​Mobile industry dips its toes in 5G waters for next-gen networks

Demonstrations at Mobile World Congress show the growing momentum toward the launch of faster, more responsive mobile networks in 2020.

Ericsson showed a wireless radio link with prototype 5G networking technology at Mobile World Congress. The equipment could sustain data transfer rates of 5.8Gbps between the base station antenna in the upper left and the receiver on the cart.
Ericsson shows off a wireless radio link with prototype 5G networking technology at Mobile World Congress. The equipment could sustain data transfer rates of 5.8Gbps between the base station antenna in the upper left and the receiver on the cart. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- The networking industry is showing new confidence it can make next-generation "5G" networking a practical reality.

Network equipment makers Ericsson and Nokia Networks are demonstrating the fifth-generation technology on the show floor here at the Mobile World Congress show. And a parade of executives and one government official have taken to the stage to extoll 5G's virtues.

"The 5G infrastructure is expected to become the nervous system of the digital society and digital economy," said Günther Oettinger, the European Commission member whose job is to encourage that very digital development.

5G networks will transfer data much faster than today's 3G and 4G when they start arriving in about five years, and mobile networking will look very different. A major increase in download speeds will help streaming video and instant app updates. Crucially, 5G will also bring shorter communication delays that will enable fast-response services like augmented reality, self-driving cars and online gaming features impossible today. Last, 5G should help sweep billions of new devices into the network through a transformation called the Internet of Things (IoT).

Korea Telecom CEO Chang-Gyu Hwang speaks at Mobile World Congress 2015.
Korea Telecom CEO Chang-Gyu Hwang speaks at Mobile World Congress about the positive changes that have resulted from 4G networks. Stephen Shankland/CNET

With better networks, people can -- and do -- use their mobile devices more. In South Korea, the switch to 4G networks meant people use mobile devices to watch 14 times as much video, shop online 13 times as much and bank five times as much as before, said Chang-Gyu Hwang, chief executive of carrier Korea Telecom.

5G should further those increases and lead to entirely new services, too.

Carriers and network operators hope to start building 5G networks with a globally standardized version of the technology starting in 2020, though widespread adoption will take longer. Early trials should arrive in 2018, with projects set for the World Cup soccer tournament in Russia and the Winter Olympics in South Korea.

5G's higher data-transfer speeds

Today's LTE speeds peak at roughly 150Mbps (megabits per second) to 450Mbps, depending on which generation of the technology is used. 5G should reach much higher, with Nokia, Huawei and other companies betting on peak rates of 10 gigabits per second. In Huawei's view, that means the difference between downloading an 8GB movie in 6 seconds instead of 7 minutes.

At the show, Nokia demonstrated data-transfer speeds of more than 2Gbps. Although that's not as high as some rivals' speeds, there were two important features to its demonstration. First, it maintained the network connection between a stationary base station and a moving device at the other end of the connection. Second, it used ultra-high radio frequencies of 73.5GHz, said Mark Cudak, principal research specialist for Nokia Networks.

These high frequencies are a key part of meeting 5G's promise. Ericsson had its on demo, pumping 5.8Gbps of data using a 15GHz radio frequency. In contrast, today's phones use radio frequencies below about 3GHz.

Nokia demonstrated 5G prototype equipment at Mobile World Congress, with a receiver on the right moving back and forth while maintaining a 2Gbps radio link with the base station transmitter visible in the upper left. With 5G's tightly focused beams, it's harder to maintain a radio link with moving mobile phones than it is with today's 4G and 3G networks.
Nokia demonstrates 5G prototype equipment at Mobile World Congress, with a receiver on the right moving back and forth while maintaining a 2Gbps radio link with the base station transmitter visible in the upper left. With 5G's tightly focused beams, it's harder to maintain a radio link with moving mobile phones than it is with today's 4G and 3G networks. Stephen Shankland/CNET

There are some bolder claims, too. In February, the 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey made a splash by declaring its 5G network reached a stunning 1 terabit per second -- 100 times the 5G rate of 10Gbps rate the industry expects.

