Is 2021 set to be the year that 5G delivers? With the construction and upgrading of base stations and other infrastructure and the roll out of mobile 5G devices, are we about to see the realisation of the many promises associated with the technology?

Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. (TSMC), for example, is gearing up to meet strong demand for 5G mobile devices like Apple’s new iPhones and high-performance computing. As the main chipmaker for Apple’s iPhones, it has been investing heavily in new equipment, in anticipation of strong demand for 5G smartphones.

“Covid-19 is accelerating digital transformation, while 5G and HPC applications continue to drive demand,” said the company’s Chief Executive Officer C.C. Wei at a media briefing and he said that, along with Apple, more manufacturers were set to deliver 5G devices going into next year.

Apple recently unveiled its latest iPhone line-up and expects to build at least 75 million 5G iPhones this year. With Apple now entering the 5G handset market there are growing expectations that it will help to drive significant interest and adoption around this next generation of cellular technology.

”Market players have anticipated 5G as being a major growth driver,” said GF Securities analyst Jeff Pu and, by 2022, around 750m 5G smartphones are expected to have been shipped.

According to figures from Qualcomm around 2.8bn 5G connections are expected by 2025 as more businesses see the benefits associated with 5G.

In fact, according to research conducted by Nokia and Nokia Bell Labs, a combination of 5G, edge computing, data analytics, and private networking will combine to accelerate the digitalisation of business and add billions to the world’s economy.

According to Raghav Sahgal, president at Nokia’s enterprise division, “Many companies see 5G as a technology for the near future and organisations are at the implementation stage – which for most, means trials, pilots or early stage deployments.”

There is certainly a strong movement driving 5G across every region, with services being launched in Europe, North America, Africa and Asia and operators are using massive marketing campaigns to prepare customers for 5G.

In the UK, for example, EE, part of telecom group BT, has switched on 5G technology in 112 towns and cities across the country based on a non-standalone 5G New Radio deployment and, from 2022, will introduce a full 5G core network, with enhanced device chipset capabilities and increased availability of 5G-ready spectrum.

A host of new mobile platforms, such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 750G 5G Mobile Platform, are appearing and being used in a growing number of 5G designs.

“We continue to see great traction with our high-tier Snapdragon 7-series 5G mobile platforms,” said Kedar Kondap, vice president of product management, Qualcomm Technologies. “As we continue to build out this relatively new tier of our mobile roadmap, we’re always looking for ways to support the growing needs of our OEM customers.”

The Snapdragon 750G’s X52 5G Modem-RF System supports both mmWave and sub-6 GHz, SA and NSA modes, TDD, FDD and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS), which are all critical in helping to deliver the full promise offered by 5G.

“We have spent many years discussing 5G and the market opportunities,” says Ben Timmons, Senior Director of Business Development at Qualcomm Europe, “and many of the concerns and ‘blockages’ to the roll out of 5G have been overcome. It’s been an incredibly successful launch, to date.”

But, as Timmons explains, “we are only at the start, and the road to realising 5G is not a straight one.”

So where are we when it comes to realising the full promise of what Timmons describes as the ‘5G pathway’?

The road to 5G

“We are still some way from delivering a complete standalone 5G system – the end point,” Timmons explains. “We are only at the beginning when it comes to enhanced mobile broadband. There is a long process ahead; a series of steps, often in parallel involving technological developments that will enable new capabilities and ensure 5G delivers on the ‘hype’ that has surrounded it.

“5G has been launched with an architecture known as non-standalone (NSA) which uses the existing 4G infrastructure and adds 5G radio on top as an additional capability to enhance download speeds and to improve latency.”

The next and pivotal stage in the roll out of 5G will be Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) according to Timmons, which will use legacy 4G bands, now shared with 5G, to expand coverage quickly and facilitate the transition to 5G.

“This is going to be the critical next step,” explains Timmons. “I think, for many, it’s hard to understand its importance and just how different DSS is to any previous network technology migration involving mobile technologies.

“The idea is that you will be able to deploy 5G in a frequency band without taking out the existing technology or turning off aspects of the network. DSS will simplify the roll out of 5G, both in terms of the economics as well as the technology.

“Admittedly, it’s not something that can be done instantly but for many operators it will simply involve a software upgrade that will allow them to develop more 5G coverage, in more places, for more of the time,” says Timmons.

With DSS a reality, operators will be able to roll out new services by sharing 4G spectrum with 5G; base stations will be able to get a software upgrade and new antennas will be added to 4G mid/high band levels.

“This is happening already, so we’re not talking about trials but real launches, with operators across Europe using DSS to achieve nationwide 5G coverage,” explains Timmons.

Beyond DDS, the next step is mmWave which will bring super-fast download speeds, more bandwidth and will help to future-proof networks enabling them to handle more data that will be made possible by the abundance of spectrum above 24Ghz.

It is, according to Timmons, another vital step in delivering the full promise of 5G.

“There have been numerous launches involving mmWave around the world, and we are seeing substantial momentum to deliver mmWave. All the major operators in the US have launched 5G services using it, and over 120 operators around the world are investing in its commercial deployment.

“It’s capable of delivering peak download speeds of up to 2Gbps and even at an average speed of 900 Mbps it is four times faster than sub-6Hz.”

Europe has been slower to adopt mmWave but now spectrum has been auctioned in Italy and Finland, while spectrum auctions are being planned both in the UK and Germany.

“In Russia, all four carriers are in active pilots,” says Timmons.

“Outside of Russia, it’s likely that in the European market we will see mmWave used in specific locations. Those that are densely populated such as transport interchanges and stadia where, for example, there’s lots of video being downloaded and uploaded and huge amounts of video is being transmitted.”

The next, and final step, on the road to full 5G is standalone where networks will maintain 5G networks using low and mid-band levels while supporting mmWave, all without any reliance on the 4G network.

The 4G network will be replaced by a 5G Core network (5GC) that will include a new core, with hardware and software that is totally separate from 4G.

“You will finally have a network designed for 5G,” says Timmons, “and that will enable us to bring in the applications that 5G has long promised.”

5G SA will enable industries to do things like network slicing, that will allow the use of dedicated network resources to guarantee reliability, latency and security.

“We have been talking about the promise of 5G for some time and just a year ago much of it sounded like fantasy, but today it’s happening. Companies like Vodafone and Ericsson are demonstrating 5G SA in practice. The future potential of this technology is actually being demonstrated now.”