GENEVA — As telecoms hurtle down a racecourse towards the next generation of high-speed wireless technology, United Nations technical experts function as race directors working behind the starting gates.
The advent of 5G, or fifth-generation wireless technology, has the mobile industry buzzing these days with promises of data speeds like those of landline broadband — cutting the time to download movies down to a matter of seconds.
It is poised to become a key part of the mobile infrastructure behind everything from smartphones and interconnected home devices to self-driving cars, delivery drones and virtual reality, or VR, headsets.
Before telecoms can revolutionize equipment, however, the International Telecommunication Union must develop technical standards for putting it all to use. ITU, based in Geneva, calls its work on the standards “International Mobile Telecommunications for 2020 and beyond,” or IMT-2020.
ITU put out a call for research papers in advance of a conference on “machine learning for a 5G future” to be held in November at Argentina. Conference organizers hope to identify emerging developments among information and communication technologies, particularly areas that could use international standards to help things proceed more smoothly.
Comprising 193 member nations and almost 800 private entities and academic institutions, ITU says it has set a goal of “enabling a seamlessly connected society in the 2020 timeframe and beyond that brings together people along with things, data, applications, transport systems and cities in a smart networked communications environment.”
When that happens, it will have been eight years since a U.N. Radiocommunication Assembly in Geneva approved the 4G wireless standards that now support most smartphones, and 11 years since the requirements for those standards were established.
— ITU (@ITU) June 4, 2018
Along with allocating global radio spectrum and satellite orbits, ITU develops technical standards for networks and technologies to interconnect.
ITU Secretary-General Houlin Zhao said the work means supporting “enhanced mobile connectivity by defining both the spectrum and the standards for 5G, and the standards for transport networks to support 5G.”
He said ITU wants to fast track everyone’s access to “greater digital connectivity speeds that are more responsive and that can handle the ever-growing number of connected devices.”
Transitions like this — between basic technologies and patents that have enormous implications for consumers and businesses alike — have occurred about once a decade. Behind the drive for 5G technology is the promise of data processing speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second — 100 times faster than 4G — along with faster data capacity rates.
Similarly, 4G wireless networks were hundreds of times faster than 3G put to use in 2000. Before that, 2G cellular networks commercially launched at the start of the 1990s.
Getting it to market
Every time ITU sets new requirements and standards, it requires industry some time to ensure that the faster technology can be widely produced and broadly applied to mobile devices.
A few mobile operators are looking at pre-standard trial 5G networks for 2018, but the broader launch of commercial networks using new international standards is generally planned for the 2020 to 2022 timeframe.
The first phase of 5G requirements is to be completed by September of this year “to accommodate early commercial deployment,” and the second phase is to last until March 2020, according to the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, whose work applies to telecoms, broadcasting and other electronic communications networks and services.
It said the 5G technology should offer a user experience that is “near that of fixed networks with near total 5G coverage, cater for massive deployment of Internet of Things, while still offering acceptable levels of energy consumption, equipment cost and network deployment and operation cost to ensure the service can be provided economically.”
The 5G networks operate in a high-frequency band of the wireless spectrum that can transfer data at high speeds, but do not travel as far as the lower frequency waves in 4G networks.
That means the carriers, who have been scrambling to get ready for 5G while still experimenting with the technology, will have to install more antennas — potentially leading to a tangle of disputes over property rights, fees and bureaucratic red tape.
In March, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would block the Singapore chipmaker Broadcom from seeking a hostile takeover of U.S. rival Qualcomm on grounds that a merger would threaten national security.
The action reflected U.S. fears that Qualcomm could get a leg up with 5G and increase risks of data theft and espionage. Some U.S. lawmakers tried to prohibit government purchases of telecom equipment from companies tied to China’s military and ruling Communist Party.
But telecoms in recent months have promoted their testing and preparations for early commercial 5G uses. In April, for example, Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson drew attention to a partnership with an Australian telecom seeking early commercial uses of 5G.
They set up a 5G-connected car and the first 5G-enabled free WiFi hotspots, though no devices could use it, said Emilio Romeo, managing director of Ericsson Australia and New Zealand.
“At the start of the year our 5G prototype device was the size of a fridge and over 200 kilograms,” he said. “Now, though not yet fully portable, with the help of Intel it has been shrunk down to the size of a personal computer which fits in the car.”