5G New Radio (5G NR) is a completely new air interface being developed for 5G. It is being developed from the ground up in order to support the wide variety of services, devices and deployments 5G will encompass, and across diverse spectrum, but it will build on established technologies to ensure backwards and forwards compatibility.
What is 5G NR?
5G NR is a new air interface being developed for 5G. An air interface is the radio frequency portion of the circuit between the mobile device and the active base station. The active base station can change as the user is on the move, with each changeover known as a handoff.
5G is initially being made available through improvements in LTE, LTE-Advanced and LTE Pro technologies as non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR. But it will be followed by a major step-up with the new air interface – standalone (SA) 5G NR.
5G NR standards and specifications
The 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) made decisions on some of the technologies to be used in 5G NR as part of the 5G NR Release 14 Study Item, which officially began in March 2016. The first 3GPP 5G NR specification would be part of Release 15, work on which began in June 2016.
In March 2017 the 3GPP’s RAN Group committed to accelerate the 5G NR workplan to enable large-scale trials and deployments compliant with 3GPP standards from 2019, earlier than the originally envisaged timeline of around 2020. It was agreed that a non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR variant would be finalised by March 2018 but it was approved earlier, in December 2017, the first 5G standard. It uses the existing LTE radio and core network – hence its designation as non-standalone – and was aimed at enabling eMBB use cases (see below). The first call using the NSA 5G NR standard was completed in February 2018 on a test network in Spain, by Vodafone and Huawei.
The standalone (SA) mode was to be completed by September 2018 but was also finished early, in June that year. It involves a new radio system complemented by a next-generation core network, and embraces enhancements to LTE. It implies full user and control plane capability using the 3GPP’s new 5G core network architecture.
The March 2017 agreement also defined a framework to ensure commonality between the NSA and SA modes. It put compatibility at the heart of 5G NR design so that new capabilities and features can be introduced in subsequent releases of the standard.
The 3GPP’s work on 5G NR continued into Release 16, scheduled to complete in 2020. Two main areas of focus were adding 5G NR capabilities for industrial internet of things (IIoT) and URLLC (see below) applications to ensure 5G NR can completely replace a wired ethernet network, as well as operating 5G NR in unlicensed spectrum.
The work areas for Release 17 were agreed in December 2019, with a rolling schedule of work from early 2020 to mid 2021, and specification work likely to come in Release 18. Multiple enhancements to 5G NR will be looked at, as well as a number of new areas including: NR light, a mid-tier NR functionality for higher end MTC devices like security cameras and wearables; extending NR functionality beyond 52.6GHz; and, NR multicast broadcast for vehicle-to-everything (V2X) and public safety applications.
What will 5G NR do?
In a nutshell, 5G NR is being designed to significantly improve the performance, flexibility, scalability and efficiency of current mobile networks, and to get the most out of the available spectrum, be that licensed, shared or unlicensed, across a wide variety of spectrum bands.
Furthermore, the 5G NR air interface is just one component of the future 5G network so it must also be designed to work as part of a wider flexible network architecture.
5G NR must be able to: deliver a huge number of varied services provided across a diverse set of devices with different performance and latency requirements; support a wide range of deployment models from traditional macro to hotspot deployments; and allow new ways for devices to interconnect, such as device-to-device and multi-hop mesh. And it must do all this at unprecedented levels of cost, power and deployment efficiencies.
How will 5G NR work?
The core 5G NR design will encompass three foundational elements:
1 Optimised OFDM-based waveforms and multiple access. An early decision was taken to use the OFDM (orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing) family of waveforms for 5G, and multiple variants will be used for different use cases and deployments. OFDM waveforms are used by both LTE and WiFi, which will make 5G the first mobile generation that will not be based on a completely new waveform and multiple access design. They will be optimised with more advanced capabilities to deliver high performance at low complexity; support diverse spectrum bands, spectrum types and deployment models; and efficiently support and multiplex all the different use cases.
2 A common flexible framework to enable efficient multiplexing of diverse 5G services and provide forward compatibility for future services. It will enable lower latency as well as scalability at far lower latencies than is possible with current LTE networks.
3 Advanced wireless technologies to deliver the new levels of performance and efficiency that will enable the wide range of 5G services. There are three general designations of 5G services, outlined here with some of the advanced wireless technologies that will be needed to make them reality:
- Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB): Data-intensive applications that need lots of bandwidth, like video streaming or immersive gaming, to give the same experience on a mobile device that we’d get from fixed fibre-optic. The technologies that will make it happen include Gigabit LTE, massive MIMO, mmWave technologies, spectrum sharing techniques and advanced channel coding.
