PARTNER FEATURE: Long before 5G becomes a commercial reality – 2020 at the earliest according to 3GPP’s standardisation roadmap – advanced wireless technologies, such as multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) and 4T4R (4 transmit, 4 receive), are already providing 5G-like experiences on today’s 4G networks.

The number of mobile broadband users around the world is forecast to reach 6.7 billion by 2020, with each user expected to use as much as 5GB of data per month. To keep up with that projected demand and maintain a quality user experience, mobile operators are looking for cost-effective ways to expand network capacity as well as coverage.

Peter Zhou, CMO of Huawei’s wireless division (pictured, below), said its 4.5G platform was developed as a bridge between current 4G networks and future 5G networks by delivering gigabit transmission capabilities and introducing a flexible network platform that will ease operators’ migration path to 5G.

The China-based vendor proposed the 4.5G concept in 2014, but it is no longer just a concept. In October 2015 the 3GPP approved LTE-Advanced Pro as a distinctive marker that evolves the LTE and LTE-Advanced technology series.
Last year 68 4.5G networks were commercially deployed globally, and this year the number is expected to reach 120.

Zhou, the architect behind the network innovation initiative, emphasised that Huawei is committed to maintaining operators’ continual growth through the early deployment of 5G technologies on 4G networks.

For its accelerated network innovation initiatives, specifically its “4.5G Evolution to 5G” solution, Huawei was recognised by the GSMA, which presented it the Outstanding Contribution for LTE Evolution to 5G award at MWC in Barcelona in late February.

Zhou said that by adopting pre-standard 5G technology on 4G networks, it was able to work with operators to test massive MIMO on live 4G networks and expand network capacity by as much as 4.5 times. It addition, it gives vendors the opportunity to adjust network architectures ahead of time for the introduction of 5G.

MIMO is the most important technology for 5G as it maximises spectrum for the entire network, he said, adding that it delivers clear benefits for mobile operators squeezed by soaring data traffic and rising capex.

Zhou said 4×4 MIMO provides a twofold increase in spectrum efficiency.

A number of tier-one operators around the world have agreed to move to 4×4 MIMO as they search for significant capacity gains to keep up with rising video consumption as well as prepare for the expected surge in traffic from emerging VR and AR apps as well as M2M connections.

The move to 4.5G networks is becoming increasingly popular with the release of more smartphones that support advanced MIMO, he said.

New chipsets from Qualcomm and Intel now support gigabit modem speeds, with the chipmakers’ flagship models supporting 4×4 MIMO. Qualcomm’s second-generation gigabit modem, the X20, can deliver a peak data rate of 1.2Gb/s, while Intel debuted a gigabit LTE modem, the XMM 7560, that also supports 1.2Gb/s speeds.

Gigabit-LTE devices are not far off. In fact, Samsung in May released its flagship S8 and S8+ smartphones, which support gigabit LTE.

Zhou explained that 4T4R is required to reach gigabit speeds, with more than 50 operators deploying the technology in their networks.

Beyond the technology
While Huawei is putting massive resources behind technical innovation to evolve 4G towards 5G, the company is also focused on supporting its operator partners with business innovation to drive continual growth and open up new revenue opportunities, such as the lucrative business-to-home and video markets.

Wireless-to-the-x (WTTx) networks, for example, allow operators to develop and launch smart home services, such as emerging home management and video surveillance applications.

The company’s X Labs Insight, which was established last November, forecasts the business-to-home segment to grow 75 per cent annually to reach $120 billion in 2021, while the global video entertainment market opportunity is estimated at $650 billion worldwide by 2021.

Huawei also aims to support operators as they push digital transformation, which Zhou said is vital for preparing their networks and back office systems for future Internet of Things (IoT) services.

All-cloud era
In addition to innovation around networks as well as business cases, the company has long been committed to evolving the underlying network architecture. Its CloudRAN solution, for example, applies a cloudified architecture to the radio access network (RAN), which creates an environment supporting multiple radio access technologies as well as multiple frequencies.

This makes it simple for operators to upgrade their networks from 4G to 5G, Zhou said, noting that CloudRAN is a fundamental element for linking 4.5G and 5G. Moving to an all-cloud platform is a requirement for being able to maximise network collaboration efficiency and introduce diversified new services for vertical industries.

Its all-cloud approach also will simplify deployment of 5G New Radio by allowing long-term coexistence with preexisting radio access technologies.

The combination of these initiatives means 4.5G helps global operators enhance their businesses by introducing 5G technologies into their existing 4G networks. Operators can also trial 5G-like services quickly and develop the new business models that 5G will support.

“4.5G Evolution will improve the operators’ businesses today, while keeping them on the road to a successful transition to 5G tomorrow,” Zhou said.

Speakers at the Global 5G Event in Tokyo in May reminded the audience that, although the industry is moving quickly towards 5G standardisation in preparation for commercial launches in 2020, research on the next-generation technology is far from over. The consensus is that much more needs to be done to gain the full potential of the technology through 2025.

Huawei certainly agrees. At the GSMA’s Glomo awards in February, Huawei CMO Xu Wenwei said: “The next few years will see continuous LTE development and 5G innovations. So we need to do the preparation in all aspects, including network deployment and industry collaboration.”