The main manufacturers of equipment and telecommunications operators worldwide have published a report with the proposals they consider necessary for the evolution of the architecture and the improvement of the functions of 5G networks within a few years, which will be known by name by 5G-Advanced. The three main characteristics to be improved are the greater use of artificial intelligence, the convergence and integration of networks and an increase in interactive and deterministic communications.
The report entitled “5G-Advanced Technology: Evolution from a Network Perspective” and the subtitle “Towards a New Era of Intelligent Connect X” shows the path through which the evolution of 5G networks will take place, predictably from the middle of this decade, with the new regulations approved by the 3GPP, the international organization in charge of it and dependent on the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
It is well known, because it is regularly complied with although it is not written anywhere, that since 1980 a new generation of mobile telephony has emerged with the beginning of each decade and that, towards half of them, an improvement is included in each regulation remarkable, in a process of continuous improvement. It happened especially with 3G, then with 4G and now they want to do the same with 5G.
5G-Advanced will allow the rapid deployment of network functions tailored to users and businesses to adapt to various service scenarios, in a process of continuous improvement
In the case of 5G, the process of improving the current generation of mobile telephony will be a little longer and more complex, because from the outset they wanted to save time in its introduction and a hybrid regulation was approved, known as 5G Non-Stand Alone (5G-NSA) that essentially allowed to launch 5G networks but with the 4G core and a year later, approximately, that all the networks were completely 5G, called 5G Stand Alone (5G SA).
The appearance of the pandemic meant that face-to-face meetings could not be held, which complicated the search for the necessary consensus among the different working groups, together with the greater complexity of the issues that had to be approved. In the end, Release 16, which had to be fully approved when starting the launch of commercial 5G networks, was delayed for more than a year and Release 17, which was to give full content and stability to the 5G SA regulation by the end of 2019 o mid-2020, has yet to be approved.
The latest schedule made public by 3GPP for the approval of Release 17, according to the latest statement of December 12, establishes that the second version will be approved shortly and at the end of the first quarter of next year the third version, to have the protocol definitively closed during the summer of next year, as can be seen in the graph below that is dated July 2021. This delay of almost two years in the definitive approval of Release 17 has not, however, been in vain, because it will be released much improved compared to the initially anticipated specifications.
Release 17, in the end, will contain many of the improvements planned for 5G from Release 18 and will also be greatly improved. The specifications for Release 17 are expected to be set at the end of this year or early 2022, once the two plenary working meetings of the third and fourth quarters have been held. At the moment, due to continued delays in the approval of Release 17, the 3GPP has not given any indication of when Release 18 can be approved, beyond the previous specifications.
It is foreseeable, however, that Release 18 will be approved during 2024 and coincide with the improved version of 5G from the middle of the decade, which has just been officially designated as 5G-Advanced, as the report of its planned evolution given to meet in early August. At first, the name 5.5G had been considered, at least by Huawei, for the general evolution of 5G; In the end, it was approved in a meeting last May of the 3GPP that it will be said 5G-Advanced.
Promote 5G technology and a sustainable industry
The report that is the subject of this article is signed by a very representative group of network equipment manufacturers and telecommunications operators worldwide, although Chinese companies and Western subsidiaries based in China have done most of it. Thus, among the network equipment manufacturers are Huawei, ZTE, Samsung and the Chinese subsidiaries of Ericsson and Nokia.
Operators include the four Chinese nationals (China Mobile, China Telecom, China Unicom and CBN, the Chinese radio television that has obtained a 5G license) and the Korean KT and SK Telecom. In addition, there are manufacturers of terminals, semiconductors and other organizations such as Oppo, Xiaomi, Lenovo, Vivo, Unisoc, IPLook, Tencent and CAICT, CICT and AsiaInfo. The considerable progress that Asia, and mostly China in introducing 5G, may justify the large Asian presence in the report.
The objective of the report, as it assures at the beginning, is to account for the continuous research and evolution that 5G networks require and the need for the progress of its architecture and the improvement of its functions, which will be contemplated in 5G-Advanced. It starts from the consideration that 5G communications are key to having a better experience at the consumer level and a digital transformation in the industry. It was presented in Beijing on August 5, which can be followed recorded at this link
“The world’s major economies will require 5G to form an essential part of their long-term industrial development.” In business, 5G will be introduced in thousands of industries and, technically, 5G needs to integrate much more information and communication technologies, operational and digital, he says.
