5G-Advanced is the next evolutionary step in 5G technology. It will bring a new level of enhanced capabilities beyond connectivity and enable a wider set of advanced use cases for verticals. It will support advanced applications with enhanced mobility and high reliability as well as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) that will improve network performance. It will also introduce further improvements in spectral efficiency and energy savings. In this article we will examine what the 5G-Advanced era will bring, how our lives will change and how we will get there.
The current 5G market
Even in its early stages, the pace of the rollout of 5G networks has surpassed 4G/LTE networks. Two years after the first LTE launch there were 25 million subscriptions across 60 networks. By contrast, two years after the first 5G launch there were 340 million subscriptions across 155 networks. GSMA Intelligence has forecast that 5G connections will reach 692 million subscribers globally by the end of 2022. Indeed, in some markets such as South Korea and the US, 5G already covers 80 percent or more of the population. Nokia is also playing a significant role in these developments by delivering 5G networks to the vast majority of countries that have launched commercial 5G services.
Standards body, 3GPP, first standardized the world’s first 5G New Radio (NR) solution in ‘Release 15’ – which introduced a completely new cellular system, to help developers implement new functionality into the network. The key improvements delivered by this iteration were across three areas: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC), and massive machine-type communications (mMTC).
Release 15 formed the basis for 5G Non-Standalone (NSA) deployments, however, these still relied on 4G LTE infrastructure for the delivery of end-to-end services. Indeed, many operators launched commercial 5G services with enhanced eMBB or Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) technology, which were in essence similar to earlier LTE services. However, operators in some more advanced markets, such as South Korea, focused on the development of innovative consumer use cases that utilize 5G’s more advanced capabilities such as cloud gaming, Augmented Reality (AR), Virtual Reality (VR), and 4K video, with the intention of encouraging subscribers to adopt 5G plans. Release 15 has also enabled further advancements by leading to 5G Standalone (SA), in which the 5G New Radio system is complemented by Standalone 5G Core with optional cloud-based network functions.
3GPP followed with Releases 16 and 17 which introduced enhancements for Industrial IoT (IIoT) including innovations to support time-sensitive communication (TSC), and the wider expansion of the 5G ecosystem, enhanced MIMO, small data transmission (SDT), User Equipment energy-saving, and many more enhancements. Other areas include slicing, edge computing, and support for Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN). For mobile operators, these areas presented the opportunity to offer services in industrial environments such as mining, transportation, as well as offer enterprise customers an opportunity to digitalize their operations and processes. Industry 4.0 is one of the first sectors to truly benefit from 5G services to enhance productivity and manufacturing. For example, for certain use cases, 5G offers high-quality video streams, live mobile video capture, and feeds from multiple video streams for a range of uses cases such as advanced video analytics or video surveillance.
The launch of Release 18 marks another major evolution in 5G technology that will lead the industry into the 5G-Advanced era.
The 5G-Advanced era
5G-Advanced is set to evolve 5G to its fullest, richest capabilities. It will create a foundation for more demanding applications and a wider range of use cases than ever before with a truly immersive user experience based on extended reality (XR) features. It will also introduce AI and ML enhancements across the RAN, Core, and network management layer for improved performance, network optimization, and energy efficiency. It will also be fully backwards compatible, so it will be able to co-exist with the current 5G NR Releases 15-17, including the ability to serve legacy 5G devices.
Nokia regards 5G-Advanced capabilities as means for mobile operators to transform their networks in profound and defined ways. By taking into account the four dimensions of experience, expansion, extension, and operational excellence, Nokia can support its customers with any combination of network requirements, deployment scenarios, and use cases.
- Experience: 5G-Advanced will offer an improved experience for people and machines. This cluster of features focuses on improving throughput in the uplink, reducing service interruption time, and enabling superior digital experiences. Truly immersive experiences will be possible thanks to the use of XR, virtual reality (VR), and augmented reality (AR), in which the physical and the virtual world will be fused.
- Expansion: 5G-Advanced will enable new services beyond traditional communication. By introducing enhanced positioning with sub-10cm accuracy consistently both indoors and outdoors, as well as time synchronization as a service, 5G-Advanced offers valuable benefits for use cases as diverse as smart power grid control, industrial automation, and real-time financial transactions. This will enhance navigation and make logistics systems more efficient.
- Extension: 5G-Advanced will extend the reach of connectivity and make it available to new market segments including innovations for improved coverage, enhanced low-cost massive IoT, and further support for non-terrestrial networks (NTN) and drones. This will help bridge the digital divide by extending broadband connectivity into rural and underserved geographies offering people access to economic opportunities and the benefits mobile connectivity provides. It will also be fundamental to the operation of driverless cars, autonomous robots, and industrial automation systems.
- Excellence: 5G-Advanced will be powered by operational excellence that aims to enhance and optimize the 5G platform and its operation by the gradual introduction of AI/ML enablers, wireline and wireless convergence, improved resiliency, and energy efficiency enhancements. These operational enhancements will ensure efficient network operation at an affordable operational expense.
