Evolving from 5G to 5G-Advanced

What Is 5G-Advanced?

Six years have now passed since the inception of the first 5G networks in the US and South Korea. In that time, 5G has witnessed several advances and spread to over 300 commercial networks in 113 countries and territories globally, with a further 278 operators investing in 5G infrastructure, according to data from the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA).

The speed of this adoption has been impressive. CCS Insight’s forecast of 5G connections for 2023 projects nearly 1.8 billion mobile broadband connections worldwide, making up more than a fifth of all connections. Fixed wireless access, which offers households high-speed Internet access through mobile network technology, has been another bright spot, expanding the reach of operators to previously underserved regions; CCS Insight’s latest research indicates the number of such connections exceeded 90 million in 2023.

Despite its initial success, 5G has faced challenges in areas such as speeds, indoor coverage, capacity and usage by businesses, all of which may not have fully met earlier expectations or hype. However, it’s crucial to acknowledge that the current stage forms a foundation for 5G, and it’s the upcoming phases that promise significant improvements in these areas. As we step into 2024, the industry is embarking on a new era of 5G, known as 5G-Advanced. This next iteration is poised to usher in transformative changes in several domains, offering substantial benefits to consumers, enterprises and operators alike.

5G-Advanced will bring a step change in the speed and latency of networks. These improvements will be needed by evolving formats such as Nvidia’s CloudXR platform and glasses-free 3D technology. For example, CloudXR, which supports 4K binocular video streaming, demands a minimum throughput of 120 Mbps, a requirement many household broadband connections can’t meet today. The improvements of 5G-Advanced, such as more-efficient modulation schemes and improved use of available spectrum, promise data transfer speeds of up to 10 Gbps, delivered to the home through fixed wireless access customer-premises equipment.

Additionally, although 5G networks have undeniably improved on the capacity of their 4G predecessors, they still encounter challenges, particularly in densely populated venues or during large-scale events. Addressing capacity and throughput problems, particularly in crowded areas and indoor environments, is crucial to enhancing the user experience. With 5G-Advanced, improved multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antenna technologies and greater network resource efficiency means that networks should be able to better use available bandwidth, improve signal quality and reduce interference, resulting in an enhanced user experience in such situations.

Although the private mobile network market has primarily seen success in outdoor, campus-style, site-wide connectivity, improving its indoor capabilities will help realize its potential for indoor, latency-focused applications such as smart manufacturing or smart healthcare. To achieve this aim, 5G-Advanced makes better use of millimetre-wave frequencies, with new radio access network products significantly improving on the mobility and penetration characteristics of previous millimetre-wave infrastructure products. The introduction of 5G RedCap will also go a long way in developing the device ecosystems for industrial applications of 5G (see Standalone 5G: The Role of RedCap for a discussion of this technology).

When Will It Come and Why?

Many major network operators have been experimenting with and trialling 5G-Advanced functionalities for some time now. Notable publicized achievements include many in the Gulf States, where operators are deploying greenfield networks in new cities, such as stc in Bahrain and Zain in Saudi Arabia, both of which have achieved 10 Gbps downlink speeds on their 5G-Advanced test networks.

Similar results have been recorded by other operators, including China Mobile Hong Kong, Hong Kong Telecom, all three major operators in mainland China, DNA in Finland and Deutsche Telekom in Germany. In the US, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T are intensifying their focus on 5G-Advanced features, expressing intentions to commercialize them in 2024.

Officially, new iterations of technology standards for cellular networks are governed by the 3GPP consortium. This year marks the finalization of 3GPP Release 18 specifications, which will usher in the 5G-Advanced era and begin preparations for the transition to Release 19 (see below). With operators ready and the standards locked in, 2024 will be the year of the first commercial 5G-Advanced networks.

