5G Fundamentals

Mobile operators have just commercialized LTE and few of the features that make LTE a true 4G technology have made it into live networks. So why is industry already discussing 5G?

5G is indeed on the horizon and it clearly plays an important role in worldwide research and pre-development. Constant user demands for higher data rates and faster connections require a lot more wireless network capacity, especially in dense areas. The industry is expecting demand for 100x higher data rate per user and 1000x more capacity and has defined these as targets for the 5th generation of mobile networks (5G). One example is sports events or concerts where huge numbers of spectators want to share their experience instantly by sharing pictures or videos. The event itself might also offer spectators additional services, such as background information about the music played or slow motion replays of sport sequences.

5G drivers

In addition to the neverending “provide more” requirements, i.e. higher peak data rate, more capacity, better cost efficiency, above all the new buzzword Internet of Things (IoT) provides new challenges to be addressed. It is anticipated that millions of devices will “talk” to each other, including machine to machine (M2M), vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) or more general x-2-y use cases.

This will impose different requirements than those currently addressed by 4G systems, which were optimized to provide mobile broadband data access. But not only the number of devices is critical, high reliability, very long battery lifetimes (years instead of days) and very low response times (latency) call for another “G” in the future. Reduction of power consumption in cellular networks is another important requirement. This is particularly challenging since capacity and peak data rates need to be increased at the same time.

Ongoing research work is revealing a number of technology components that aim to achieve the ambitious goals, including:

  • Millimeter-waves: Exploring higher frequency ranges would allow the use of higher bandwidths, which would lead to higher peak data rates and system capacities.
  • New air interfaces: The OFDM-based LTE air interface will not be suitable for some use cases and therefore a number of new air interface candidates are under discussion.
  • Massive MIMO/beamforming, active antennas: In particular at higher frequencies, the significantly increased propagation path loss has to be compensated by higher antenna gains. Additionally, adaptive beamforming algorithms – even on a per user device basis – are required and can be implemented using active antenna technology.
  • Device-to-device (D2D) communications: Already an existing use case to satisfy public safety requirements using LTE. Allowing D2D communications would also allow low latency for specific scenarios.
  • Network virtualization (cloud-based network): The aim is to run today’s dedicated hardware as virtualized software functions on general-purpose hardware in the core network. This is extended to the radio network by separating base stations into radio units and baseband units (connected via e.g. fiber) and pooling baseband units to handle a high number of radio units.
  • Splitting control and user plane and/or decoupling downlink and uplink: The focus is on heterogeneous network deployments, making it possible to control all user devices on a macro layer, whereas user data is independently provided via a small cell.
  • Light MAC and optimized RRM strategies: Considering the high number of potentially very small cells, radio resource management needs to be optimized. Scheduling strategies would potentially require more lean protocol stacks, which could also be deployed in uncoordinated scenarios.

It is telling that the European 5G research program is called Horizon 2020. It gives an idea of the anticipated timeline for the deployment of this new technology. Some of the most important 5G research activities (without making the claim to be complete) include:

  • Research projects funded by the European Union (EU)
    • 5GNow research project as part of the 7th Framework Program (PF7), started in Sept 2012
    • METIS research project as part of the 7th Framework Program (PF7), started in Nov 2012
    • Horizon 2020 – 7-year EU research and innovation program (2014 – 2020). It is the 8th Framework Program (FP8)
    • 5GPPP, the 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership project is a EUR 1.4 billion joint initiative between the European ICT industry and the European Commission
  • 5G Innovation Centre: 5G research center in the UK, started in Nov 2013
  • China: IMT-2020 and Future Forum (Feb 2013)
  • Taiwan: Office of Science and Technology working with the National Science Council and Ministry of Economic Affairs on a blueprint for 5G development in 2014
  • 5G Forum: Korean industry-academy-R&D cooperation system, established in May 2013
  • Japan: ARIB established a new working group (2020 and beyond) in Sep 2013
  • USA: Several university-led research projects, sponsored by key industry players, such as New York University’s NYU WIRELESS research center in Brooklyn, NY that is spearheading industry efforts in terms of channel propagation, as well the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, and the University of California in San Diego

5G has started globally and comprises countless projects at the research and pre-R&D level. It is obvious from ongoing studies that higher (> 6 GHz) frequencies will play a role, allowing higher bandwidths and enabling higher data rates. But 5G is not only high frequency and more bandwidth. Integration of potentially disruptive technologies with deployed LTE/LTE-A (and/or WLAN) technologies will be the key, including offloading strategies. Satisfying D2D and IoT use cases will become essential, too.

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