The need for ultra-high speed, real-time broadband communication and full-scenario internet of things (IoT) in the mobile domain is continuing to drive increased network requirements, and is set to be addressed by the introduction of 5G Advanced/5.5G networks that will be the cornerstone of an intelligent economy expected to be worth more than $18.8tn, a keynote session at MWC 2024 has heard.

Kicking off the 5G Industry Evolution Summit in Barcelona, Tim Hatt, head of research and consulting at global mobile industry trade association GSMA, said the imminent introduction of 5G Advanced networks would result in 2024 being a pivotal year for the mobile industry, as the industry taps the next in 5G – the fastest adopted generation of mobile technology the industry has seen.

Hatt noted that GSMA data had shown 5G currently has a 20% global penetration, a level reached twice as fast as 4G/LTE networks. Drivers for this, he said, were mainly due to the device ecosystem “getting itself in order”; quick network coverage expansions, particularly in vanguard markets; a lot of price competitiveness; and the large number of 5G applications being developed. But there were also some unprecedented aspects of 5G growth.

“If you look ahead, we’re on about a five-year doubling rate, meaning you’ll get to just under 60% by the end of the decade, but the geographic profile of where that growth in subscribers will come from shifts towards developing markets,” he said. “Whereas most of the growth right now is empowered by China, Korea and the US, some parts of certainly the GCC markets in the Middle East, and some parts of Europe, that’s going to shift to more populous high-growth economies in Asia, [such as] India, in particular, and in parts of Africa. We’re going to see a broader base set of growth.”

Traditionally, the mobile industry has generated revenue growth by simply working to add subscribers to the network. The challenge is that while this may have been the case for 3G, it’s not true for the world of 5G Advanced. In addition, despite generational cycles of network investment, revenue generation growth has struggled to get beyond low single digits. The key would be the ability to either add premium services to existing tariffs or to offer new services that hadn’t been sold before, in particular to enterprise users.

“There are new sectors being seen as fertile ground: retail, media and broadcast, and logistics,” said Hatt. “When you look into some of the higher bandwidth, lower latency applications, extended reality (XR) and content – using 5G for broadcast of live sports, potentially when we get into the metaverse – these sorts of applications are being flagged up … There is now a coalescence a coming together of different sorts of digital technologies. You’ve got the 5G radio interface, but that’s increasingly being melded with GenAI [generative AI]. You have the cloud and edge. The more all parties can work within that paradigm, the more productive [the market will be].”

Yet he also revealed the hitherto unsung success story in 5G was fixed wireless access (FWA). Current take-up of this is low as a percentage of the fixed base, and this looks likely to persist in the short-term at least, but Hatt said the prospects for FWA were good. GSMA data predicted 5G FWA subs will grow 55% in 2024 to over 23 million. Why does this matter? Well, if you’re an operator, it’s a cost-efficient way to leverage your existing infrastructure. Second: “There’s a proven demand [for FWA] as an alternative fibre or lower cost options on cases. We’re seeing it in the GCC markets, and we expect that to expand elsewhere. 5G FWA is a genuine sort of success story within the 5G play that we want to see more of, especially in the enterprise.”

Breaking the traditional cycle

FWA, said Hatt, would be a key use case for 5G Advanced. The new standard, he said, would break the traditional network generational cycle, spanning the traditional 5G and 6G networks expected by the end of the decade.

Right now, 5G Advanced is very much assessing wants and needs. Key reasons for roll-out and adoption would be enterprise digitisation, as IT and network buyers want to economise and prioritise return on investment considerations. One key service opportunity was bringing IoT to the masses. Looking at the expected top use cased for 5G Advanced, in addition to FWA and low-cost IoT, Hatt highlighted streaming and extended reality (XR), all of which would take advantage of technology capabilities such as improved uplink, network slicing, deterministic service and edge compute platforms.

“I think we know the reasons as to why 5G Advanced is coming out now,” he said. “There are use cases that can be monetised as businesses have genuine challenges. We think there are key opportunities in low-cost RedCap IoT. We think within the AR and VR dimension of content, there is a story to tell.

