This year’s GSMA Mobile World Congress shattered the records by all accounts with more than 93,000 visitors attending the conference and exhibition in Barcelona, which boasted more than 2,000 exhibitors.
So, what were the main themes at this year’s Congress? Well, 5G was much talked about of course, along with the role it will play in the development of the Internet of Things (IoT). Combining LTE, Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum was another key topic, along with progressing software defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualisation (NFV).
5G certainly took the award for most hyped technology at MWC. The industry seems split between those eager to push development and standardisation of the technology as fast as possible, while others want 4G to be properly deployed first.
Unsurprisingly, those leading the charge for early commercial deployment of 5G were the Japanese and South Koreans who, by no coincidence, already have the most advanced LTE and LTE-A networks.
The Chinese are also keen to press ahead, with 2020 still being mooted as the year 5G will be ‘ready’. Other operators stressed the need to get a return on their 4G networks before rushing to 5G, thank you very much.
A number of the big mobile infrastructure providers announced further ‘4.5G’ or ‘5G’ solutions with Huawei, ZTE, Nokia Networks and Ericsson all keen to promote the virtues of their innovations.
ZTE and China Mobile demonstrated a ‘pre5G’ 3D massive multiple input, multiple output (MIMO) base station, which integrates the baseband and remote radio units and has 64 ports and 128 antennas. Massive MIMO, which uses multi-antenna technology to improve spectral frequency to enhance network coverage and capacity, is seen as a key 5G technology.
Ericsson showcased a 5G Radio Test Bed to demonstrate dual connectivity - the ability of a device to connect simultaneously to 5G and LTE. It also highlighted ‘capillary networks’, which showed how to manage large-scale IoT networks and make it possible to handle low latency control loops using the mobile network.
Huawei unveiled new 5G-oriented air interfaces, which many think are required to handle the millimetre wave spectrum bands likely to be used with 5G to cope with the predicted huge rise in IoT devices.
Huawei’s self-adaptive and software defined air interface designs use non-orthogonal frequency access technology (OFDM) based on sparse code multiple access and filtered-orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (F-OFDM).
Too much 5G hype
Not everyone was impressed with all these headline-grabbing 5G announcements, arguing they were distracting, if not downright confusing. For example, Marcus Weldon, Bell Labs president and CTO of Alcatel-Lucent, speaking to Mobile World Live, ridiculed the rush to be first with 5G announcements before there has been any agreement on what it is, let alone any standard agreed.
Weldon, for one, does not believe a new air interface is necessary. Mobile World Live reported that Alcatel-Lucent and Bell Labs are: ‘exploring a new multi-carrier waveform dubbed UFMC (Universal Filtered Multi-Carrier), which they argue has far better efficiency than OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) – the transport mechanism underpinning LTE and LTE-Advanced systems – for handing IoT traffic’.
Andrew Skinner, relationship director for Barclays’ Technology Media and Telecoms Team, also added a word of caution about the rush to be first with 5G. ‘For all the timelines bandied around, 5G remains largely conceptual. Yes, the Wireless Alliance tested a device on a 5G network, providing connectivity of approximately 5,000 times faster than on 4G.
‘But we are still to define exactly what it is that 5G needs to be and the service it needs to enable, and the industry must move relatively quickly to put a framework in place to achieve the lofty goals that have already been set.’
He continued: ‘One of the major problems facing those charged with development of 5G standards and technologies at the moment is that they must do so in tandem with maximising the opportunities that 4G brings; not to mention 3G in the developing world.
‘And actually there’s an argument in an increasingly globalised economy for focusing on the latter, or else risk widening the gap between the developed and the developing world. After all, there are still several countries in Africa relying predominantly on GSM (2G), let alone the luxury of 3G.’
He concluded: ‘The development of 5G for 2020 cannot be at the expense of advances made to fully realise everything that 4G was supposed to achieve.’
Skinner is not alone in suggesting that some of the applications being targeted at 5G might be achieved by telcos more quickly using existing technology, including converging cellular and Wi-Fi.
