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Mobile Communications April 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Revising the 5G Road Map

Why is this topic significant?

New plans call for accelerated deployment of 5G technologies within 4G networks, effectively inserting a new technology generation into an already busy development schedule.

Description

During March 2017, a group of about four dozen service providers and equipment suppliers prevailed in revising the mobile-communications-standards-development organization 3GPP's goals and accelerating the next scheduled release of implementation-ready specifications. Members of 3GPP had previously described that release as the first round of 5G specifications and had also demonstrated evolved radio technologies that are candidates for standardization in that round. According to the accelerated schedule, members now expect that by early 2018, new base stations will provide boosted "5G" performance on new phones and other user equipment, and also be backward compatible with existing 4G (LTE) phones.

Additional efforts to develop stand-alone 5G technologies continue, as originally planned. Those efforts will likely culminate in another round of new base stations and handsets that could make their first appearance in 2019. Whether that technology generation will be fully compatible with the previous one remains to be decided in 2018.

Implications

The inserted technology generation reflects faster-than-expected progress in some aspects of 5G standards development. Time will tell whether the road-map revision will prove to be a foresighted move that accelerated introduction of the next generation of mobile communications while maintaining compatibility with the previous generation, or a technology dead-end that merely allowed companies to label new-and-improved goods as 5G.

The schedule decision implies that 3GPP endorses the way 5G appears in current announcements about upcoming trials and pilot services. The decision also implies that members believe the accelerated technology generation will be sufficiently future-proof to retain relevance in five to ten years. In contrast, many people will continue to reserve the term 5G to mean future technologies that have capability of supporting the aggressive performance targets that the International Telecommunications Union specified in its IMT-2020 recommendations. The targets include such benchmarks as a 100 Mbit/s typical data rate, a 20 Gbit/s peak data rate, reduction of delays to 1 ms or less, and major improvements in the ability to serve crowds and support the Internet of Things. No service will likely reach all of the IMT-2020 targets until after 2020. A 2017 decision to freeze a specification that nominally refers to medium-term developments obviously appears premature.

Impacts/Disruptions

Members of 3GPP will now have to navigate around several new risks, including the risk that development resources will be spread too thin to support both accelerated projects plus the previously scheduled workflow cascade that promises to lead to ITU standards approvals in 2020. The schedule decision also risks "standardizing" an excessive number of ways to deploy 5G networks that may not have enough in common to foster the economies of scale that make mobile communications affordable. And the additional constraint that 3GPP members are yoking themselves with—backward compatibility with 4G technologies—could deter inclusion of advanced innovations in future standards. Software-defined radios and self-interference-cancellation technologies, for example, might disrupt plans for continued backward compatibility. Ironically, accelerating standards development at this time might have the effect of delaying the perhaps inevitable day when industry finally declares "out with the old, in with the new."

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Communications services, communication equipment, smartphone retailing

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Base-Station Deployments on Your Street

Why is this topic significant?

US communications regulators are considering new rules to streamline deployments of base stations on municipal properties. Meanwhile, municipalities are defending their rights to base decisions on local zoning rules. Outcomes of the controversy will affect the outlook for deployments of 5G technologies.

Description

Industry players are asking US regulators for new rules that would expedite deployment of small-cell base stations and distributed antenna systems on public property such as utility poles. National rules already override some local control over base station rights of way. But companies continue to complain that municipalities take too long to issue approvals and impose excessive costs and unfair zoning restrictions. Cities, highway administrators, and other guardians of public property oppose the industry-initiated petition, which could further preempt a city's powers (for example, to limit the height of an antenna). State law in Ohio already limits those powers, and Florida is considering a similar law.

Some indication of the need for more base stations and antenna systems emerges from efforts to deploy small cells that supplement existing cells in crowded areas and that plug coverage gaps ("notspots"), which can be the result of geographic features or structures. Indications of future needs emerge from results of testing near-millimeter-wave frequency bands. Recent tests by Samsung suggest that base stations for frequencies near 28 GHz will need to be spaced about one-half kilometer apart. Many areas now have base stations located about a kilometer apart; halving that distance would yield a quadrupling of the number of base stations in such areas.

Implications

Widespread love for mobile devices and services is not matched by public support for base-station deployments. Opponents of new base stations crowd public meetings, and local elected officials sometimes defer to the opponents because they want to be reelected. New rules could actually let some local officials off the hook, effectively letting them say, "we did what we could to address concerns about base stations, but we don't have the option of making the rules more stringent." As of late 2016, cities in Ohio must allow new poles even for base stations that are very close to residences (the cities cannot impose a minimum distance). Nevertheless, new rules cannot solve all of the problems that services face in increasing density of base stations and antennas. Homes and businesses, not just municipally owned assets, are likely sites for densified microcells, whatever frequencies are in use.

Impacts/Disruptions

Some services and suppliers propose a densification of base stations that would result in an order-of-magnitude increase in their number. With each base station having reduced size and each cell serving fewer people, data service at peak-use times could be excellent, even in crowded urban areas. The challenge of securing appropriate rights of way is only one of the factors that deters use of such small cells, along with costs and challenges in arranging for backhaul, power, and financing.

New rules can likely alleviate some poor practices such as bureaucratic foot-dragging and the exorbitant fees that some localities reportedly impose. But regulators are unlikely to give service providers all of the relief they are petitioning for. And if new rules favor allowing many tall poles for base stations in posh neighborhoods and chic downtown areas, municipalities and owners of property whose values could be affected will vigorously seek to undo or undermine those rules.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 5 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Communications services, site-management services, communications equipment suppliers

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: