MWC Shanghai Puts a Spotlight on 5G-Advanced Innovation

Mobile network generations evolve enormously over time. There isn’t a single 5G standard, but now with the arrival of 5G-Advanced we’re up to four major 5G versions. Announcements and examples highlighted at MWC Shanghai show renewed momentum for the technology with 5G-Advanced and the arrival of AI requirements.

This pace of innovation is often easy to miss because the mobile industry mostly talks just about “5G”, and typically only once in the 10-year life of a network generation is there an interim brand used to communicate the immense changes during a “G’s” life. In the early days of a new technology all eyes focus on the extent of its coverage. But we’re now way beyond that point with 5G widely deployed in all major markets globally.

China is a clear and fascinating example of innovation. At the end of 2023 there were 3.38 million 5G base stations in the country alongside more than 805 million subscribers. This covers all the main cities as well as 80% of villages also being reached by 5G. There’s still growth to reach all rural areas — 28.5% of base stations in China are 5G — but most of the population has easy access to 5G services. Now China’s operators are turning to what’s next with these networks.

Operators have demonstrated speeds as high as 5 Gbps, even in Chinese city subway systems. Alongside existing long-known applications, these speeds make connectivity between user devices and cloud-based AI services much smoother. Chinese operators have also started differentiating their 5G packages, which is even more important with 5G-Advanced. For example, China Mobile has both “5G premium” and “5G ultra-fast service” packages. Similarly, China Unicom provides priority access service guarantees to its “5G premium” and “5G ultra-fast users” which its “5G exclusive” and “5G high speed” customers do not have.

There’s change outside China too. Several operators have already started to market enhancements in their services and how much they’ve improved since their original 5G launched. In the United Arab Emirates, du claimed to hit a staggering 10 Gbps with a mobile service in its demonstration “villa” in October 2023.

The second half-decade of 5G is arriving, bringing with it 3GPP Release 18, which will be marketed as 5G-Advanced. Until recently, operators and network suppliers had to use a range of marketing terms to communicate, such as “5.5G”, but attention is now turning to the industry-wide effort called 5G-Advanced. This offers various improvements and support for a wider range of uses.

In Shanghai, there are now more than 1,000 5G-Advanced base stations covering the busiest and most important locations in this vast megapolis, with support for peak speeds of up to 5 Gbps. Providing a foundation for this is a strong underlying fibre-based infrastructure. This is essential to provide high capacity and very fast backhaul from these 5G-Advanced base stations, and to prepare the ground for millimetre wave (mmWave), which China is looking to deploy soon too. The goal in Shanghai is to use 10 Gbps passive optical network capability (10G-PON, also known as XG-PON) to offer services. For backhaul, operators need symmetric uplink and downlink speeds.

Often, user device support slows the roll-out of new mobile technologies. But there shouldn’t be a wait for 5G-Advanced support because already in 2024 most flagship smartphones include 5G-Advanced hardware. China Mobile offers more than 20 smartphone models that are 5G-Advanced-capable, mostly using the Qualcomm Snapdragon 8 Gen 3 chipset. They include Oppo’s Find X 7 Ultra; Vivo’s X100 Ultra, X Fold3, X Fold3 Pro; and Xiaomi’s 14, 14 Civi and 14 Ultra. However, these devices do need software updates to ensure their hardware can make the most of 5G-Advanced features.

In Shanghai, six mobile operators partnered with Huawei on the 5G-A Pioneers Program. This is notable because it demonstrates Huawei’s shift from talking about 5.5G — which is a mix of technologies from Release 17 and Release 18T— to marketing 5G-Advanced. Also, alongside all three mainland Chinese mobile operators, Huawei secured representation from operators in the Middle East. The six operators are China Mobile, China Unicom, China Telecom, du (United Arab Emirates), HKT (Hong Kong) and Omantel (Oman).

China Mobile pointed to its 5G-Advanced roll-out in 250 cities and counties; it aims to hit 300 by the end of 2024. China Unicom highlighted the role of 5G-Advanced in manufacturing; this could be on a private 5G network, for example, where it argues a network can achieve 4 milliseconds of latency — this means a more responsive network — and 99.9% uptime using a deterministic network approach. For users to be able to rely on cloud AI, they need extremely good reliability, which makes 5G-Advanced an important foundation for AI services. China Telecom talked about 5G carrier aggregation (5G CA) as a key enabler of high speeds — it has successfully combined three 5G carriers to hit 5 Gbps in the downlink.

5G CA is especially important in a 5G standalone access (5G SA) deployment because devices can no longer lean on 4G carriers for capacity. 5G SA is an essential part of successful 5G-Advanced roll-outs as only by using the 5G network core can 5G-Advanced capabilities be realized.

There are many performance improvements arriving with 5G-Advanced. Notably, there’s better support for time-sensitive applications, greater throughput both for upload and download, and support for new technologies such as ambient or passive Internet of things (IoT). China Unicom is already testing this technology, which avoids the problems of batteries in the devices being tracked. Instead, similar to NFC, the passive IoT unit is in effect powered by the surrounding environment rather than needing its own on-device power source. This lowers cost but more importantly greatly eases deployment and ensures everything continues to work in the long run.

Drones are an emerging market where China is using 5G-Advanced as an important enabler. Even though drones use AI to be largely autonomous, 5G will still be used for drone management and to improve safety. To support higher elevations, base station antenna designs need to offer coverage at wider angles. According to the Civil Aviation Administration of China, the low-altitude economy was valued at over 500 billion yuan in 2023 and it forecasts that the market will reach 2 trillion yuan by 2030. An important foundation for coverage across greater angles or elevations is 3D extremely large antenna array (ELAA) technology. Beyond drones, this technology also boosts capacity and improves usable speeds in urban areas with tall buildings.

5G-Advanced also has synergy with the Open Gateway initiative. The latter offers APIs to developers to tap into different network functions. With 5G-Advanced there will be a wider range of network capabilities suitable for network APIs. At MWC Shanghai, the New Calling API was highlighted, combining content sharing, HD video and interactive data — this has applications in the insurance industry. With higher 5G speeds, there was also discussion about the API to manage mobile livestreaming. This has both consumer applications for social media users and for business segments, for example broadcasters wishing to send video streams back to production facilities.

This shift to the second 5G era is a critical transition for the mobile industry. 5G-Advanced means long-trailed 5G features finally become possible, unlike the situation with initial 5G services based on 5G non-standalone access. But equally, the industry must come together to coordinate and communicate clearly why and how 5G-Advanced is significantly different.

It’s essential to share case studies from early 5G-Advanced deployments and for operators and network suppliers to use similar language as they make the case for 5G-Advanced. At MWC Shanghai, we’ve seen the start of this process to explain 5G-Advanced and highlight the higher revenues that it makes possible.