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5G: Growing & Developing

By Chris Pearson

January 2022

It’s strange to think, but I have a couple of high school kids who’ve already started their fourth year (senior year) of high school in the US. Their time growing and developing has roughly coincided with the early years of 5G’s commercial availability. While they started high school just a couple months sooner than the official launch of 5G in the US, with AT&T’s announcement in December 2018, it aligns pretty closely to the official rollout, so it’s been amazing seeing their growth track right alongside that of this generation of wireless cellular technology, seeing them gain new skills and proficiencies, even as 5G does. I wouldn’t yet call my kids  or 5G completely “mature” but there is great progress!

By the time you’ve reached your senior year, you’re no longer the new kid on the block – you’re starting to get ready for the next stage of your evolution on a college campus in a new world. In the same vein, 5G was on pace to exceed a half-billion connections around the world at the end of 2021 – around 6.5% of the world’s population. As it grew, it started to add new capabilities, such as enhanced mobile broadband speeds, early edge computing deployments, and initial rollouts of millimeter wave-using small cells.

Indeed, 5G continues to be the fastest growing generation of wireless cellular technology, achieving the same number of connections (380 million) in seven quarters that it took 4G LTE nineteen quarters to achieve. If you’re interested in finding out how 5G has outpaced 4G LTE’s uptake, take a look at 5G Americas’ latest white paper Cellular Communications in a 5G Era – it’s a great overview of 5G and how it’s impacting the cellular wireless landscape.

At the same time, 4G LTE remains strong and is still very important in many markets and use cases, such as IoT. Overall, in November 2021, almost 10 billion GSM-HSPA-LTE-5G active connections were in effect —more than the world’s 7.8 billion population.  By the end of 2026, the global mobile broadband market is expected to include 11.7 billion connections, and 4.5 billion connections will be 5G, representing 38% market share.

Across approximately 200 commercial networks around the world, 5G is now live and showing very healthy growth. 5G devices are now widely available for both consumer and commercial (industrial customers). The variety of 5G applications continue to increase and range from fixed-mobile substitution, synergistic AI, AR/VR, healthcare, cloud gaming, automotive, drones, video surveillance, education, smart cities and homes, wearable computing, infrastructure monitoring, manufacturing, agriculture, and many more.

But of course, what separates 5G from these older technologies is the continuing strong investment by wireless companies to create new capabilities for 5G. This year, in 2022, 5G networks continue their wave of maturity with more proficiencies in areas like Industrial IoT, which will be powered by 5G’s ability to manage up to one million mobile devices per square kilometer; as well as take advantage of Ultra-Reliable Low Latency (URLLC) communications that will be so important to areas such as manufacturing, healthcare, XR extended reality, and mission-critical applications. Cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) gets a big push, as well as expanded growth in 5G edge computing and private networks.

More specifically, initial 5G specifications were set forth in 3GPP Release 15 and enhanced in Release 16 in 2020. Release 17 specifications are expected in 2022, even while network deployments for Rel-15 are expected to continue into 2022, Rel-16 into 2024, and Rel-17 into 2026. 5G Advanced is expected to be studied in 3GPP Release 18.

Source: Cellular Communications in a 5G Era (Fig. 11)

All of these investments drive us into the next phase of 5G, which is being referred to as “5G-Advanced” and is currently being worked on by 3GPP in their upcoming Release 18. As a parent of two almost college-aged kids, 5G Advanced will be to me a little bit like their world opening to new horizons. What will 5G-Advanced bring? What new strengths and abilities will become merged into the brains of our wireless networks?

While the outlines of 5G-Advanced (much less 6G) have not yet been defined, we know the broad strokes of where 5G-Advanced will be headed. Several groups are focused on system architecture and services, security and privacy, multimedia, management orchestration and charging, applications and critical comms, as well deeper layers of the radio access network.

There is a very long and detailed list from 3GPP that outlines the number of technical features for 5G and 5G Advanced and specifically Release 18.  These technologies and approaches include standalone architecture, network slicing, 5G NR cellular positioning, dynamic spectrum sharing mmWave coverage, integrated access and backhaul and enhanced 5G security.

  • Standalone architecture: cellular networks are made of three parts, the radio access network (RAN), transport networks, and a core network. 5G standalone networks use a 5G core network, rather than anchoring on a 4G LTE core network.
  • Network slicing: allows network operators to scale exactly the right kind of resources (processing, radios, spectrum, etc.) to exactly the right kind of needs that a particular service or application requires.
  • 5G NR cellular positioning allows for accurate tracking of mobile devices down to the meter, decimeter and centimeter – something that will be incredibly important when it comes to health applications, transportation, or anything involving heavy machinery.
  • Dynamic Spectrum Sharing is a new antenna technology that enables the parallel use of LTE and 5G in the same frequency band, determining the demand for 5G and 4G LTE in real-time. This greatly helps network operators manage their spectrum needs.
  • Mmwave coverage will be a necessary component for driving data throughput speeds of 1 gigabit per second over wireless connections.
  • Integrated Access and Backhaul will allow network operators to utilize excess spectrum to connect their cellular base stations.
  • Enhanced 5G security offers a wide range of new techniques, architectures, and processes that are moving wireless cellular networks towards a zero-trust model of operation.

Evolution of 5G networks will occur in several key areas, including applications, radios, networks, distributed computer intelligence, and standards. Key supporting technologies include edge computing, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, management orchestration and network automation (MANO), and open networks and interfaces. Virtualization and cloud-native will also play key roles.

Over the next few years, watch how 5G will play a critical in the Industrial IoT ecosystem of wireless technologies. It will also have a huge impact on public safety, as features in 5G continue to be enhanced for the US’ FirstNet network with expanding capacity in the network and with improved spectral efficiency. LTE and 5G features are improved for public safety through group communication, proximity-based services, mission-critical push-to-talk and mission-critical data and video over LTE, prioritization, higher power user equipment, and isolated operation.

As you can see, just like high school seniors moving into their taste of the real world, 5G networks will be entering into the next stage of their growth very soon. So many new options and flavors will be coming online to take advantage of with a dizzying array of new use cases, business processes and models, and new partnerships with different industries and settings. We are entering a time of extreme experimentation, where 5G will be pushed to its very limits and beyond.

Just as I experience a small twang of trepidation as my kids go off to college, I know this will be some of the most exciting times of our lives. I can’t wait to see what’s just around the corner for the progress of 5G too.


Cellular Communications in a 5G Era

Find out how 5G networks are changing - and changing the world around us.

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