5G-Advanced: Providing Operators with New Capabilities

The second wave of 5G technology is starting to arrive. 5G-Advanced, or as some call it, 5.5G, enables operators to add new revenue streams, with improved capabilities that better support more Internet of things (IoT) devices, connect autonomous drones, deploy smarter private networks, create mobile extended reality, expand positioning, and support automotive connectivity with sidelink communication.

We saw a similar dramatic evolution with 4G. Early technologies could only connect devices on one frequency band at a time and speeds were limited to a maximum of just 150 Mbps for downloads and 50 Mbps for uploads. However, with LTE-Advanced Pro, devices are routinely connected to more than two bands at once through carrier aggregation. This enabled speeds as fast as 1 Gbps using multiple bands, or carriers. Latencies improved too, as the industry iterated the 4G standards. CCS Insight expects the second wave of 5G to be more significant in the extent of its improvements over initial 5G technology than LTE-Advanced Pro was in the 4G era.

5G-Advanced makes existing 5G networks more efficient with improved downlink and especially uplink performance, better time-sensitive communication, and by having an architecture more suited to artificial intelligence techniques to improve energy usage and hardware deployment strategies. It also extends existing capabilities. For example, there’s enhanced support for non-terrestrial networks or satellite connectivity, which first arrived in 3GPP Release 17. Similarly, improvements in 5G Reduced Capability (RedCap) boost the ability of 5G-Advanced to support lower-performance devices like IoT sensors, smartwatches and other cost-constrained devices.

Many of these technology enhancements should revive interest in millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum. When 5G first launched in 2019, the extreme capacity and performance of mmWave was rarely needed by operators — unless they lacked new mid-band spectrum as they did in the US.

Now, ever-rising data consumption, renewed interest in spatial computing and improvements to 5G technologies with 5G-Advanced are prompting many operators to revisit mmWave. In South Korea, this spectrum has just been relicensed at a higher price than the original licences. In Japan, operators are using mmWave to boost urban performance. Private mobile networks, spatial computing and 3D video all benefit tremendously from the capacity of mmWave bands. Fixed wireless access is taking off in many regions, and through mmWave it can avoid eating into smartphone-focused mobile broadband services.

Around the world, various initiatives are leading indicators of the importance of 5G-Advanced.

The Middle East Is Becoming an Innovation Leader in 6 GHz 5G

The Middle East provides ample opportunities for telecom innovation. Many of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, such as Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are tapping into sustained government investment to achieve ambitious visions to transform the region into a world-class digital enabler by exploring cutting-edge technologies.

Brand-new greenfield cities and lots of available spectrum provide operators in the Gulf States with an opportunity to position themselves at the forefront of 5G innovation, and they’re keen to invest in and showcase their 5G-Advanced capability ahead of commercialization in 2024.

A notable example is stc in Bahrain, which stands as one of the only countries in the world to claim 100% coverage for its 5G network. The operator has recently showcased that by using the upper 6 GHz spectrum band — soon to be made available to operators after a decision at the World Radiocommunication Conference 2023 (WRC-23) — it can offer peak speeds of up to 10 Gbps on its upcoming 5G-Advanced network. This will provide a significant boost in experience to stc’s widely deployed 5G fixed wireless access service.

Importantly, stc will also be able to deliver new features, such as its recently announced 5G New Calling, which will introduce capabilities like video calls with real-time translations, turning speech into text, screen sharing, an interactive visual menu and enterprise ID cards — all of which benefit from extremely low-latency connectivity.

Similarly, stc has been testing new 5G-Advanced technology in its home market of Saudi Arabia. Able to exploit the soon-to-be auctioned mmWave spectrum successfully in trials, the operator has reached speeds as fast as 10 Gbps. Its domestic rival Zain has unveiled similar competitive capabilities, achieving 10 Gbps speeds in a demonstration of immersive experiences at the 5.5G City Summit in Riyadh in September 2023. At MWC 2024, Zain’s executives reportedly announced they had launched its 5G-Advanced service in Riyadh in 2023, and they expect to roll it out to another eight cities between 2024 and 2026. This will be key to better 5G experiences, particularly in building new smart cities in the country, such as Neom.

Furthermore, in a recent panel about 5G-Advanced, other leading Middle Eastern operators including du, Ooredoo Qatar, Etisalat and Vodafone Oman joined hands to announce 2024 as the first year of the 5G-Advanced era in the Middle East.

Asia–Pacific Eyes Extended Reality and Fixed Wireless Uses

The Far East is at the forefront of the 5G-Advanced technology evolution. In mainland China and Hong Kong, operators are harnessing the latest advancements in software core technology, radio hardware and expanded spectrum bandwidth. This strategic approach aims to deliver a substantial boost in speeds and introduce novel experiences for consumers.

