5G-Advanced networks explained: Everything you need to know

Work, a lot of it, is taking place in laboratories around the world on 6G, the next generation of wireless communications. Work to create future 6G network specifications, with initial 6G networks built on the foundations of 5G, is being planned already by standards body 3GPP. Research organisations are busy looking at the capabilities of 6G and potential use cases when commercialisation arrives sometime before 2030.

Yet sometime in the next few months, the mobile industry is going to start seeing use cases and commercial opportunities being realised from 5G-Advanced – or 5.5G, as tech supplier Huawei, among others, describes this new iteration.

What are 5G-Advanced networks?

Since the onset of the transformational 3G mobile standard, the world of communications has become used to the arrival of a new generation in mobile networking every decade. Each new-generation wireless technology has been designed to provide substantially higher capacity and much lower latency than its predecessor, bringing in a new range of applications and use cases that were not previously supported.

While tempting to think of 5G-Advanced as a mid-cycle, halfway house between 5G and 6G, in its own right it brings clear performance upgrades and supports new use cases compared with the first iterations of 5G.

Why is 5G-Advanced necessary?

6G standards and networks are being constructed to revolutionise how consumers, networks and devices communicate with and among each other. 6G will change how networks perform tasks such as joint communication, sensing and positioning. It promises to build critical bridges between physical and virtual spaces to enable new use cases while optimising industry operations. The opportunities offered by 6G will form the basis of 2030 societies and businesses, with the new and integrated features potentially significantly advancing digitisation.

Before these 2030 societies emerge, however, enhancements to traditional 5G networks are necessary to deal with continuous massive increases in data traffic on communications networks.

What is the difference between ‘normal’ 5G and 5G-Advanced?

5G mobile networks are celebrating five years of commercial availability, racking up over 1.5 billion users around the world – around a fifth of the marketplace. They are designed to bring continuous enhancements in mobile network capabilities, such as higher data throughputs, massively increased capacity and low latency.

Compared with standard 5G, 5G-Advanced is designed to bring more capabilities to enable wider use cases and to enhance radio performance to a new level, driving enhanced network performance towards higher bandwidth, lower latency and greater reliability. It will offer improved support for applications such as extended reality (XR) and promises monetary opportunities to consumer markets, with use cases such as gaming and video streaming, as well as enterprise opportunities such as remote working and virtual training.

Compared with previous mobile generations, 5G-Advanced also creates an ecosystem for vertical markets, and ongoing development in this area will continue to bring improvements in traffic throughput, network coverage, power saving and anomaly detection.

5G-Advanced is designed to bring continuous enhancements in mobile network capabilities and use case-based support to help mobile operators with 5G commercialisation. Moreover, it is the first mobile standard specifically built to take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), and network energy savings for a fully automated network and a sustainable future.

Indeed, AI/ML will become essential for future networks given the predicted rapid growth in network usage and use case complexities that can’t be managed by legacy optimisation approaches with presumed models. System-level network energy saving is also a critical aspect as operators need to reduce the deployment cost but assure network performance for various use cases.

What is the technical background of 5G-Advanced networks?

The 3GPP first released details of its work on the Release 18 mobile standard, 5G-Advanced, in December 2021, covering in particular work done in the domains of the radio access network (RAN). Tasked with 17 topics over 18 months from 2022 to 2023, 3GPP technologists worked on enhancements to existing RAN features such as multiple input, multiple output (MIMO), coverage enhancement and 5G RedCap.

Taking advantage of the evolution of 5G networks to the Standalone (SA) network architecture, RedCap is designed to bring the benefits of 5G to New Radio (NR) consumers, enterprises and industrial devices. RedCap promises to deliver reliability for devices that have low bandwidth requirements, offering many of the advantages of 5G without the cost and complexity of typical 5G services.

The RedCap standard has been developed to enable the production of smaller and more cost-efficient 5G devices and provide longer battery life, thanks to their reduced complexity.

What applications and services will 5G-Advanced support?

