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What is 5G New Radio (5G NR)

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 will initially be made available through improvements in LTE, LTE-Advanced and LTE Pro technologies. But it will be soon be followed by a major step-up with the introduction of a new air interface.

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, on which work began in June 2016 and is set to complete in September 2018. With Release 14 frozen (completed) in June 2017, from the second half of 2017 3GPP’s work has been focused on Release 15 to deliver the first set of 5G standards.

In March 2017 the 3GPP’s RAN Group committed to accelerate the 5G NR workplan with an agreement for the early completion of an intermediate milestone for the enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) use case (See below). This non-standalone (NSA) 5G NR variant was to be finalised by March 2018 but in fact was approved in December 2017, the first 5G standard. It uses the existing LTE radio and core network.

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 2018. 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 two variants. 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 accelerated schedule will enable large-scale trials and deployments compliant with 3GPP standards from 2019, earlier than the originally envisaged timeline of around 2020.

What will 5G NR do?

In a nutshell, the 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.

The 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:

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, although the exact waveform and multiple access implementation has not yet been decided and multiple OFDM variants are being considered 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.

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.

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 and we’ve outlined these here, along 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 cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-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. Qualcomm is proposing the RSMA (Resource Spread Multiple Access) uplink multiple access design for more efficient uplink transmission, as well as a new WAN-managed multi-hop mesh architecture to extend network coverage.

Who’s involved?

As with LTE, much of the early work on 5G NR was led by Qualcomm and, as with the rest of 5G, every mobile carrier and equipment maker of note is in the game: over 40 companies signed the March 2017 agreement to accelerate 5G NR development.

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. 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 2017, Qualcomm announced the first data connection on a single-chip 5G modem (the Snapdragon X50) and previewed its first mmWave 5G smartphone reference design. It launched the first commercial 5G NR mmWave antenna modules and sub-6GHz RF modules for smartphones and other devices in July 2018, all compatible with the Snapdragon X50. Commercial 5G smartphones took a step closer to reality.

Qualcomm and Nokia announced they would collaborate on 5G NR in September 2017, and in February 2018 completed interoperability testing to the NSA 5G NR NSA specifications. The tests used Nokia’s AirScale base station (which has been commercially available since 2017 and has over 100 customers) and device prototypes from Qualcomm. The move paved the way for 5G NR field trials with a number of operators in 2018, including BT/EE in the UK plus Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone Group which have UK mobile operations.

Qualcomm is also working with other partners on 5G NR. In November 2017, it completed the first end-to-end 5G NR Interoperability Data Testing (IoDT) system with ZTE and China Mobile, demonstrating a data connection based on the standard being finalised by 3GPP. In February 2018 it completed interoperability testing with pre-commercial 5G NR base stations from Samsung in partnership with KT Corporation in South Korea.

Ericsson claims to have unveiled the world’s first commercially available 5G NR in August 2016. The Ericsson AIR 6468 supports the vendor’s 5G Plug-Ins for massive MIMO and multi-user MIMO. New mid-band (AIR 6488) and high-band (AIR 5121) versions had been launched by early 2018. The Ericsson AIR 3246 radio was announced in September 2017 and is set to become commercially available in 2018, the first 5G NR for frequency division duplex (FDD). It supports both 4G/LTE and 5G NR technologies. In December 2017, Ericsson, Vodafone and King’s College London tested standalone pre-standard 5G using a prototype device, a UK first showing 5G working independently of 4G.

BT-owned EE conducted the first test of an end-to-end 5G network architecture in the UK in November 2017, broadcasting 5G NR over 100MHz of 3.5GHz test spectrum. In February 2018, BT and EE extended their strategic partnership with Huawei to include live 5G NR trials.

Huawei launched its first commercial 5G terminal in February 2018, incorporating the Balong 5G01 chipset developed in-house. The terminal comes in a sub-6GHz model and an mmWave model, with both indoor and outdoor units. In July 2018 the vendor completed 5G NR interoperability and development testing with Intel and China Mobile, successfully interconnecting NR-compliant terminals and network from different vendors. Huawei and Intel had agreed to partner on 3GPP-based interoperability trials in September 2017. Intel has been working on a number of 5G NR trials in preparation for the availability of its XMM 8000 series of 5G multi-mode chipsets in commercial devices in 2019.

What’s next?

The March 2017 3GPP agreement to accelerate development of 5G NR was a significant step forwards along the road to 5G, and the completion of both the non-standalone (NSA) and stand-alone (SA) 5G NR variants ahead of schedule underlines the considerable progress that has been made. Pre-commercial NSA 5G NR trials followed hard on the heels of the NSA variant being finalised, and now the SA variant has been agreed we should start to see trials there also. 5G NR-capable products are already commercially available, with smartphones expected to come in 2019 now Qualcomm has released antenna and RF modules. There is still work to be done to make 5G NR a reality, but the progress made thus far indicates commercial 5G deployments could begin as soon as late 2019.


