Chris Pearson – December 2020
Congratulations in making it to December 2020! In one of the oddest years in recent (or even distant) memory, this year was one messy grab bag of weird news and tragic circumstance. But even as we put the year behind us and look ahead into 2021, we recognize there have been some bright spots in the world of wireless cellular.
This year, we reached 143 5G networks around the world and are on track to exceed 236 million 5G subscribers – that’s 3% of the world population in just two years since the release of 5G. By way of comparison, it took 4G LTE four years to complete what 5G has done in just one. And 5G subscriber numbers have been increasing by 66% per quarter, so the momentum will only be growing over the next few years. With unprecedented flexibility, it is expected that 5G will deliver many years of value to consumers and enterprises for the foreseeable future.
Already, 5G networks are playing a central role in the course of human history, as a pivotal technology in the Fourth Industrial Revolution alongside other bright stalwarts such as artificial intelligence/machine learning, autonomous vehicles, robotics, cloud computing, edge computing, virtual and augmented reality, the Internet of Things, and drones. Today’s 5G networks are unleashing new ways to extend the capabilities of these other technologies, from transportation to sensing, to visual recognition and decision-making to wirelessly connected devices and people around the world.
With just two years under the belt, 5G networks have a long road ahead of them yet, as new generations of wireless technology usually are introduced every decade or so. In 5G Americas’ latest white paper, Mobile Communications Beyond 2020: The Evolution of 5G Towards the Next G, we take a look at the interesting journey of the birth of a wireless generation, as the Next G begins to be imagined, even as 5G continues its own rapid evolution and ascent.
But first thing’s first. It’s important to understand that development on 5G is not done yet. Not by a long shot. The wireless mobile cellular industry is continuing to evolve and leverage 5G New Radio (NR) and Service Based Architecture (SBA), via the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Release 16, 17 and beyond. The specifications for Release 16 were completed in June 2020 and it is expected that Release 17 will be completed by December 2021, if COVID-related delays don’t push that schedule out any further.
We will continue to see enhancements in both 4G LTE and 5G New Radio in Releases 16 and 17 that include improvements to MIMO (Multi-In Multi-Out) antennas, Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X), ultra-reliable latency connections, unlicensed spectrum use, Sidelink, Integrated Access & Backhaul, positioning, small data enhancements, and 5G support in even higher millimeter wave frequencies at 52.6 – 71 GHz.
But smart minds are already beginning to take a look at the sorts of things even higher frequencies in the terahertz range could accomplish for the Next G. In broad brush strokes, several academic, research, and industry organizations throughout the world are beginning to examine the possibilities and opportunities for how this Next G of wireless could interact with humans and machines. As they sketch out these ideas, technological requirements begin to take shape. For instance, how much data and at what level of network latency would be required to send a sensation of “cold” from one spot in the world to another?
Some of these early conversations are taking place at academic institutions like ComSenTer (Communications Sensing TeraHertz), New York University (NYU), the mmWave Networking Group at the University of Padua, and the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things (WIOT) at Northeastern University. Others are beginning to form in industry associations such as Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) or the Next G Alliance. As these discussions continue to take place over the next few years, they will begin to coalesce into a vision document developed by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) called “IMT-2030”, which outlines the recommendations and requirements for the next G system.
Recent meetings on the topic of next G have begun to sketch out framework the next round of discussions. For instance, the journey to “6G” or whatever it will be called, might look like the following:
Indeed, several early areas of focus have begun to emerge as experimental platforms for next generation wireless systems. There are already projects underway looking at the technology evolution into the late 2020s to the 2030s. While “6G” or its equivalent is expected to revolutionize radio, network technologies and architecture potentially based on new IMT requirements, it is not likely this work will appear in a 3GPP release until after Release 19 or 20, nor be ready for commercial deployment until around 2030.
Indeed, the next G conversations are still at such a high level and speculative at this point that it may be a few years before the idea of applications in specific industries reaches a point where development is even feasible. Nevertheless, two key areas point to the for North American leadership in this conversation: improvements in national security and enhanced emergency services. In the span of two years, we’ve seen 5G emerge from a significant commercial consumer and enterprise story into one that reaches deep into the heart of American national security.
Of course, there will be broad applications in defense with advances in 6G (or its equivalent) that could happen in areas involving the Internet of Senses, connected intelligent machines, digital twins, tactile or haptic communications, ubiquitous services (land, air, space, sea), or telesurgery. The communications space will become an even more critical battlefield as the actual physical battlefield.
Domestically, emergency services networks will be revolutionized through the additional expansion of massive IoT-enabled smart cities, sophisticated terahertz imaging and sensing, enhanced public safety protocols for concentrated localized video large talk groups, and cyber-physical control systems for police, fire and ambulance response units. All of which will require improved macro coverage, temporary on-demand coverage for high capacity use in the event of natural disasters or large groups of people, air-to-ground communications, as well as device-to-device or “everything-to-everything” types of communications.
As we enter into the closing days of 2020, we can say this decade started off with a very weird bang. As we look into the crystal ball of the next decade, things become even weirder and more mysterious. Who can know where the course of history will take us? Nothing is certain. While that is itself a cause for concern, it’s also a cause for opportunity.
The future is ahead of us. It’s up to us to decide if we wish to grasp it.