From Trials to Use Cases – The Top 5G Developments in 2017

Oh what a difference a year makes. In 2017 5G moved from the university labs to the city streets. Operators around the globe started demonstrating the technology in different scenarios and in different spectrum bands. From AT&T’s 5G trial at a market in Waco, Texas, to Deutsche Telekom and SK Telecom testing federating 5G network slicing across continents, technology trials became a staple for any operator that wanted to be part of the 5G standards process.

The 2017 5G trials also helped solidify the 5G vision. The technology was no longer touted as being just about speed, instead it morphed into an all-encompassing mobile service that would not just connect people but transform entire industries.

SDxCentral took a look back at the biggest developments in 5G in 2017.

Trials Move from the Lab to Friendly Users

Top research universities around the world made early inroads in 5G technology, and many were often supported by leading telecom vendors that wanted to keep abreast of the latest developments. But in 2017 the trials moved out of the labs and into the cities where operators tested 5G in many different scenarios.

Verizon was one of the more aggressive 5G testers. The company launched a pre-commercial 5G services to friendly users in 11 markets. Those markets include Ann Arbor, Michigan; Atlanta; Bernardsville, New Jersey; Brockton, Massachusetts; Dallas; Denver; Houston; Miami; Sacramento, California; Seattle; and Washington, D.C. And by October, an executive at the company said that the trials, which used millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, were progressing better than expected and it was on track to launch a commercial service in three to five markets in the second half of 2018. Sacramento, California, will be the first market to receive the service.

AT&T meanwhile continues to work on different types of trials. Most recently, the company said it launched a 5G trial at a highly trafficked consumer market in Waco, Texas, where it will incorporate the company’s FlexWare virtual network functions (VNF) platform.

First 5G NR Spec Makes its Debut

As 2017 came to a close, the 3GPP unveiled the first 5G specification, the 5G non-standalone New Radio (NR) standard. The non-standalone architecture leverages the LTE and the NR air interfaces as well as the existing LTE core network. This configuration will likely be used for early 2019 deployments.

There is a standalone version of 5G NR that the 3GPP is still working on. Standalone 5G NR will have full user and control plane capability and will use the next-gen core network architecture. That specification is expected to be finished in June 2018 as part of the 3GPP Release 15.

Releasing the non-standalone 5G NR spec is a significant milestone for the 5G community because it means that chipset vendors can go ahead and design silicon based upon this standard.

Interestingly, the release was escalated three months. Originally, it was set to be solidified by the 3GPP in March 2018, but after receiving pressure from many operators, including AT&T, Sprint, Telstra, and Vodafone, the standards group fast-tracked the specification.

The Network Edge Becomes Relevant

At Mobile World Congress 2017 there were just a handful of companies talking about computing at the network edge, which is often referred to as multi-access edge computing (MEC). But fast forward a few months and suddenly every discussion about 5G morphed into a talk about the necessity of MEC.

The reason behind the buzz about MEC is that many 5G use cases, such as autonomous cars, augmented reality/virtual reality, and drones, all require low latency and high bandwidth. That combination means that processing power needs to be near the edge of the network versus in the cloud.

Analyst Iain Gillott of iGR Research said that he believes MEC may be as disruptive to the industry as software-defined networking (SDN) because it promises to bring applications and content closer to the network edge.

AT&T jumped on the MEC bandwagon when it announced in November that it was building an edge computing test zone in Palo Alto, California, that will serve as a location for developers and other companies to test connected applications like autonomous cars and AR/VR. The company said the test center will initially be outfitted with a 4G LTE connection but will be upgraded to 5G once the 5G standard is finalized and equipment is available.

MEC has even attracted the attention of tower companies like Crown Castle. Crown is a minority investor in VaporIO, which plans to offer micro-data centers at the base of cell towers. The initiative, called Project Volutus, is currently being deployed in two cities, one of which is Chicago.

Network Slicing Gets Traction

Network slicing became a bigger part of the 5G conversation in 2017. In fact, many vendors used network slicing to help explain how the 5G network could be used to support different vertical industries such as automotive, health care, and media.

In fact, several vendors formed a 5G Mobile Network Architecture (Monarch) group focused solely on network slicing. Nokia is leading the group, which has a budget of about $9 million. Other members include Samsung, Huawei, Telecom Italia, and Real Wireless. The project is scheduled to end in July 2019.

But Monarch isn’t alone. Another European group launched that is also focused on 5G network slicing. Called the 5G Transformer Project , the group has 18 member companies including mobile operators, vendors, and universities. Like Monarch, the goal of this group is to show how network slicing can support a variety of vertical industries.

And even the Telecom Infra Project is looking into network slicing. TIP launched three new project groups at its second annual TIP summit earlier this year. One group, the E2E-NS, will tackle network slicing. It is co-chaired by BT and Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE). 

Virtualization Moves Beyond the Core

Virtualization has always been a key part of 5G, but most of the focus has been on software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). But now the virtualization conversation is broadening to include other network components like the radio access network (RAN) and fronthaul, which is the connection that carries traffic between the cellular base station and the remote radio heads.

Virtualizing the RAN network is particularly compelling for operators as the RAN is the most expensive part of the network, accounting for at least 70 percent of all network spending.

An industry consortium, call the xRAN Foundation, has been formed to develop and promote the extensible RAN (xRAN) and the use of open standards. Nokia recently became the first legacy RAN vendor to join the group, which is significant because it signals a major shift in the equipment vendor’s strategy.

The xRAN Foundation was created by a number of large operators including Deutsche Telekom, AT&T, Verizon, SK Telecom, and Telstra.

Virtualizing the fronthaul is also compelling, particularly as 5G is supposed to dramatically increase the amount of traffic on the network. South Korean operator SK Telecom recently said that it is using 5G passive optical networking (5G-PON) in about 10 percent of its network. The 5G-PON technology is being used to fronthaul traffic from the cell site to the remote radio heads. The operator said it plans to expand that to 30 percent of its network in 2018.