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Return to: 2015 Feature Stories

CLIENT: IMAGINATION TECHNOLOGIES

April 20, 2015: Electronic Design

The Road to 5G: Paving a "Multi-Standard" Way for Next-Gen Wireless Mobile

While industry leaders are still figuring out where exactly 5G is headed, expectations remain high for the next-generation wireless mobile standard, which will require higher data rates, massive device connectivity, more system capacity, reduced latency, energy savings, and cost reduction. As the era of 5G approaches, the wireless mobile communications sector will need to keep a focus on consumer demand while harnessing existing, proven technologies to keep their networks going.

Mobile carriers may feel a sense of urgency to have their fifth-generation networks in place by 2020, but it's important to stop and look at what's happening with existing wireless mobile communications. Keep in mind that most of the world is still using 2G systems; though 4G is globally growing at a much faster rate than 2G and 3G, its current market penetration is just 7%.

Today's 4G networks are based on Long Term Evolution (LTE) technology. Most mobile carriers are still rolling out their LTE services, and some have begun to deploy the latest LTE-Advanced, which has quicker data speeds and overall improved network capacity. Certain carriers are also working to expand their Wi-Fi capabilities, which lead to more efficient use of available capacity on cellular networks.

The more data capacity you take off your network, the better it performs. Ultimately it's about delivering what end users want, when they want it, which does not necessarily mean being the fastest. Most people don't care how they get their data or how it's delivered to them, whether it's on cellular or Wi-Fi. Most people don't care if they have 3G, 4G, or 5G—they want access to the Internet, email and Facebook wherever they are, and they don't want to pay $200 a month for it.

Instead of carriers focusing on one "Holy Grail" standard for 5G, they should use a combination of licensed and unlicensed technologies, such as Wi-Fi, to provide an "always-on experience" for consumers. This would also take pressure off their existing cellular networks.

One challenge for the successful rollout of 5G will be spectrum. It's nearly impossible to design a communications standard that performs well across the wide 600-MHz to 80-GHz spectrum range being discussed for 5G. Different solutions will be required for different parts of the spectrum, and existing communications standards that already exist, for example, 60-GHz Wi-Fi, aka "WiGig," should be considered as part of the solution.

With the wide range of potential spectrum available for 5G, new techniques will also be needed in cellular-radio design. One way forward would be to use cognitive-based software-defined radio (SDR) technology. SDR allows communications via a variety of waveforms simply by reloading or reconfiguring the required software for the particular application. If integrated into 5G networks, cognitive SDR has the potential to help identify available frequencies and spectrums and reconfigure itself for the optimum performance.

While existing technologies will play a critical role in the successful rollout of 5G, more research needs to be done to figure out the best way to move forward and deliver superior services to the masses.

One organization that's providing a working test bed for early 5G technologies, as well as addressing key challenges, is the U.K.-based 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey, which includes leaders in academia and industry. Meanwhile, the EU and South Korea signed a deal to work on 5G deployment. In addition, the United States has a 5G test bed at NYU Wireless, part of the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. Researchers are gathering data from New York City using prototype base stations and mobile units that they hope will help in the development of 5G channel models.

Elza Erkip, a computer and electrical engineer at New York University's Polytechnic School, is even researching ways to use the various available frequencies in millimeter-wave networks for 5G wireless technologies via energy-efficient methods. Erkip's theory is that as more communication flows through wirelessly connected devices, redesigning the way they connect to networks will allow for more efficient, lower-power signal transmission. Industry leaders should pay close attention to this type of research as they try to figure out how next-generation wireless networks should be designed and operated, while maintaining energy efficiency.

Unlike previous mobile communication networks, 5G must be focused more on users and their needs. The proliferation of smartphones is pushing demand for mobile data, while the emergence of the Internet of Things has the potential to connect billions of devices to help achieve daily tasks, such as finding a parking space or lost keys. In the future, several applications like advanced gaming will also require shorter network response times to enable quick reactions.

The year 2020 isn't that far away, and industry leaders are gearing up for what will be a mad dash in the 5G race. Consumers' insatiable appetite for faster, better, cheaper services will keep carriers and developers on their toes. Leading the pack will be companies that stay on the leading edge of the latest 5G research and those who integrate the right mix of available technologies into their networks. Fasten your seat belt—it's going to be a roller-coaster ride with many twists and turns.

Richard Edgar is Director of Communications Technology for Imagination Technologies, which offers a broad range of silicon IP, including key processing blocks needed to create systems on chips (SoCs) that power all mobile, consumer, and embedded electronics. Imagination's licensees include many leading semiconductor manufacturers, network operators, and OEMs/ODMs.

Return to: 2015 Feature Stories