The GSMA Intelligence’s Mobile World Congress 2015 Wrap-up paper quoted Qualcomm’s CTO, who said: ‘We have engineering teams working on LTE and 5G. Each time the 5G team unveil a new performance leap, the LTE engineers respond by matching it.’
GSMA Intelligence had already sounded much the same warning note in its paper released in December 2014, Understanding 5G: Perspectives on future technological advancements in mobile (see Wireless Jan-Feb issue for more on this). The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance launched its 5G White Paper at the Congress – its team of more than 100 experts is trying to consolidate mobile operator requirements to aid the standardisation process.
Europe’s 5G Infrastructure Public Private Partnership (5GPPP) also unveiled its vision outlining the main drivers behind 5G. The general view is that the genuinely new elements of 5G would include plus-1Gb data rates and at least 10ms latency with the aim of achieving 1ms latency for some application, such as connected cars.
LTE, Wi-Fi and unlicensed spectrum
Another key topic was bringing LTE-Advanced to the unlicensed spectrum bands (particularly 5GHz), using LTE-U or Licensed Assisted Access (LAA). LTE-U augments existing LTE mobile networks to provide the best mobile broadband experience to consumers by aggregating unlicensed carriers with licensed FDD or TDD carriers in small cells. Ericsson is a keen proponent of LAA.
Alcatel-Lucent offered an alternative route by combining LTE and Wi-Fi – a solution that naturally appeals to the Wi-Fi vendor community. The GSMA Intelligence MWC wrap-up report says of LTE/Wi-Fi: that it ‘combines the attributes of both technologies to double mobile broadband download speeds while boosting the uplink capacity by up to 50 times.
The move towards combining LTE and Wi-Fi would require a software upgrade and a deeper integration building on LWA (LTE Wi-Fi aggregation), which could then be combined with LTE-U.
‘LTE-U enables the operation of a secondary LTE channel in the 5GHz unlicensed spectrum band. Ericsson explained that the licensed spectrum provides an anchor to ensure a seamless user experience with full mobility, while the unlicensed band provides incremental capacity and enables faster data speeds.’
Nokia Networks concentrated its 5G efforts on showing how 5G radio equipment using the buckets of capacity available in the millimetre and centimetre wave bands (3.5-70GHz) can support IoT applications that allow for immediate, synchronous eye-hand feedback, which will enable remote control over robots working in construction and maintenance, for example.
It also demonstrated an LTE-M prototype (low power, low data rate connectivity using LTE bands) to connect an extreme number of wearables, cares and smart grid elements ensuring a battery life of more than 10 years and providing four times more coverage than conventional LTE.
NFV and SDN
There was plenty of evidence that network functions virtualisation (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN) is beginning to take off, given the announcements and demonstrations at MWC, but the technology is still at a relatively early stage.
ZTE demonstrated its IP radio access network (RAN) operation and maintenance system based on elastic SDN technology. Alcatel-Lucent showcased its virtualised RAN with technology partner Intel, which uses a virtualised baseband unit.
Nokia Networks announced its iSON Manager, a centralised self-organising networks solution, which in a trial has enabled a 40% reduction in South Korean operator KT’s LTE radio network energy consumption.
MNOs are keen to adopt NFV/SDN and the GSMA summarised the compelling drivers by saying: ‘Virtualising networks will enable operators to massively speed up business processes such as provisioning and the deployment of new services. In theory this will provide them with process agility akin to that of software-based players, allowing them to compete more effectively.’
It added that virtualisation also ‘promises lower network total cost of ownership and the ability to extract economies of scale’, as well as providing a pre-requisite for the support of IoT.
M2M and IoT were, of course, much in evidence, with a number of partnerships and alliances announced. Operator members of the Global M2M Alliance and the M2M World Alliance announced they would deploy solutions services using the GSMA Embedded SIM Specification for remote over-the-air-provisioning of M2M. A number of speakers highlighted the importance of improving security as M2M evolves into IoT.