‘What’s 5G? Who knows exactly?’ GSMA aims to put flesh on the bones of next gen IoT networks

Brussels, Belgium

From the start of the GSMA’s Mobile 360 event in Belgium last week, there was discussion of 5G, says Jeremy Cowan, which was interesting but let’s face it, most of us are still wrestling with 4G and there’s no shame in relying on 2G and 3G.

As it was hosted in Brussels it was welcome but no surprise that the opening keynote was given by Andrus Ansip, the European Commission (EC)’s vice-president for the Digital Single Market. You can read about his blunt message and the commission’s ongoing tussles with the operator community on our sister site, VanillaPlus.com (See: Ansip pushes telcos towards single EU telecom market but GSMA wants operators to have freedom to merge).

Anne Bouverot, director general of the event hosts, the GSMA, reported that 53% of wireless connections globally will be made using 4th Generation (4G) mobile networks by 2020. With just five years in which to achieve that total, it’s worth noting the only 3% of the world’s mobile connections were made via 4G in 2013 and 5% in 2014. That said, I have no reason to doubt her forecast; as Bouverot pointed out, 4G accounts for almost 70% of mobile connections in South Korea today. She reminded her predominantly European audience of the need to reach all geographies, if coverage is to extend to 83% of Europe in 2020, as predicted by the GSMA.

Anne Bouverot, GSMA director general
Anne Bouverot, GSMA director general

“So, what is 5G?” Bouverot asked rhetorically. “Who knows exactly? It’s more efficient, faster, with lower latency,” she said. “5G is still to be standardised by the industry and it has not been fully agreed what it will enable.” By a lucky chance, GSMA Intelligence had released a report earlier that day entitled, Understanding 5G: Perspectives on future technological advancements in mobile. And this is where IoT comes in – I could see you were wondering.

Evolution and misconceptions

As well as aiming to provide clarity on the evolutionary path towards 5G and addressing many of the misconceptions around 5G, the GSMA’s 5G report examines today’s two main views on 5G, which are frequently mixed together to form the basis of the 5G definition:

View 1 – The hyper-connected vision: In this view, 5G is seen as a blend of existing technologies (2G, 3G, 4G, WiFi and others) that can deliver greater coverage and availability, higher network density in terms of cells and devices, and the ability to provide the connectivity that enables machine-to-machine (M2M) services and the Internet of Things (IoT).

View 2 – Next-generation radio access technology: This perspective outlines 5G in ‘generational’ terms, setting specific targets that new radio interfaces must meet in terms of data rates (faster than 1Gbps downlink) and latency (less than 1ms delay).


According to the GSMA, these two views identify eight core technical requirements for 5G that set targets for: data rate; latency; network densification (both number of connections and number of cells); coverage; availability; operational expenditure reduction; and the field life of devices. However, only two of these – data rates and latency – relate to a true generational shift, with the remaining six being either economic objectives or aspirations applicable to all network technologies.

Evolution from 4G to 5G

Many of the 5G technical requirements already form part of the network innovations being undertaken by operators today. For example, technologies such as network functions virtualisation (NFV), software-defined networks (SDN), heterogeneous networks (HetNets) and Low Power, Low Throughput networks are being bundled under the title of 5G despite the fact that they are already being brought to market by vendors and deployed by operators.

In the meantime, there remains considerable opportunity for growth in 4G. 4G penetration as a percentage of connections is already up to 69% in South Korea, 46% in Japan and 40% in the US, but 4G penetration in the developing world stands at just 2%. Mobile operators are expected to invest US$1.7 trillion globally in network infrastructure from 2014-2020, much of which will be spent on 4G networks.

5G use cases

Applications that require at least one of the two key 5G technical requirements (greater than 1 Gbps downlink and sub-1ms latency) can be considered a true 5G use case. Many other 5G use cases will probably emerge that we cannot anticipate today.

However, the report already highlights several use cases that will be optimised in the 5G environment and these include: Virtual reality / augmented reality / immersive or tactile internet, such as gaming, wearable tech or health services; autonomous driving / connected cars; wireless cloud-based office and multi-person videoconferencing.


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