“The key point, though, is not talking about this from a technology level, it’s talking about it from a business level. As in, what problem does it solve? This is really the North Star that we want to come back to, and I think that’s what people should be gearing their mindsets around. People are willing to pay for the right services if they are in place. And if they deliver on the clock. You’ve got 75% of operators saying they’re likely to use 5G Advanced timings to release open APIs. We’re seeing a lot more interactions with the developer community here. We expect that to continue.”

Going forward, Hatt remarked that the release of the new standard really did matter as it really underlines the ability to tap enterprise use cases that were talked about five years ago, but which weren’t necessarily available at that time. As 5G Advanced infrastructure gears around that point, he said the emphasis should be on the 5G value proposition. “This has to be talked about less as a technology and more as a solution to solve a problem,” said Hatt. “Particularly in the enterprise discussion, it really is a mindset shift towards an IT consultative mindset.”

Innovation practices

Among the first to supply 5G Advanced, or as it calls it, 5.5G, infrastructure is Huawei. At MWC 2024, the company introduced a range of 5.5G innovation practices to help operators build 5.5G multi-path target networks based on what were described as native giga and native green capabilities.

The company’s extremely large antenna array (ELAA) has been upgraded from single-band to multi-band on 64T MetaAAU. With native dual-band converged antenna elements, the 64T MetaAAU supports high-band and low-band co-coverage to realise ubiquitous 5 Gbps.

In certain territories, MetaAAU has been implemented for multi-carrier TDD capability verification, with multiple bands being combined, such as 3.5 GHz, 2.6 GHz and 4.9 GHz, providing continuous 5 Gbps connectivity. FDD ultra-wideband has been upgraded to support all bands. The new Hepta-band RRU supports 7 bands across 700 MHz to 2.6 GHz, enabling existing 100 MHz of bandwidth to be reused for building 5-Gbps basic experience networks.

Yet taking aboard Hatt’s point regarding the need to take a business focus with 5G advanced as his company’s new 5.5G technology was being rolled out, Li Peng, Huawei’s corporate senior vice-president and president of ICT sales and service, emphasised the strategic opportunities that will be open to the ICT industry in an intelligent world where the mobile standard was present.

“We’re rapidly approaching an intelligent world,” he said. “As the demands on networks have increased, 5.5G has become a key step on the path to the intelligent world.”

Li Peng closed out by calling on the industry to embrace 5.5G and build a solid ICT foundation for what he said would be “a more prosperous intelligent world”.

“5.5G is entering commercial use in 2024, and as 5.5G, AI and cloud converge, carriers can unlock the potential of new applications and capabilities,” he said, before advising carriers around the world to focus on high-quality networking, multi-dimensional monetisation, emerging services and generative AI to grasp these opportunities.

Middle Eastern operators have been among the first to take on board the Huawei technology. UAE operator du has just established a memorandum of understanding with the tech firm to promote the construction and commercial use of the 5G Advanced network and jointly build the 5G Advanced Country in the nation. The two parties will establish a 5G Advanced joint innovation centre to develop 5G Advanced technologies and expand the large-scale commercial use of new services in all scenarios, including consumers, homes and enterprises, and accelerate the incubation of commercial applications such as 24K XR, FWA, holographic conferencing and enhanced 5G private networks.

At the 5G Industry Evolution Summit, Ali Al Awadi, head of infra commercial and business development at du UAE, outlined how the operator was attempting to expand the boundary of its 5G operations towards 5G Advanced and deliver ubiquitous 5G-based gigabit experience.

Indeed, the operator saw 5G Advanced as the bedrock of its plan to enable what it called a 10Giga society and offer a new business vision. He revealed that du currently has 8.6 million mobile subscribers, covering 98.5% of the of the population with a 5G network. Traffic data analysis showed 5G exceeded 4G in 2023, accounting for 60% of all data traffic. The operator was projecting this figure to reach 85% by 2026.

Commenting on what he said the company’s 5G Advanced network, introduced in November 2023, could achieve, he said: “The evolution of technology must continue. 5G Advanced is something that has already started and with connection speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second, the sky’s the limit here. There are massive opportunities here that can be unleashed.”

