How 5G Relates to SDN and NFV Technologies – Part I: Introduction and History
Will 2019 be the year when 5G takes off?
We are just a few weeks away from the Mobile World Congress (MWC), where I have absolutely no doubt that 5G will be everywhere, including at the Dell EMC and VMware booth. But what is 5G exactly? And what does 5G have to do with the NFV and SDN technologies we covered in previous blog posts?
There is a lot of confusion surrounding 5G. For example, if you use AT&T and, like me, live in Dallas, Houston, Oklahoma, Indianapolis, New Orleans or Charlotte, your phone might display something like this:
So does this mean that 5G is up and running in U.S.? Well, yes and no.
There is a live 5G network in the cities I mentioned but you need to use a 5G hotspot to access it, even if you have the latest iPhone Xs, Samsung Galaxy or latest LG. None of these devices have a modem or antennas that will work on a 5G network.
So is having “5G” on your phone display misleading?
It is true that they have been upgrading cell towers with TLE-advanced features across the nation over the last year, including things like LTE (Long Term Evolution), advanced features like 256 QAM (Quadrature Amplitude Modulation), 4X4 Multiple-input and Multiple-output (MIMO), 3-way Carrier Aggregation, etc. A more accurate display on our phones, therefore, would read “4G-LTE for Long Term Evolution,” not “5G” (those marketing folks, again! 😃).
To be fair, other companies like T-Mobile did something similar back in the day with 3G-4G, but it misled some customers. Verizon already has 5G working on several test cities (e.g., Sacramento, L.A. and Houston) and like AT&T, the only way to really access it is through a hot spot or with prototype cellphones since we don’t have 5G compatible phones yet.
Why Do I Think this Will Be the Year of 5G?
All major U.S. operators are working against the clock to have 5G coverage in most metropolitan areas by year’s end. In addition, we’ll see the launch of the first commercial cellphones in the 3Q-4Q 2019, which I am sure we will preview at the MWC 19 in Barcelona. We are also reaching a point where both NFV and SDN technologies are reaching maturity and we can even see a consolidation of the number of SDN controllers as well as NFVI components, while the number of available VNFs are exploding.
We will see in part two of this blog series how 5G and NFV go together like peanut butter and jelly, when I’ll explain the concept of network slicing, a network technology that enables network operators to provide networks on an “as-service-basis,” allowing a single physical network to be portioned into multiple virtual networks and multiple types of customer services.
A Brief History of Mobile Cellular Communications
Okay, Javier, all of that is great, but can you get into more details on what exactly 5G is and the differences compared with 4G?
5G is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications. The first generation (1G) of analog telecommunications standards were first launched in Japan’s NTT in 1979 and later introduced in the 1980s around the world (MNT system). Some of us may remember the Motorola DynaTAC 8000x introduced in 1984 (see below and its comparison of technologies).
The second generation (2G) started in 1991 and exploded worldwide at the end of 1990. Four years later, manufacturers formed the GSM Association. Third generation (3G) was the first mobile focused on data, not just voice and texts, and started at the beginning of 2001. The fourth generation (4G) started in 2007 and became popular worldwide after 2010.
First and Second Phases of 5G
So back to the present and 5G. The first phase of real 5G started in May 2018 with the Release-15 of whitepaper specifications by the ITU (International Telecommunication Union). ITU is made of 193 countries and has more than 800 board members, which gives rise to the reason why it takes a bit of time for them to collectively agree on a standard. The positive? It eliminates the issues we had in the past with GSM/TDMA – the dual competing technologies.
The second phase of 5G and latest global standard is Release-16 due to be completed by April 2020 as a candidate for the IMT-2020 technology. This second standard will increase speed and bandwidth exponentially, compared to the previous generation, demanding speeds of up to 20 Gb/s and frequencies of at least 15 Ghz or higher. The Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is going to submit 5G New Radio (NR) as standard that will include the possibility to use lower frequencies (600 Mhz to 6Ghz versus the 15 Ghz explained before). Lower frequencies can enable telecom companies to reuse existing frequencies licenses without having to buy additional ones, reuse some of the old hardware, and get better coverage. However this 5G NR software on 4G hardware is only between 20-50% faster than traditional 4G. Regardless, if this new software is loaded on new Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) hardware, the speed bump can go up to 150% on lower frequencies and up to 12-20 times on the higher than 6Ghz frequencies.
A Final Comment on Frequencies
When I explained that lower frequencies increase coverage I was speaking to having better penetration, and by that I mean getting the signal from a tower to your cellphone though a wall, building, etc… It’s rare you’ll have an open and unstructured line of sight with a tower if you live in an urban area, and it’s one of the biggest challenges of 5G. The second biggest challenge is the operator’s need to balance performance and CAPEX costs to achieve profitability and sustainability as the cost per GB of data keeps decreasing.