WiFi sector’s voices get louder in defining 5G future

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The news that Apple had joined the NGMN (Next Generation Mobile Networks) Alliance came a week after Intel signed up to the board of governors of 4G Americas. Both were examples of the changing face of wireless power, and hinted at how different will be the big influencers of ‘5G’ standards, compared to their predecessors.

Even before there are any definitions of 5G, there is a growing consensus around some of its likely aspects, and those include platforms which will support huge numbers of spectrum bands. Many of those are currently unlicensed, and technologies designed for licence-exempt use will have a far greater influence on 5G than they did on previous generations. By 2020, the purported date of 5G being a reality, the distinctions between licensed and unlicensed spectrum may have broken down altogether, along with many of the technology barriers between current air interfaces. As part of that process, however, the voice of the WiFi community will have been heard increasingly loudly.

All of which makes it less odd than first appeared to see Intel and Apple, and other companies which have helped create the alternative to the cellular model in wireless, taking seats at the top tables of groups usually dominated by traditional mobile operators and vendors.

Intel famously tried to create its own ‘4G’ platform around WiMAX, but is now taking the same view as most companies entering the mobile world from IT or the web – live with 3G and 4G for now, however alien to one’s heritage in terms of IPR and structures, but make sure you have a hefty influence on emerging platforms, so that the norms change over time and shift away from those set by the cellular sector. Building up the power of WiFi and unlicensed spectrum to be a cornerstone of future standards is one way to do that.

This is starting to be seen in the ongoing discussions about what ‘5G’ may consist of. Some are still focusing on the conventional air interface step upgrade, defined by the rarefied processes of the 3GPP. Other, less traditional mobile heavyweights are, predictably, focusing on aspects which play to their own strengths and heritage – virtualization for the enterprise giants like Cisco and Intel; user experience and non-carrier models, for Google and Apple; ultra-densification and ultra-low power for the internet of things and vertical influencers.

Apple, which has tended to build its own platforms rather than participating in standards to a large extent, clearly feels it must stamp its mark on 5G, and has taken the rare step of joining the NGMN Alliance, particularly to participate in its 5G Initiative.

This is just one example of how, whichever bodies contribute to the mesh of specifications and concepts which is likely to form ‘5G’, the voices will be very different. The NGMN Alliance itself has traditionally been led heavily by cellcos (its board consists of 20 CTOs from leading operators), but is starting to become far more diverse. Cableco Ziggo, part of the Liberty Global Group, was another new member, along with Apple, as was Peking University of China, indicating not only the rising influence of Chinese organizations on future architectures, but also the fact that all network operators and service providers, not just MNOs, are interested in wireless now. Ziggo is an aggressive deployer of WiFi homespots and hotspots to support its moves towards a quad play, and the ability to create a seamless pool of capacity using many air interfaces and spectrum bands will certainly be a key theme of 5G developments.

At a workshop in Beijing, the NGMN Alliance presented the latest results of its 5G Initiative, which aims to present end-to-end requirements to the industry in a white paper as well as be a talking shop for potential solutions. A global team is working on the definition of these consolidated operator requirements for 2020 and beyond, but will increasingly be taking into consideration the needs of non-MNOs.

And at an event across the world in Silicon Valley, Intel was talking about new air interfaces for 5G too – two of them, indeed, one specifically for the millimeter wave bands such as 60GHz and above, which would likely build on the current 60GHz WiGig standard, and one for IoT access. That multiple interfaces will be needed was the view of the company’s chief wireless technologist, Kenneth Stewart, speaking at an even hosted by gigabit WiFi chip pioneer Quantenna. So rather than trying to shoehorn existing designs into radically new frequency bands and applications, Stewart said many devices would benefit from a tailored air interface in future – such as devices “that don’t have to sync before they transmit”.

This is another example of the different standpoints which the 5G discussion will encourage, as will the new players in the mobile chain. Intel is talking about standards “targeted to specific use cases” rather than generic platforms which should be able to support almost any application.

As outlined in EETimes, Stewart’s concept would see wireless chips supporting GSM, 3G, 4G, WiFi, WiGig and other future PHY level standards. The baseband would also include on-chip location processing; options for ultra-low power operations; and inter-RAT connection management for tasks like WiFi offloading and multi-RAT aggregation. The companion RF chip would also have to support many enhanced functions such as up to 60 frequency bands and new levels of multi-antenna operations, envelope tracking and auto interference support.

“We don’t see a fundamental obstacle to delivering this device,” said the executive optimistically, but pointed out that the cleverest chip on the planet still needed a killer device which would transform the user experience as the iPhone and others did for 3G and 4G.

However, there is little consensus on which high frequency bands will be most feasible for wireless standards around 2020. The ITU will publish a report looking at the technical feasibility of IMT in the bands above 6GHz in June, to accompany its WRC-15 World Radio Conference, which will looking at some of the 5G spectrum issues, though the WRC-18 event may be more impactful.

The 28GHz band is popular with early ‘5G’ demonstrations, like Samsung’s at this year’s Mobile World Congress, though at a London conference, called 5G Huddle, last week, the China Academy of Telecoms Technology said the main demand in 2020 would still be in conventional bands like 1.8GHz, though its speaker, Shaoli Kang, kept the options open for later dates, saying the range under investigation was “6GHz to 100GHz”.

In the US, the FCC and the government’s NIST (National Institute of Standards and Technology) are investigating more licence-exempt options, notably the U-NII-2B and U-NII-4 bands, and the FCC has issued a notice of inquiry into the feasibility of millimeter wave spectrum above 24GHz. In a blog post, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote that “early studies show that these new technologies – what some are calling ‘5G’ – can ultimately facilitate a throughput of up to 10Gbps, a speed that is orders of magnitude greater than that available today. Our effort here is to learn about the technology and ensure a regulatory environment where these technologies can flourish.”

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Caroline has been analyzing and reporting in the hi-tech industries since 1986 and has a huge wealth of experience of technology trends and how they impact on business models. She started her career as a journalist, specializing in enterprise and carrier networks and in silicon technologies. She spent much of her journalistic career at VNU Business Publishing, then Europe’s largest producer of technology publications and information services . She was publishing director for the launch of VNU’s pan-European online content services, and then European editorial director. She then made the move from publishing into technology market analysis and consulting, and in 2002 co-founded Rethink Technology Research with Peter White. Rethink specializes in trends and business models for wireless, converged and quad play operators round the world and the technologies that support them. Caroline’s role is to head up the wireless side of the business, leading the creation of research, newsletters and consulting services focused on mobile platforms and operator models. In this role, she has become a highly recognized authority on 4G systems such as LTE and WiMAX, and a prolific speaker at industry events. Consulting and research clients come from major mobile operators, the wireless supply chain and financial institutions.