The network of the future is being built. And it’s happening fast.

Last week, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) wireless standards body agreed to accelerate some elements in the 5G new radio (NR) timeline. This means we’ll be able to launch standards-based mobile 5G services to consumers starting as early as late 2018. That’s a year ahead of the anticipated timeframe before this standards acceleration.  

47 global operators and vendors have signed off on the new proposal.

2018 won’t be a moment too soon. People are data hungry.

About 137 petabytes of data traffic cross our network on an average business day. Data traffic on our mobile network has grown more than 250,000% since 2007. Video now makes up more than half of our mobile data traffic. In fact, video traffic grew over 75% and smartphones drove almost 75% of our data traffic in the last year alone.

5G will be a critical part of staying ahead of that demand. While there are many elements to this new technology, the big news here is that you can expect to see the first standards-based mobile 5G services in 2 years or less. We’re excited to see what 5G means for augmented reality/virtual reality, video delivery, self-driving cars, healthcare and more. Read on to see how we’ll get there working with others in the industry.

What does this accelerated timeline mean?

The standards for 5G are complex, with many different parts. The conventional development approach has been for engineers to wait until the entire standard was complete before starting their final design work. Silicon chipset development has the longest development lead time in this field.

The accelerated schedule includes a plan to complete key components of the 5G standards needed to start chipset development in December 2017. That’s 6 months ahead of the expected 3GPP full Release 15. These key components include the specifications for 5G NR along with the non-standalone option for the core network interface. The December 2017 standards milestone will unveil the first complete picture of a holistic 5G system, enabling hardware, chipset, and device manufacturers to start their development earlier. Operators, in turn, will be able to provide standards-based mobile 5G service sooner to customers, with many in the industry aiming for 2019.

So is 4G LTE going away?

No. The path to standards-based 5G initially uses the non-standalone option, which means 5G radios ride on the existing LTE network core. Non-standalone 5G adds new, advanced features onto an already solid set of equipment – LTE – to provide customers with faster speeds, lower latency and a better overall experience.

Non-standalone vs Standalone 5G…What’s the difference?

Non-standalone 5G co-exists with LTE. Standalone 5G uses a new network core that is separate from, but still interworks with, today’s LTE networks. This next-generation network core will add capabilities such as network function virtualization (NFV), software defined networking (SDN), and network slicing.

We support both non-standalone and standalone options in the standard. The December 2017 timeline will accelerate the availability of hardware for both options. Each operator can select the option that fits their deployment plans. And we’ve worked with the 3GPP to map out how you can start with the non-standalone option and then evolve the network to standalone. This will all be part of our AT&T Network 3.0 Indigo platform.

All of these capabilities will run on our implementation of the Open Network Automation Platform. With these technologies, upgrading our network is just a software update.

You may also be familiar with fixed wireless 5G., This could serve as an alternative to home broadband by sending a 5G signal to a fixed location like a home or business. The same standards used for non-standalone and standalone mobile 5G can also be used for fixed wireless 5G.

The work plan for the accelerated December 2017 timeline fits into a broader schedule for 3GPP Release 15. The Release 15 5G specifications are expected to be completed in June 2018, including both stand-alone and non-standalone. They will define the path from LTE to non-standalone and standalone, including support for 5G enhanced mobile broadband use cases.

3GPP Release 16 is set to be completed in late 2019 and will cover the remaining 5G use cases and requirements. This includes support for the massive internet of things (IoT) and ultra-high reliability and low-latency applications. Together, we expect these two releases to cover all of the 5G use cases and requirements being specified by the 3GPP and the International Telecommunications Union.

What will I get out of this accelerated timeline?

5G is an evolutionary technology with revolutionary potential. It will impact virtually every industry and promises to take people places they’ve never been by unlocking new experiences such as augmented reality/virtual reality, virtual presence, driverless cars, telemedicine and connected homes.

As an industry, interim and fragmented pre-standard specifications can distract from our ultimate goal.  We’re confident this latest milestone will help bring standards-based 5G to market faster without compromising its long-term vision.

Can you explain the global collaboration effort here?

Making the bold vision for 5G a reality will take the collective industry’s unified backing. We’ve been working for years alongside dozens of major industry players to ensure we’re all  aligned on 5G standards, including the new accelerated timeline.

We’ve seen with past generations of wireless networks how some companies will launch proprietary technology in the race to be first and then later have to backtrack. This leaves customers with potentially obsolete phones and gear. We don’t see how that approach benefits customers.

What does this mean for AT&T?

We’re staying in sync with the industry as whole. At the same time, we remain as aggressive as anyone when it comes to preparing for a 5G world. In fact, our standards team found that we’re the top North American wireless carrier contributor into 3GPP’s work on 5G standards since the start of 2016.

We’re also actively taking on 5G trials across multiple cities and AT&T Lab locations. In 2016, we launched the industry’s first 5G fixed wireless business customer trial in Austin. In 2017, we will expand our activities and trials providing new, innovative mobile-first video services. In April we will start a second trial in Austin. The trial will allow residential and small-to-medium business customers to stream DIRECTV NOW and access next-gen entertainment and enhanced broadband services.

Throughout this year and into next, you’ll hear more about our plans for 5G fixed wireless and how we’re preparing for the launch of standards-based mobile 5G as soon as late 2018.

The industry is coming together on 5G. Its future looks brighter every day. And that future is now (thankfully) a little bit closer for all of us.

Andre Fuetsch

Andre Fuetsch - President – AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer

Andre Fuetsch
Andre Fuetsch President – AT&T Labs and Chief Technology Officer