Huawei’s 4.5G is the natural evolution towards 5G, with the company positioning it as a bridge to enable operators to keep up with the tremendous demands on their networks before 5G becomes a reality in five years or so, said Ryan Ding, the firm’s executive director and president of products and solutions.

The company predicts that mobile broadband users will double to 6.7 billion by 2020 and the average traffic usage will jump tenfold to 5GB per month over that period.

Ding, speaking at the Huawei 4.5G summit in Barcelona this week, noted that this surge in usage is being driven in large part by big data and cloud computing. This soaring data traffic and unprecedented changes in usage patterns is forcing operators to shift how they develop and deliver networks.

In the past, all network deployments were network centric – vendors looked at the technology, developed products and then worked with the operator to deploy and optimise the network, he said.

“In the future we need to have a different mindset. Before developing a product, we need to first think about the customer experience. After defining the experience, then we work together with the operator to define the network architecture and then develop the product by selecting the right technologies to deliver that experience,” he said.

“So the mindset should be totally different than the traditional way – from technology oriented to experience oriented.”

Co-existing with 5G
Huawei, which introduced the concept of 4.5G in late 2014, forecasts 60 live commercial 4.5G networks worldwide using its equipment by the end of the year.

The 3GPP last October approved LTE-Advanced Pro, which is the official name of 4.5G.

Ding insists 4.5G can co-exist with 5G for a long time and there is a smooth migration path.

One of the key industry goals for 5G is to use one physical network to meet the requirements of different industry applications.

“If each industry has its own specific network, then each won’t have a good ROI. If players from different industries work to define the 5G standards, then we can maximise the ROI,” he said.

Based on network slicing technology, which it is demonstrating at Mobile World Congress, many different industries are able to use one network for both people-to-people and Internet of Things (IoT) use cases.

Already there
Mansoor Hanif, EE’s director of radio access networks, argued that the industry is already at the stage where one network can support all verticals. “LTE has become the network to rule all networks. The performance and stability of LTE are very good – it works and it’s flexible. No other technology has so quickly established itself globally as the baseline that can support all verticals.”

He believes edge computing, which lowers the latency, together with LTE carrier aggregation can do everything that 5G can do. “We can do it now, so why wait? We can do it gradually and it’s compatible with 5G.”

Hanif said what he loves about edge computing is that people live on the edge of the network not the core, so it allows you to get closer to the customer. “Nothing allows you to get so close. That’s why edge computing is so important. There is no other technology that can do so much to improve the customer experience. You can leverage proximity to add value.”

The industry been too afraid, too defensive and acting like dinosaurs, he admitted. “We need to be agile and move much faster. And we shouldn’t wait for 2020 to innovate; we can do it over the edge and with carrier aggregation, just adding more spectrum and muscle.”

Three targets
Huawei’s head of LTE products, Bob Cai, said at the summit that its 4.5G platform is focused on three key areas: gigabit speeds that support 2K and 4K video, Experience 4.0 and massive IoT connections (Connection Plus).

Cai said the company will move to gigabit speeds using both TDD and FDD bands and will bring some 5G technologies into 4.5G. Its new Giga Radio platform is part of its 4.5G strategy and supports 4×4 MIMO, which doubles the spectrum efficiency. Huawei is the world’s first CPE to support 4x4MIMO and it aims to ship 100,000 units, he said.

“This is the year of 4×4 MIMO, with smartphones beginning to support the technology.”

Its second focus is to enhance the customer experience by making the quality of mobile voice calls as good as or better than calls on fixed networks, which have a mean opinion score (MOS) near 4.0. The average mobile call now is rated at 3.2.

It also is developing a way to measure video quality and has been working with International Telecommunications Union (ITU) to define and standardise the video experience, which it named VMOS. The mechanism measures both network and device quality elements.

The third area, Connection Plus, aims to give operators a platform to address the emerging IoT space, which is presenting huge business opportunities that operators can’t afford to miss these. IoT services can now run on operators’ existing network, with a software upgrade or an additional card needed at times, Cai said. “But nothing changes on the air interface.”

Huawei estimates the rise of NB-IoT (narrowband) will drive uptake of three billion IoT connections by 2020.

In December Vodafone, Huawei, and u-blox completed the first successful commercial trial of pre-standard NB-IoT.

But the company isn’t just focused on NB-IoT. It is exploring options with LTE-M, which is already standardised by the 3GPP.

Over the past three years Huawei has invested $600 million in developing 5G and has 76,000 R&D engineers worldwide.