G standards until 2018.

Ericsson’s Ewaldsson compared this phase of 5G to Valentine’s Day where everyone is talking about wireless’s great future. “The enthusiasm of creating one global standard is there among all these people sending love cards,” he said.

“The technology is still quite a few years away from deployment,” said Procera’s Cullen. “It’s in the initial evangelism phase.”