Al Awadi said there were three main pillars to highlight to make 5G Advanced flourish: acquisition of cell sites and densification; network preparation; spectrum. “When it comes to modernising the network, and achieving a distributed architecture, that is very important, and something that we’ve already started doing,” he said. “[This] ultimately paves the way towards better performance, especially when it comes to edge computing, becoming closer to the customers and closer to the use cases.

“Spectrum is something critical, it’s not the most important aspects, and there has to be a clear strategy,” said Al Awadi. “It’s something that needs to be started at a very early stage to prepare for 5G Advanced. We’re proud to say that we’ve been able to demonstrate the first actual 5G advanced deployment [and] we’ve been able to demonstrate 10 Gbps speeds in use cases related to video streaming. I believe that was a good opportunity to give people the experience to get a feel of what 5G Advance can do. And it’s something that that that also inspired us to continue on with this vision.”

Focusing on business opportunities

Phase one of this vision will aim to offer 5G Advanced speeds of 5 Gbps by the end of 2024, and achieve the full 10 Gbps potential of 5G Advanced by 2026. Again, focusing on business opportunities rather than tech is key in the roll-out.

Al Awadi concluded: “There are key messages to emphasise. One is a closer collaboration between operators, the industry and partners alike to realise the full potential of 5G and 5G Advanced. It’s something that requires better awareness and engagement to encourage the adoption of 5G use cases to unleash the actual full potential of 5 which is yet, in my opinion, to be explored. We don’t need to be too fixated on technology. We should just focus on changing our mindset towards creating value for the industry, because that’s what matters at the end. 5GF is just a tool that should help us get to our destination which is value creation. 5G Advanced will unleash massive opportunity, which are yet to be witnessed.”

Massive is a word that can be applied to just about everything that China Unicom deals with. The Chinese operator already has as many as 1.2 million 5G base stations covering vast swathes of its domestic territory. At the 5G Industry Evolution Summit, Jing Lei, the company’s industrial internet business unit general manager, stressed just how accelerated 5G Advanced commercialisation can enable industries and grow business value. He revealed how its 5G Advanced network started operation at the beginning of 2024, and commercialisation began with a pilot around IoT and RedCap technology.

China Unicom sees RedCap as an ideal choice to support applications such as video monitoring, wearable and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) applications. The plan is to introduce scaled adoption in select industries in seven provinces and cities. In the context of RedCap commercialisation, the company sees four capabilities for breakthroughs. These comprise authentication, with a project for standardisation of device authentication; networks, with the likes of voice over new radio and network slicing; advances in chip/mobile technology; and industry application such as cloud computing, mobile edge computing (MEC), and positioning and timing functionality.

Also among the 5G Advanced objectives is to support the likes of passive IoT, enabling 100B low-speed connection. China Unicom has already begun a pilot programme for steel firm Baowu Ouyeel in Shanghai, supporting full-process transparent management of steel roll stock-in, stock-out and warehousing. Such networks have seen typical IoT device costs fall from CNY 150 to below CNY 10, with counting efficiency transformed from hours to minutes with a claimed part counting accuracy of 99.99%.

The operator is also using ultra-reliable low-latency communication capability in what is described as a benchmark project with Huawei for Great Wall Motor company Exquisite Automotive Systems in Hebei province deploying a commercial 5G-Advanced flexible production line. The deployment facilitates real-time wireless full scenario industrial control of tools such as advanced robotic grippers through network latencies of 4 ms with virtually zero downtime. The manufacturer is said to have already made substantial cost-effectiveness gains.

All in all, Jing Lei was confident that 5G Advanced would open up a new blue ocean for the information industry, further driving digital innovation and helping operators go further and achieve more. “5G Advanced has entered the stage of practice in development and industry changes are developing at an accelerating pace,” he said. “Networks are increasingly converging with industries that advance and enable the scaled growth of 5G applications and further digital innovation. China Unicom will continue to accelerate the commercial development of 5G Advanced to define a wider range of services and to build a fully connected, intelligent world.”

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