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How 5G will lead to new network paradigms, writes Arabian Business Community

The Middle East region is on the cusp of experiencing 5G technology. A number of recent developments suggest that the Middle East may witness one of the earliest rollouts of the commercial 5G services, the much-awaited fifth generation telecommunication technology, writes Arabian Business Community in their Newsletter.

The UAE is likely to be the first country in the region to launch 5G services after the country’s Telecommunication Regulatory Authority (TRA) recently allowed service providers to start providing pre-standard 5G services in December 2017.

The UAE’s largest service provider, Etisalat is planning to conduct advanced field trials in the first quarter of 2018. The company has been testing the various aspects of 5G and has achieved a speed of 71 Gbps in a live trial in October last year.

According to a GSMA report, the Mena region will have more than 50 million 5G connections, covering around 30 per cent of the region’s population by 2025.

Unlike the previous technologies, 5G is not just about higher speed. It brings a unique combination of ultra high-speed broadband speed of 10Gbps with a latency of less than a millisecond. This opens up a host of new use cases, including real-time monitoring, autonomous driving, remote surgery and more. When compared to 4G technology, 5G networks would be much more pervasive, offer much higher speed, and will be able to support a plethora of devices.

Given the high-speed, reach and capacity it promises, 5G promises to be extensively used in almost all business verticals. From smart cities to smart transportation, 5G will add a new dimension to living in a highly connected ecosystem, with enhanced automation, monitoring, and tracking. With low latency, 5G would further increase the use of technology in critical areas like healthcare, public security, management of city and warfare. With better reach, 5G would enable data surfing at any altitude, any terrain, crowded or secluded places.

The transition to 5G services is not without challenges. It demands network transformation to enable service providers to meet the requirements of 5G. Most mobile communication services operate in the 600 to 2000 MHz frequency band, especially Middle East countries. For example, in the UAE, 3G services operate in 2100 MHz frequency, and 4G services run on 1800 MHz.

5G, on the other hand, would require, much higher frequencies for faster speed. However, there is a scarcity of higher spectrum band in the region. According to a Deloitte paper, in UAE there is very scarce spectrum as most ranges are utilized up to 275 GHz, with more availability present at the lower bands. While initially, the telcos will launch 5G in the lower spectrum bands, they will need to leverage Carrier Aggregation to overcome the limitation of the scarce and fragmented spectrum allocation at higher bands.

Achieving sub-1 ms latency level is a key technology challenge for popularity and viability of 5G services. To achieve this response time, the device between the user and content provider has to be within a one-kilometre range. This would require substantial investment in infrastructure on servers and distribution.

There is another challenge. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), which sets the standards of telecommunication technologies, came up with the first set of 5G New Radio standards only in December 2017. The standards need to be cleared in a final vote in September 2018 in Australia. The next set of 5G standards are likely to be cleared later this year. While the recent standards have expedited the process of 5G deployment, it is also true that 4G will continue to exist along with other technologies for quite some time.

The present-day monolithic and hardware-centric networks are not capable of meeting the demands of 5G network. The all-pervasive networks of the future, which will support billions of things need to agile, flexible and easily scalable. Innovative technologies, which enable these changes will need to be implemented for the successful rollout of 5G.

Network Function Virtualization, which is based on decoupling hardware from software, brings down the need for proprietary hardware and thus significantly brings down the cost. Technologies like NFV and Software Defined Networks (SDN) provide software-based network architecture which is easy to deploy, allows faster and easier rollout of services and is cost-effective at the same time.

Heterogeneous networks (HetNets) is another cost-effective yet efficient technology that allows different telecom network technologies such as 2G, 3G, 4G and LTE-A, to work in the same ecosystem, a key feature of the 5G services. HetNets extensively use small cells to densify the network for better coverage and speeds.

The rollout of 5G services requires massive investment in infrastructure to make it a commercially and technologically viable service in the future. According to a Deloitte research, mobile operators across the Middle East will invest $50 billion in network infrastructure over the period 2017-2021, much of which will be in 4G network upgrades with a portion going into 5G trials and commercial launches. The telcos in the region will do well to explore newer technology concepts, such as NFV, to ensure that the networks are ready to turn exciting 5G use cases into reality.