Among other areas of relevance, 5G-Advanced is seen as an enabling platform for innovations in computing, AI, connectivity, sensors and virtualisation. New capabilities include harmonised communication and sensing (HCS), passive internet of things (IoT) and native intelligence.

The fundamental offer of the new standard is that there will be around 10 times enhanced capabilities compared with traditional 5G. In addition to 10Gbps downlink speeds, it will be able to support 1Gbps uplinks.

It will likely be seen as the bedrock of smart city infrastructures; self-driving vehicles; smart traffic; new work environments; smart health; defence and security; sustainable development goals (SDGs); and virtual/artificial/mixed/extended reality (VR/AR/MR/XR), in particular the industrial metaverse.

Passive IoT is regarded as a potentially massive opportunity. In 2022, working with China Mobile in Chengdu, Sichuan province, China, Huawei conducted field tests of a passive IoT running on a prototype 5G-Advanced network enabling large numbers of sensors to transmit data without the need for batteries.

When are 5G-Advanced networks likely to be launched?

The 3GPP aimed to finalise the standard by the end of the third quarter of 2023 and technology firms expect services to launch in the latter part of 2024. All spectrum bands have been identified and terminal technology is mature.

At MWC 2024, 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 sector, as the industry taps the next in 5G – the fastest adopted generation of mobile technology yet seen.

Also at the show, comms tech giant Huawei revealed its plans to take advantage of 5.5G/5G-Advanced. Eric Zhao, Huawei vice-president and chief marketing officer for wireless solutions, emphasised that the industry was on a new 5G journey and that the age of 5.5G “is now”, offering the prospect of native 10Gbps connectivity, native green technology and native intelligence. Huawei predicts 100 billion 5.5G connections supporting the “ultimate” and “ubiquitous” experience.

A 2023 study from ABI Research predicted that after coming into commercial availability life in 2025, 5G-Advanced will grow so quickly that by 2030, 75% of mobile base stations will be upgraded to support the standard.

The upgrade of 5G network infrastructure is expected to be faster in consumer markets than for enterprise applications. A study from ABI Research, 5G-Advanced and the road to 6G, forecasts that although 75% of all 5G base stations will be upgraded to 5G-Advanced, in the enterprise market, the ratio is about half. It expects 5G-Advanced devices per radio base station to quickly gain traction around 2024 to 2026 at the early stage of the commercial launch because devices will grow more aggressively than network deployments over that period.

Where is 5G-Advanced research and development taking place?

The ecosystem of technical suppliers for 5G-Advanced networks is growing. Yet the usual suspects of Nokia, Ericsson, Huawei and Samsung are the comms tech and services providers leading the charge in developing 5G-Advanced’s underlying essential systems.

Importantly, mainstream technology suppliers have now completed multiple rounds of iteration around 5.5G support. Qualcomm and MTK are both cited in terms of chipsets, while the device and terminal market is being spearheaded by Apple’s iPhone 15, the Samsung Galaxy S24, Vivo’s X100 Pro and Oppo’s Find 7.

Over 50 operators have mmWave networks ready to support 5G-Advanced and some – including DNA Finland, VDF Spain, HKT Hong Kong and AIS Thailand – have already tested mmWave network for 10Gbps connections. Licensed spectrum availability will be critical for the successful roll-out of 5G-Advanced.

A 2023 whitepaper from mobile trade body 5G Americas, The evolution of 5G spectrum, emphasises that the upper mid-band spectrum, ranging from 7.125GHz to 15.35GHz, will be key to taking advantage of existing infrastructure for increased capacity.

What are the early 5G-Advanced projects?

Middle Eastern operators have been among the first to take on board early versions of 5G-Advanced. UAE operator Du is establishing 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.

Looking to gain from passive IoT, enabling 100 billion low-speed connections, 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 CNY150 (£16.40) to below CNY10 (£1.09), with counting efficiency transformed from hours to minutes with a claimed part counting accuracy of 99.99%.

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