Of course, no mobile technology would be complete without the devices and chipsets that can be used to access these improvements. This is something that leading modem suppliers such as Qualcomm and MediaTek have already been prepared for. In advance of the network release of these technologies, commercial products, such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon X72 and X75 modems, already support key Release 18 features, such as 10 Gbps downlink, 10-carrier millimetre-wave support, and five-carrier support at sub-6 GHz wavelengths. These modems are already beginning to be included in premium smartphones launching later in 2024, including flagships from Xiaomi and Asus; the upcoming iPhone 16 is rumoured to feature a modem that supports 5G-Advanced, too.

Mobile technology, especially 5G, is not just limited to smartphones. Other types of cellular device are beginning to enter the market with support for 5G-Advanced features, such as customer-premises equipment for fixed wireless access — reference devices are already available from MeiG. The market is also witnessing the emergence of industrial devices exploiting the capabilities of 5G RedCap, and we expect a surge in availability later in 2024. A wider ecosystem of RedCap devices provides operators with a chance to develop more enterprise revenue streams from their 5G RedCap networks. The MWC Barcelona event in February is sure to see more announcements and advancements in this rapidly evolving space.

As the number of device connections increases, 5G networks heavily depend on the limited resource of radio frequency spectrum. Operators have predominantly favoured the mid-band spectrum owing to its optimal balance between range and capacity. 5G-Advanced optimizes these frequencies, including the extensively deployed 2.1 GHz and 3.5 GHz bands, and enhancements will extend their efficiency and utilization. In the case of millimetre-wave spectrum, these frequencies have already received widespread licensing in many countries, making them readily available and accessible for operators to deploy.

Furthermore, at the World Radiocommunication Conference in December 2023, participants resolved to make more mid-band spectrum in the 3.5 GHz range available for mobile use. The 6 GHz band received approval to be designated as a mobile band in most regions globally. The agreements expand the spectrum landscape, providing operators with more resources to deploy and operate 5G-Advanced networks.

What’s the Benefit for Operators?

The upcoming 5G-Advanced era holds promise for upgrading crucial metrics like the user experience for consumers and businesses with improved speed, latency and throughput. This improvement in user experience is necessary to provide a futureproof network that can cater for new, data-intensive applications such as glasses-free 3D, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles and cloud gaming. By acting fast and leading the field, operators adopting 5G-Advanced networks can provide a superior network designed for the next era of connectivity and gain a competitive edge in the rapidly evolving telecommunications landscape.

In addition, some of the new capabilities offered by 5G-Advanced — such as 5G RedCap, network slicing and viable options for millimetre-wave spectrum — will help operators capitalize on opportunities presented by industrial uses of 5G and the Internet of things to bring the power of mobile connectivity to enterprises in new ways. These novel features and flexibility allow operators to tailor their services to meet the specific needs of different industries and applications, such as healthcare, manufacturing and smart transportation. Doing so will open new, diversified revenue streams.

However, operators are also grappling with formidable financial and environmental challenges. The total cost of ownership associated with 5G networks, including infrastructure development, tower rentals and spectrum acquisition, imposes significant constraints on sustained and accelerated investment. Looking forward to the advent of 5G-Advanced, the latest generation of radio access network products is expected to offer advantages in spectrum optimization, cost efficiency and streamlining hardware. This is central to saving costs on energy, something that many operators are heavily focused on.

In addition, 5G-Advanced is poised to usher in a wave of enhancements related to artificial intelligence, encompassing signal intelligence, network system optimization, vertical intelligence and device intelligence. These software-driven improvements all promise significant benefits to the network’s operational efficiency, prompting further advances for operators in economic and environmental sustainability.

There’s much to look forward to. The evolution of 5G doesn’t merely refine our current experiences but also introduces novel features and capabilities, expanding the significance of 5G connectivity and giving rise to fresh applications of the technology that will benefit consumers, enterprises and enterprises alike. Notably, these advancements aren’t distant prospects: the chipsets, devices, spectrum and 3GPP standards are now aligned for the imminent commercial launch of the first 5G-Advanced networks. Many leading operators are already at this forefront, having successfully deployed and tested 5G-Advanced-capable networks, and 2024 promises to be pivotal in its widespread implementation.