The emphasis on this progress centres on smarter, more interactive experiences enabled by enhanced mobile broadband. For instance, Hong Kong Telecom is employing a combination of mmWave, C-band and sub-3 GHz spectrum to offer up to a 10 Gbps augmented reality experience in the business district shopping mall. The implementation of this 5G-Advanced beta network significantly enhances indoor coverage, enabling consumers to explore new uses such as using augmented reality for navigating the mall and for shopping. Beyond offering a unique content interaction experience, this approach also provides operators with a potential revenue stream by collaborating with retail outlets.

Similarly, using a comparable blend of spectrum assets, China Mobile Hong Kong has achieved peak speeds of 12 Gbps. These faster speeds play a pivotal role in advancing its ultrahigh-speed home broadband service delivered through fixed wireless access. They will allow users to explore applications like extended reality, cloud gaming and glasses-free 3D video in the home, contributing to a richer and more immersive digital environment.

Europe Risks Missing Out on New 5G Revenue Streams

European operators must strategically navigate the evolving global landscape to remain competitive. If they fail to invest sufficiently in new network technology, they run the risk of rising data consumption clogging their networks, and will find themselves unable to add the valuable new revenue streams enabled by 5G-Advanced. They will fall behind operators in other regions in supporting their country’s economy, potentially leading to unwelcome external scrutiny of their business.

The emergence of 6 GHz spectrum is a pivotal factor in the evolution of 5G. It provides operators with an option for more mid-band spectrum to support higher data transfer rates and increased network capacity, helping them to realize new service opportunities. In Europe, much of the 6 GHz range is used for Wi-Fi, with only a modest amount of band set aside for cellular use. However, a decision at WRC-23 to allow more cellular access to the upper portion of this band in this region means local operators have an opportunity to work with regulators to secure a larger amount as well as the benefits it will provide for 5G-Advanced.

Deutsche Telekom in Germany has been an early user of this spectrum. Its groundbreaking achievements include reaching downlink speeds of 11 Gbps through carrier aggregation in the 6 GHz band, and a peak of 12 Gbps when combined with 3.6 GHz spectrum during testing.

In Northern Europe, home to global infrastructure vendors Nokia and Ericsson, countries like Finland are also spearheading advancements in mobile technology. DNA, a prominent Finnish mobile operator, expects the launch of its 5G-Advanced network in 2024. Demonstrating impressive capabilities, its network achieved peak download speeds of 10 Gbps during a test on its commercial network.

Although faster download speeds will be important, DNA has also been emphasizing the significance of improved upload speeds, which it sees as a key feature of its 5G-Advanced network. Better uplink performance holds particular relevance for enterprise customers, offering enhanced possibilities such as the integration of extended reality in expansive environments and applications in industrial settings.

US Operators Push ahead Despite Spectrum Challenges

US operators are actively directing their efforts toward unlocking the promise of the enterprise capabilities of 5G-Advanced. T-Mobile, a trailblazer in the widespread deployment of 5G standalone access, envisions a major industry shift propelled by the enhanced network capabilities of 5G-Advanced. This vision is underlined by T-Mobile’s focus on industries including healthcare, transportation and education, demonstrating the operator’s commitment to tailoring 5G-Advanced initiatives to the specific needs and opportunities in these sectors.

In a similar vein, Verizon expects that the finalization of the 5G-Advanced standard in 2024 will serve as a catalyst to launch 5G network slicing on its network. Verizon is keen to use this innovative architecture to provide hybrid and virtual private network enterprise offerings that guarantee a quality of service while maintaining a robust public network.

This strategy builds on the success achieved by Verizon and T-Mobile with their 5G fixed wireless access services, both of which use mid-band 5G, following C-band auctions and T-Mobile’s acquisition of 2.5 GHz capacity through the Sprint merger — and increasingly with high-capacity mmWave spectrum.

The appeal of mmWave for fixed wireless access is twofold. Verizon has a sizeable mmWave network already because it used mmWave spectrum for its initial 5G roll-out in 2019. And because of the tremendous amount of capacity that mmWave offers, both companies can use it for fixed wireless access without sacrificing spectrum capacity serving high-revenue smartphone users.

How Operators Should Evolve from Basic 5G to 5G-Advanced

The approach for operators to move into the 5G-Advanced era varies based on their current network situation, and operators in different regions will follow distinct evolutionary paths depending on the availability of different types of 5G spectrum.

However, there are several common threads. Operators should understand the pace of data growth and ensure they can use the performance gains of 5G-Advanced to stay ahead of usage growth. Tapping into new spectrum such as mmWave will also help. To add new revenue streams, they must market opportunities enabled by RedCap, sidelink communication, artificial intelligence and other 5G-Advanced improvements connecting business leaders with technologists.

Above all, operators cannot afford to delay. Adding new network equipment in the radio access network, performing software upgrades and ensuring there’s support in the core for new 5G-Advanced premium services takes time. Operators must plan these investments now to ensure they beat their competitors, get ahead of rising data consumption, and are ready to build the new revenue streams in the varied industry sectors that 5G-Advanced capabilities open up.