Floating Cell Towers Are the Next Step for 5G

As the world races to deploy speedy 5G mobile networks on the ground, some companies remain focused on floating cell towers in the sky. During the final session of the sixth annual Brooklyn 5G Summit on Thursday, Silicon Valley and telecom leaders discussed whether aerial drones and balloons could finally begin providing commercial mobile phone and Internet service from the air.

That same day, Alphabet subsidiary Loon, a balloon-focused graduate of the Google X research labunveiled a strategic partnership with Softbank’s HAPSMobile to leverage both solar-powered balloons and drones to expand mobile Internet coverage and aid in deploying 5G networks. No high-altitude network connectivity services have taken off commercially so far, but some Brooklyn 5G Summit speakers were optimistic that it would happen soon. 

“The opportunity is in our hands in terms of truly leveraging 5G in conjunction with the massive paradigm shift when it comes to UAS—drones—and also satellites,” said Volker Ziegler, CTO at Nokia Bell Labs.

Nobody expects the high-flying Loon balloons and HAPSMobile’s drones to compete directly with ground-based 5G networks in the near future. Until recently, it hasn’t been easy to develop a balloon or drone platform that is cost-effective enough to even consider using for telecommunications, said Salvatore Candido, principal engineer at Alphabet and CTO of Loon. But such high-flying platforms may help fill the gaps when coverage is lacking in rural or otherwise under-served communities. (Even rural parts of the United States may miss out under current 5G network deployment plans.)

Fleets of balloons and drones could also provide coverage on a temporary basis, such as during a major pre-planned event like the Super Bowl or in the wake of a natural disaster. Nokia previously partnered with Alphabet’s Loon when the latter deployed its experimental balloon fleet to provide basic Internet service to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after the U.S. island territory was left devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017. The balloons carried LTE technology from Nokia as part of a broader coalition involving AT&T and T-Mobile. 

“There’s a billion people in the world who don’t have sufficient connectivity, whether that’s temporary because of a hurricane or just because of where they live,” Candido said. “I think all these new technologies coming together makes it possible to create networks that might begin to cover huge numbers of those people.”

Loon has not yet begun deploying 5G equipment on its balloons—though the partnership with Softbank’s HAPSMobile suggests that could someday be possible. But the advent of terrestrial 5G networks could also make it easier for companies to deploy Internet drones or Internet balloons. Nokia’s Ziegler pointed out that 5G offers advantages over 4G LTE when implementing a relay system that bounces the signal around between groups of balloons or drones to extend coverage well beyond the ground station where the signal originates.

When the time comes, it will be important for telecommunications companies to create demand for high-flying mobile phone and Internet services by showing what they can do for communities or customers, said Dallas Brooks, director of the Raspet Flight Research Laboratory at Mississippi State University and associate director of the ASSURE FAA UAS Center of Excellence. He invited Brooklyn 5G Summit attendees to collaborate with him and other universities participating in the Federal Aviation Administration’s research and testing program for integrating drones into U.S. national airspace.

Loon may be among the first to take that advice with its balloons—even if they won’t deliver 5G service in the beginning. The company’s stratospheric balloons have already won their first commercial contract with Telkom Kenya to provide mobile phone service for some of Kenya’s almost 50 million citizens. But Loon certainly won’t be alone in trying to make such projects work in the 5G era. “There is no shortage of people trying to create pseudosatellites in the stratosphere,” Candido said.


Everything You Need to Know About 5G

Today’s mobile users want faster data speeds and more reliable service. The next generation of wireless networks—5G—promises to deliver that, and much more. With 5G, users should be able to download a high-definition film in under a second (a task that could take 10 minutes on 4G LTE). And wireless engineers say these networks will boost the development of other new technologies, too, such as autonomous vehiclesvirtual reality, and the Internet of Things.  

If all goes well, telecommunications companies hope to debut the first commercial 5G networks in the early 2020s. Right now, though, 5G is still in the planning stages, and companies and industry groups are working together to figure out exactly what it will be. But they all agree on one matter: As the number of mobile users and their demand for data rises, 5G must handle far more traffic at much higher speeds than the base stations that make up today’s cellular networks.

To achieve this, wireless engineers are designing a suite of brand-new technologies. Together, these technologies will deliver data with less than a millisecond of delay (compared to about 70 ms on today’s 4G networks) and bring peak download speeds of 20 gigabits per second (compared to 1 Gb/s on 4G) to users.

At the moment, it’s not yet clear which technologies will do the most for 5G in the long run, but a few early favorites have emerged. The front-runners include millimeter waves, small cells, massive MIMO, full duplex, and beamforming. To understand how 5G will differ from today’s 4G networks, it’s helpful to walk through these five technologies and consider what each will mean for wireless users.

Millimeter Waves

Today’s wireless networks have run into a problem: More people and devices are consuming more data than ever before, but it remains crammed on the same bands of the radio-frequency spectrum that mobile providers have always used. That means less bandwidth for everyone, causing slower service and more dropped connections.