- Ultra-reliable and Low-latency Communications (uRLLC) or Mission-Critical Control: Latency-sensitive services needing extremely high reliability, availability and security, such as autonomous driving and Tactile Internet applications . Technologies are being developed that are specific to particular use cases, like V2X and real-time command and control for cellular drone communications, as well as those to support the ‘no-failure’ requirement, such as multiplexing to prioritise mission-critical transmissions over regular traffic or redundant links so that mission-critical devices can connect across multiple networks.
- Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) or Massive IoT: Low cost, low energy devices with small data volumes on a mass scale, such as smart cities. Narrowband IoT will be enhanced with capabilities like voice support, lower latency, location services, device mobility and broadcast for efficient over-the-air (OTA) firmware updates.
As with LTE, much of the 3GPP’s work and specifications on 5G NR has been led by Qualcomm, which has just released its third generation of 5G modem and antenna systems. Qualcomm has developed optimised OFDM-based wavelengths that will scale in both the frequency and time domains, as well as optimised multiple access for different use cases and a new 5G NR framework to efficiently multiplex 5G services and features. It has also led research into mobile mmWave technologies for 5G NR.
Where are we now?
Although it has an early lead, Qualcomm is not the only chip vendor making a play for 5G. Rival Intel appears to be working with different companies and struggling to get to market. Asian manufacturers of lower end chips appear to be focusing on 5G modems for sub-6GHz only, but are likely to roll out products that will support mmWave once services become more common and costs come down.
By early 2017, Qualcomm, in partnership with Ericsson and ZTE, had announced 5G NR trials with AT&T, China Mobile, NTT DOCOMO, SK Telecom, Telstra and Vodafone. It had also expanded its Qualcomm Snapdragon X50 5G modem family to include new multi-mode modems to support the global 5G NR standard (both sub-6GHz and multi-band mmWave) and Gigabit LTE on a single chip. In October that year, Qualcomm announced the first data connection on a single-chip 5G modem (the Snapdragon X50) and previewed its first mmWave 5G smartphone reference design.
By early 2018 Qualcomm had completed 5G NR interoperability testing with multiple vendors on sub-6GHz, as well as with three key vendors supporting mmWave: Ericsson, which claims to have unveiled the world’s first commercially available 5G NR in August 2016; Nokia, using the latter’s AirScale base station, which had been commercially available since 2017; and Samsung. In July that year, Qualcomm announced the world’s first commercial 5G NR mmWave antenna modules and sub-6GHz RF modules for smartphones and other devices (the Qualcomm QTM052 family), and in October it added a 25% smaller module to the range. All are compatible with the Snapdragon X50. It had also begun NR field trials with a number of network operators (including BT/EE in the UK plus Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Group which have UK mobile operations) and infrastructure vendors.
In February 2019, Qualcomm announced its second-generation Snapdragon X55 Modem-RF System, with support for 5G SA mode, 5G FDD (frequency division duplex) and Dynamic Spectrum Sharing. A year later came the Snapdragon X60 Modem-RF System with additional features to enable operators to flexibly utilise a mix of frequency bands (mmWave and sub-6GHz including low bands), band types (5G FDD and 5G TDD, time division duplex) and deployment modes (SA and NSA). Along with the Snapdragon X60 is the Qualcomm QTM535 mmWave antenna module, smaller than the previous generation and with improved mmWave performance. The company also announced that 15 manufacturers (including Samsung) had selected the Snapdragon 865 Mobile Platform (introduced in late 2019) for their 2020 device launches.
Qualcomm has demonstrated significant coverage (62%), capacity (5x) and user experience gains of 5G NR mmWave compared with Gigabit LTE, and planned to deploy a 28GHz 5G NR mobile mmWave at the (cancelled) February 2020 Mobile World Congress. The aim was to demonstrate ubiquitous coverage via co-siting, virtually unlimited capacity, multi-Gbps speed and low latency, and a more uniform user experience, all across a range of mobile devices spanning smartphones, tablets and laptops.