- XR (AR, VR, gaming): 5G-Advanced will enhance today’s XR experience by expanding the reach of VR and immersive AR applications and the cloud gaming experience. 5G-Advanced will offer users a superior XR experience while on the move, truly enabling a high-data-rate experience. It requires high data rates with strictly bounded latency constraints as well as a high degree of application awareness. This enhanced application awareness helps to move the XR processing load from the device into the network cutting down on the cost, size, and power of user equipment. Older bulkier devices will be replaced by much smaller pocket-sized models that will enable XR use cases everywhere. This could grant users the true perception of being in a remote environment and allow them to efficiently interact in such surroundings, no matter where they are physically located.
- Enhanced coverage and MIMO performance: 5G-Advanced will address the huge growth in uplink demanding applications such as live high-quality video streaming. It is expected that 5G-Advanced will offer 20 percent higher data rates compared to 5G through innovations. It will also address lower uplink latencies. A prerequisite for good end-user experience in an XR world is that we have low latencies in both link directions, as XR applications often require highly responsive bidirectional communication. Uplink coverage improvements are also part of 5G-Advanced.
- 5G to replace GSM-R: Extending 5G-Advanced to certain specialized vertical use cases across sectors from railways and utilities to public safety calls for the ability to deploy NR in dedicated spectrum bandwidths below 5MHz. Delivering next-generation signaling and communications for railways by adapting 5G to their allocated spectrum bandwidth, connecting next-generation smart grids, and powering ultra-connected and responsive blue-light services, is one of the examples. In Europe, it has been decided that the Future Railway Mobile Communication System (FRMCS) which will replace GSM-R will use 5G NR.
- Evolution beyond smartphone: 5G-Advanced will also usher in an era of new types of devices that benefit from the coverage and efficient connectivity of 5G. We will see a plethora of new types of full-capability devices beyond smartphones as well as devices that do not need to implement every aspect of its immense performance and flexibility. This also allows for significantly lower device costs. These devices are called ‘Reduced Capability’ or RedCap devices and are ideal for use cases such as video surveillance for industrial quality control, process monitoring, or sensing and asset tracking. In this way, smart wearable electronics with a small form factor can be designed which have at the same time long-lasting batteries. In industrial process monitoring and quality control scenarios, the frequent transaction of small data packets can be transmitted efficiently to support network performance. Also, the use of full-capability devices such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), or drones, is expected to grow with applications ranging from search and rescue to parcel delivery and aerial displays. Not only drones but also autonomous vehicles, robots, and Automated Ground Vehicles (AGVs) will thrive with 5G-Advanced networks tailored to ensure reliable communications with base stations.
- Accurate positioning: 5G-Advanced will also offer enhancements in terms of cellular-based positioning including the identification of non-line-of-sight paths as well as centimeter-level accuracy, for both indoors and outdoors scenarios. In indoor, it will work as a complement to outdoor global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) and hence can be used in buildings for industrial automation or logistics or tunnels for automotive or public safety. Thanks to accurate positioning and RedCap, 5G connected tags for asset tracking can be implemented. One day, these tags may even be able to harvest energy from their environment.
- Resilient timing: 5G is becoming a viable alternative or supplement to GNSS/GPS for providing time synchronization to Universal Time Coordinated (UTC) or any well-defined time domain, supporting everything from industrial automation to real-time financial transactions and smart grids. In today’s smart grid, electricity flows in multiple directions. Therefore, highly accurate, simultaneous, and continuous monitoring is needed to avoid imbalances and that demands extremely accurate micro-and millisecond-level time information.
- Network operation efficiency: 5G-Advanced will introduce new AI and ML technologies across the RAN, core, and network management domains that will enhance performance, automation, and energy efficiency. This includes solutions for more efficient data collection, AI/ML model training and model exchange between AI/ML agents, and for the first time, also introducing AI/ML at the air interface to further boost the 5G-Advanced radio performance. With the exponential growth of cellular traffic, energy efficiency must continue to be addressed in 5G-Advanced with the implementation of new energy-saving features. It will need a combination of well-designed standards and outstanding implementation supported by artificial intelligence and machine learning to predict traffic variations and obtain energy savings in line with the traffic demands. In addition, the operational innovations address slicing enhancement and the integration of non-3GPP access technologies like Wi-Fi.
- Enhanced sidelink: 5G-Advanced continues to enhance direct communication between users or users and infrastructure. Sidelink enhancements will include mechanisms to support device-to-device (UE-to-UE) relay allowing users to receive information from networks via other users.
- Enhanced mobility: 5G-Advanced will target virtually zero service interruption times during handovers without compromising robustness. This is vital for devices on the move with latency-critical services such as XR, IIoT, or URLLC.
5G-Advanced will change the user experience in numerous ways, allowing consumers and industries to benefit from the highly immersive experience and enhanced mobility. It will improve coverage and capacity and introduce support for a host of new devices. It will also deliver more intelligence into the network using AI and ML, boost performance and reduce power consumption. 5G-Advanced will truly expand 5G capabilities beyond connectivity.