However, many aspects of that test remain unclear, including how far apart the transmitter and receiver were and how wide a slice of radio spectrum was used. In the real world, carriers' communications are confined to relatively narrow radio-frequency channels. But with a wider range of radio frequencies -- more bandwidth, in the physics sense of the term -- more data can be sent in a given period of time.

Big bandwidth

Nokia's demo used a whopping 1GHz slice of spectrum bandwidth, and Ericsson's used 400MHz.

Samsung's 5G tests have reached 7.5Gbps -- and for a moving vehicle, 1.2Gbps. Samsung's test used a 28GHz signal and a generous 800MHz slice of bandwidth.

One of the big challenges for moving to higher frequencies is that radio signals die out over short distances, have trouble penetrating building walls and can't go around corners in city blocks. With Ericsson's demo, data-transfer speeds dipped significantly when a person walked between the transmitter and receiver.

Part of the solution to the problem is sending radio in tight beams instead of today's approach blanketing large swaths of a region.

"We will have to use highly directional antennas to deliver our data rate," Nokia's Cudak said. In the demonstration, that beam was just 3 degrees wide, he said. The demonstration could hop from one beam to another that offered a better signal, a key part of adjusting to moving handsets.

Overall, Nokia expects to deliver 1Gbps to 95 percent of people within a 120-meter (393 feet) distance of its radio base station.

Lower latencies

5G networks will also lower an important network characteristic called latency that measures how long it takes for data, once requested, to actually arrive. High latency means services aren't snappy -- video chat with a long lag between when the second person starts hearing and seeing what the other just said, for example. Low latency means services are responsive, so an augmented-reality headset could fetch new data quickly enough to keep up with a person's changing field of view.

Huawei predicts a 50-fold improvement in responsiveness moving from 4G to 5G networks. Lower communication lags called latency helps applications like self-driving cars that need to respond quickly.
Huawei predicts a 50-fold improvement in responsiveness moving from 4G to 5G networks. Lower communication lags called latency helps applications like self-driving cars that need to respond quickly. Stephen Shankland/CNET

"Applications like self-driving cars need much lower latencies than 4G can provide," said Ken Hu, the deputy chairman and current CEO of Huawei. Latency only halved going from 3G to 4G, but it'll drop by a factor of 50 going to 5G, he said. "5G can reach an ultra-low latency of 1 millisecond."

What's that mean in the real world? A self-driving car linked with other cars and with roadway infrastructure, traveling at 100kmph (62mph), will travel 1.4 meters during the time needed to communicate over the 4G network. But with 5G, it'll travel just 2.8cm -- just over an inch -- during that communication time. That's much better for activating emergency braking or otherwise responding to changing conditions, he said.

Internet of Things

The 5G network also will encompass many more devices than today's mobile phones as cheap chips spread computing power to all kinds of devices.

"By 2020, according to different estimates, 30 to 50 billion objects will be connected to the Internet," said Stéphane Richard, CEO of French carrier Orange. "5G will be the key to this new IoT world."

Huawei expects even more -- 100 billion connected devices ranging from watches, glasses and running shoes, to shipping containers and robotic arms in factories. It's a mammoth challenge for the industry, but it's eased by the fact that many IoT devices won't need to constantly communicate massive amounts of data.

Setting the standard

An EU program called the 5G Public Private Partnership (5GPPP) has €700 million ($782 million) in funding to develop 5G by 2020, boosted by up to five times that amount from industry partners. There are other efforts, though, such as the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN), which raises concerns that finding a single global standard will be tough. On Monday, though, 5GPPP announced an alliance with another consortium, 4G Americas.

"The problem is that too many standards means no clear standard," Huawei's Hu said.

Updated 9:51 p.m. PTto correct the data transfer speed in Ericsson's demonstration. It was 5.8Gbps.

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