Intel and partners
Intel unveiled its XMM 8000 series 5G modems in November 2017, and the following February 2018 announced a partnership with Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft for them to be used in the manufacturers’ next-generation computers. Although there were no firm specifications for the devices, the partnership had agreed on some guiding principles and the aim was for devices to be available by late 2019. The move seems to have been superseded by later events (see below).
In late-2018 Intel said it would launch the XMM 8160 modem in the second half of 2019 with the expectation that Intel 5G-enabled devices could be on the market in 2020. Although it said the release was coming six months ahead of schedule, it is later that anticipated given its previous announcements. Intel put the delay down to the fact that it was building one multi-mode modem rather than combining a single-mode 5G modem with another chipset (such as LTE). It said this was a better architecture and could be used in smartphones, PCs and broadband access gateways. While Intel has said the XMM 8160 will support both SA and NSA 5G NR and mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies, it still doesn’t appear to have been formally launched.
In February 2019, it was announced that China’s Fibocom was developing the FG100 M.2 form 5G modem that will use Intel technology – although it wasn’t confirmed whether this would be the XMM 8160. The module will be used in 5G gateway devices by the likes of D-Link and Gemtek. Intel and Fibocom are also working with Taiwan-based MediaTek, and in November 2019, Intel announced a partnership with that company for 5G modems for computers. Intel will come up with the spec, which will be developed and manufactured by MediaTek. The first products, laptops from Dell and HP, are expected to be available in early 2021.
MediaTek has its own 5G modem, which uses ARM’s Cortex-A77 architecture. The Helio M70 SoC was announced in May 2019 but will only support sub-6GHz bands. In January 2020, MediaTek introduced its Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset family, also for sub-6Hz networks. The first devices using the chip are expected to come to market in the first half of 2020.
Intel had been working with China-based Spreadtrum to develop 5G modems for emerging markets, but that partnership appeared to be at an end when Spreadtrum, now known as UNISOC, announced its own 5G modem (the Ivy510) and 5G platform (dubbed MAKALU) in February 2019, and Intel announced it was working with Fibocom. As Spreadtrum, the company’s chips were used in low-end smartphones. The 5G range can be used in a range of devices including smartphones, and is likely to find a home in mid-range devices for China and emerging markets as well as IoT devices. It only supports sub-6GHz bands but does work across both NSA and SA. The first commercial deployment (now known as the 5G Modem V510) was announced in February 2020, in a China Unicom device that connects the user’s WiFi LAN to the 5G network so that both 5G and non-5G phones can access the 5G network via WiFi.
Huawei has its own range of chips, and in February 2018 announced its first commercial 5G terminal with sub-6GHz and mmWave models as well as indoor and outdoor units. In July 2018 it completed 5G NR interoperability and development testing with Intel and China Mobile, successfully interconnecting NR-compliant terminals and network from different vendors. Its Balong 5000 chipset was officially launched in early 2019 along with the Huawei 5G CPE Pro, the first commercial 5G device powered by it. The Balong 5000 was claimed to be the world’s first to perform to benchmarks for peak 5G download speeds – at up to 4.6Gbps at Sub-6GHz and up to 6.5Gbps on mmWave spectrum. It supports both SA and NSA modes. Huawei has – so far – not made its modems available for use by other manufacturers.
Samsung’s flagship smartphones have long had two variants for different countries, one using the Qualcomm Snapdragon and the other its own Exynos chip. The UK and the rest of Europe gets the Exynos. There appears to be no change in strategy for 5G, and Samsung announced the Exynos Modem 5100 in summer 2018 and demonstrated it with Korean carriers later that year. It enables mobile devices to deliver download speeds of up to 2Gbps with sub-6GHz and 6Gbps with mmWave.
As of early 2020, over 45 operators globally had launched 5G services and over 40 manufactures were introducing devices. Most operators have been deploying 5G in NSA mode, ie supporting 5G via an existing LTE anchor. According to the 3GPP, as of June 2019 all deployments were based on the NSA architecture, but it expected that the first SA deployments would begin soon in China, driven by vertical use cases like IIoT. The next stage is to transition to SA mode with 5G NR providing the link. Qualcomm anticipates that 2020 and 2021 will see operators adopt a roadmap for the transition as they ramp up deployments, expand coverage and increase capacity. It expects deployments will begin in late 2020 in the US, China, Japan and South Korea, with Europe and the rest of the world following in 2021 and beyond. But it is likely to be a slow burn, and how long it will take for SA services and devices to become widely available is still open to question.
Useful read: What is 5G?