One way to get around that problem is to simply transmit signals on a whole new swath of the spectrum, one that’s never been used for mobile service before. That’s why providers are experimenting with broadcasting on millimeter waves, which use higher frequencies than the radio waves that have long been used for mobile phones.

Millimeter waves are broadcast at frequencies between 30 and 300 gigahertz, compared to the bands below 6 GHz that were used for mobile devices in the past. They are called millimeter waves because they vary in length from 1 to 10 mm, compared to the radio waves that serve today’s smartphones, which measure tens of centimeters in length.

Until now, only operators of satellites and radar systems used millimeter waves for real-world applications. Now, some cellular providers have begun to use them to send data between stationary points, such as two base stations. But using millimeter waves to connect mobile users with a nearby base station is an entirely new approach.

There is one major drawback to millimeter waves, though—they can’t easily travel through buildings or obstacles and they can be absorbed by foliage and rain. That’s why 5G networks will likely augment traditional cellular towers with another new technology, called small cells.

Massive MIMO

Today’s 4G base stations have a dozen ports for antennas that handle all cellular traffic: eight for transmitters and four for receivers. But 5G base stations can support about a hundred ports, which means many more antennas can fit on a single array. That capability means a base station could send and receive signals from many more users at once, increasing the capacity of mobile networks by a factor of 22 or greater.

This technology is called massive MIMO. It all starts with MIMO, which stands for multiple-input multiple-output. MIMO describes wireless systems that use two or more transmitters and receivers to send and receive more data at once. Massive MIMO takes this concept to a new level by featuring dozens of antennas on a single array.

MIMO is already found on some 4G base stations. But so far, massive MIMO has only been tested in labs and a few field trials. In early tests, it has set new records for spectrum efficiency, which is a measure of how many bits of data can be transmitted to a certain number of users per second.

Massive MIMO looks very promising for the future of 5G. However, installing so many more antennas to handle cellular traffic also causes more interference if those signals cross. That’s why 5G stations must incorporate beamforming.


Beamforming is a traffic-signaling system for cellular base stations that identifies the most efficient data-delivery route to a particular user, and it reduces interference for nearby users in the process. Depending on the situation and the technology, there are several ways for 5G networks to implement it.

Beamforming can help massive MIMO arrays make more efficient use of the spectrum around them. The primary challenge for massive MIMO is to reduce interference while transmitting more information from many more antennas at once. At massive MIMO base stations, signal-processing algorithms plot the best transmission route through the air to each user. Then they can send individual data packets in many different directions, bouncing them off buildings and other objects in a precisely coordinated pattern. By choreographing the packets’ movements and arrival time, beamforming allows many users and antennas on a massive MIMO array to exchange much more information at once.

For millimeter waves, beamforming is primarily used to address a different set of problems: Cellular signals are easily blocked by objects and tend to weaken over long distances. In this case, beamforming can help by focusing a signal in a concentrated beam that points only in the direction of a user, rather than broadcasting in many directions at once. This approach can strengthen the signal’s chances of arriving intact and reduce interference for everyone else.

Besides boosting data rates by broadcasting over millimeter waves and beefing up spectrum efficiency with massive MIMO, wireless engineers are also trying to achieve the high throughput and low latency required for 5G through a technology called full duplex, which modifies the way antennas deliver and receive data.

Full Duplex

Today’s base stations and cellphones rely on transceivers that must take turns if transmitting and receiving information over the same frequency, or operate on different frequencies if a user wishes to transmit and receive information at the same time.

With 5G, a transceiver will be able to transmit and receive data at the same time, on the same frequency. This technology is known as full duplex, and it could double the capacity of wireless networks at their most fundamental physical layer: Picture two people talking at the same time but still able to understand one another—which means their conversation could take half as long and their next discussion could start sooner.

Some militaries already use full duplex technology that relies on bulky equipment. To achieve full duplex in personal devices, researchers must design a circuit that can route incoming and outgoing signals so they don’t collide while an antenna is transmitting and receiving data at the same time.

This is especially hard because of the tendency of radio waves to travel both forward and backward on the same frequency—a principle known as reciprocity. But recently, experts have assembled silicon transistors that act like high-speed switches to halt the backward roll of these waves, enabling them to transmit and receive signals on the same frequency at once.  

One drawback to full duplex is that it also creates more signal interference, through a pesky echo. When a transmitter emits a signal, that signal is much closer to the device’s antenna and therefore more powerful than any signal it receives. Expecting an antenna to both speak and listen at the same time is possible only with special echo-canceling technology.

With these and other 5G technologies, engineers hope to build the wireless network that future smartphone users, VR gamers, and autonomous cars will rely on every day. Already, researchers and companies have set high expectations for 5G by promising ultralow latency and record-breaking data speeds for consumers. If they can solve the remaining challenges, and figure out how to make all these systems work together, ultrafast 5G service could reach consumers in the next five years.


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