Both the evolution of the 5G-Advanced architecture and its technological development will require the use of artificial intelligence, the convergence of different networks and the enablement of interactive communications. Artificial intelligence must be integrated into networks, including the use of Machine Learning technology, digital twins and knowledge and intentionality of the network, in order to improve the operation and automated maintenance of smart networks.
Convergence will affect the networks of industries, homes and ground-air links, so that there is an integrated development. It will also be necessary to improve interactive communications and the deterministic capabilities of networks, as well as existing technologies such as Network Slicing and the positioning of signals to achieve a greater industrial and collective digital transformation.
5G is essential to improve the service experience and drive the digital and intelligent transformation of industries. But to penetrate industries further, the report adds, 5G requires the convergence of digital technology, operational technology, information and communication technologies, which it generically designates with the term DOICT.
The core of the network, fundamental
The core of the network will play a critical role in the evolution of the 5G-Advanced network. Therefore, it should “promote the development of the architecture and technologies of the 5G core network in line with the business models of the industry and users, as it will help operators to improve the return on investment and stakeholders of the industry to better use 5G networks during the digital and intelligent transformation ”.
To enhance network capabilities and meet increasingly diverse service requirements, both architecture and technology will need to evolve in 5G-Advanced. Architecturally, 5G-Advanced must take into account the concept of cloud native network, edge network, network as a service and continue to improve network capabilities. And also move towards the integration of the cloud network and the computer network.
The continuous evolution of the network architecture and the improvement of its functions is a clear need for 5G-Advanced, which will be highlighted in Release 18 of 3GPP and its future versions. For the authors, XR (Expanded Reality) will be one of the main lines of business that operators will initially drive. They argue that XR will not only increase its definition, from 8K to 16 or 32K or even beyond, but that industry applications will have to evolve and move from interactive communications between individual terminals to collaborative multi-XR interactions, which will quickly develop to starting in 2025. These XR services will impact both network traffic and business characteristics and, in turn, will cause new network requirements, such as greater bandwidth, latency, integrity and security.
To improve network capabilities and meet increasingly diverse service requirements, both the network architecture and the technology will need to evolve, where the core of the network will play a primary role.
On the other hand, essential communications services also have much room for future development. Video calls between multiple users and virtual conferences will become the norm. Conferencing with landlines and video calls will evolve towards the integration of fixed and mobile network calls with high definition images and interaction in real time, with a much more efficient and natural communication. These more interactive and immersive communications will also lead to further development and use of 5G-Advanced.
The digitization of the industry is already making business-oriented networks much more complex than those aimed at the consumer. Different industries and sectors, such as the industrial internet, health, mining, ports and airports or the energy internet will need more specific networks and more oriented to their particular needs, such as integrity, low latency or exact positioning of the coordinates.
For this reason, 5G-Advanced must take into account these specific needs and give full guarantees to the services it wants to offer, whether in real time or in a physically limited and protected environment, if required. All this leads, the authors show, that 5G-Advanced should focus on the architecture of the network, but also on the topology of the networks, the form and function of the terminals and the support of services that, each time, they will be more complex and diverse.
With continuous improvement, 5G-Advanced will allow the rapid deployment of network functions tailored to users to adapt to various service scenarios. The authors of the document consider that it will serve as a reference for the development of 5G-Advanced. However, they warn, cooperation is necessary. “If you want to go far to drive the development of 5G and build a successful 5G industry, you have to go together,” says a statement from the report.
Roadmap with the objectives of the industry
Peter Jarich, Head of GSMA Intelligence, acknowledges when commenting on the report that, to be fair, he doesn’t say a lot of surprising things. “Its main purpose is to offer a roadmap of how 5G-Advanced can (or should) support the objectives of the industry”, objectives that, in turn, are highly consensual, so there cannot be many surprises.
As with any roadmap, adds Peter Jarich, there are good and bad things. The bad news is that there aren’t many new things: the industry has been talking about verticals, edge computing, convergence, and artificial intelligence for years. That they continue to be discussed with 5G-Advanced suggests that 5G has not been very successful and there is still a lot to do.
But, perhaps, this does not make it bad news either, but simply evidence a reality. And the head of research for the GSMA, the association that brings together the majority of telecommunications operators, concludes that the good news is that the report can help achieve these industry aspirations and make them a reality with 5G-Advanced.