New 3GPP 5G Advanced specifications may promise an expansion in new services and enhanced user experiences, which will be manifest through the development of greater numbers of device form factors and growth in market segments, but it will also have an increasingly demanding impact on hardware as the opportunity extends beyond mobile broadband.
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Evolution to 5G Advanced to Expand Use Cases Beyond Traditional Mobile Broadband Services
The 5G industry has seen phenomenal growth over the past few years, but it is only just at the beginning of its journey. With the evolution toward 5G Advanced, there is still much to be done to fully unlock the value of the 5G ecosystem and realize its full potential. To help reach this promise, a roadmap of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications will roll out in the coming years, expanding 5G New Radio (NR) into new industries and delivering system solutions for use cases beyond traditional mobile broadband services.
New 3GPP Releases Will Fundamentally Grow Uses Cases in the 5G Ecosystem, but have Demanding Impact on Hardware
As a first stage in this upcoming new 5G era, the 3GPP has already completed 5G NR Release 16 (Rel-16), which has unlocked many new 5G opportunities and brought enhancements to foundational aspects of the 5G system. This has included better coverage and system performance, lower latency, further reductions in device power consumption, reliability, and efficiency, while also delivering other key transformative technologies, such as positioning with below three-meter accuracy and sidelink for supporting autonomous vehicles. These 5G enhancements will all be built upon by the imminent move to Release 17 (Rel-17) and 5G Advanced, specified under Release 18 (Rel-18), both of which will represent major 5G evolutions and support the continuous drive to new use cases, verticals, and deployments. For both new releases, it is expected that several features will be incrementally improved and enhanced, while others will nominally address and widen new use cases, verticals, and deployment options that are specific to the launch of each subsequent release. Some of the main new features include:
- Support for Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTNs), including satellite, and non-public networks for extending connectivity to remote areas or those not covered by terrestrial communications networks.
- NR sidelink evolution with safety support through connecting smartphones and wearables directly to vehicles.
- Reduced Capacity (RedCap) devices to expand the growth of energy-constrained use cases, such as consumer or medical wearables, Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) sensors, or camera surveillance devices.
- Sidelink relay enhancements, whereby relay User Equipment (UE) connects one or more remote UEs to the network, or a relay UE connecting multiple remote UEs to each other, alleviating network traffic.
- Frequency bands beyond 52 Gigahertz (GHz) and up to 75 GHz, enabling mobile networks to offer hyper mobile broadband throughput beyond 20 Gigabits per Second (Gbps) in the downlink and 10 Gbps in the uplink.
These new features will help next-generation 5G networks become ubiquitous and democratized, enabling global coverage, and seamless and cost-effective telecommunications services, including public safety and mission-critical applications. Moreover, the shift to Rel-18, which is a significant evolution that has been coined 5G Advanced, will build on Rel-17, providing intelligent network solutions. Notably, a major Rel-18 enhancement will be in the areas of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Extended Reality (XR), based on Machine Learning (ML) techniques to support a wider variety of use cases and more challenging applications. Other main functions include higher precision location accuracy, the creation of massive Internet of Things (IoT), and support for frequency bands up to 250 GHz.
While each of the new services and enhanced features that spring from these 3GPP releases will fundamentally grow the number of uses cases in the 5G ecosystem, at each stage there will be an increasingly demanding impact on hardware as the opportunity extends beyond mobile broadband. This will have a major bearing on the preference, management, and configuration of modem and component selection and packaging, with an added increase in number and complexity of the Radio Frequency Front End (RFFE) components and modules. In turn, adding such features will create additional product design considerations and constraints that will all need to be resolved, which adds yet another layer of complexity.
Balancing Complexity as 5G Advanced Features Impact All RFFE Components and Designs
As each of these the new advanced 5G features is released, they will not only have a bearing on networks, but also a lasting impact on many key metrics that are linked to the use of device components, system-level design, thermal efficiency, RF silicon footprint, and overall costs. Indeed, adding these new functions will place significant burden on the growth in new device designs, with some necessitating the use of additional hardware, such as supporting NTN networks or higher order Millimeter Wave (mmWave) spectrum beyond 50 GHz. Specifically, there will be a need to add more components, notably as frequencies move above 6 GHz and improvements are made in positioning precision, as well as for NTN and Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) support. This needs to be achieved while also trying to minimize the number of device Stock Keeping Units (SKUs). Improved power efficiencies and management will also be fundamental requirements, particularly when in support of massive IoT, although there are expectations that this can be aided by input from the use of AI.
With the advent of these new 5G Advanced features and their impending impact on RFFE Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), notably power consumption and optimization of modem and RFFE system selection, the industry needs to quickly come to grips with balancing the complexity inherent in the 5G Advanced system if it is to reach full potential. This is expected to ultimately move to the creation of an experience-centric 5G ecosystem and the industry will need to take some solid steps to make this a reality, which will be the concern of all stakeholders across the value chain. An experience-centric design moves devices to act as hubs that can support multiple devices, so a system-level design needs to support and be expanded beyond just the main hubs to address all device types.
Such an expansion in 5G use cases designed to unlock these advanced experiences will lead to the development of greater numbers of device form factors and market segments, and advances in those that need to be more fine-tuned and sophisticated, which will lead to a large increase in the volume of devices taking market growth way beyond mobile phones. The creation of these experiences is central to mobile services with the user positioned firmly in the middle surrounded by multiple devices that act as enablers, whether that device is a smartphone, tablet, automotive, set of wireless earbuds, or a smartwatch. It is important that the industry’s mindset concerning 5G does not focus on the evolution of technology supply chains, but on the enablement of use cases and experiences to embrace the wider implications of moving the market to one that is experience-centric.
For the time being, the industry is just scratching the surface, taking its first steps to provide an explosion of enhanced 5G user experiences buoyed by the upcoming 3GPP releases, in terms of both planning for new use cases and opening new business opportunities. Therefore, if the industry is to fully unlock value in the connected 5G economy, fulfilling its massive market potential while moving beyond traditional mobile broadband services, the industry needs to be patient and execute on the promise of these innovative experiences, while also embracing and expanding the reach of 5G to new services, features, spectrum, and deployments in the coming years.