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In cellular telecommunications, the Fifth Generation or 5G technology is almost upon us and ready for the initial deployments in 2020.  It promises to be a significant change in technology.  However, contrary to marketing hype, it is not quite here yet.  We still have to complete two major milestones and many minor events before 5G becomes real.

In 5G it will be different from past generations.  The 5G network is federated, so the traffic flows will be very different from 4G.  We must have two key elements, spectrum and standards for cellular compatibility and exchange between vendors of modems and handsets.

Figure 1: Cellular Generations

With 5G we will operate with several bands.  Some frequencies will be lower in legacy spectrum below 2.6 GHz and other bands will be much higher is frequency above 2.6 GHz.  Most countries have not decided yet, nor offered for licencing the exact mmWave spectrum above 2.6 GHz.  As well, all carriers need standards for interchange and compatibility.  So, they are all still waiting on these two key events to take place before the ‘real’ 5G can be deployed.  The makers of the circuits and chips are waiting too, they do not wish to commit to the mass production of silicon until the finalized standards are completed and the frequency bands are known.

Marketing hype has many consumers fooled already so the deployment schedule is somewhat abstract for most outside the industry.  There are trials and some initial deployments based upon what the expected spectrum bands and standards might be once they arrive.  Most trials use the mid bands that are available today near the 3.5 GHz frequency.

1 in 3 Americans think they already have 5G, according to a recent study. The results showed that 47% of AT&T subscribers who own iPhones think their device is 5G-capable.

Both of these assumptions are dead wrong.  Therefore, rushing into 5G today, in 2019, is a foolish action for any consumers.  The carriers still have an enormous amount of work to do before 5G is here.


First is the World Radiocommunications Conference 2019 (WRC19) scheduled to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, between 28 October to 22 November 2019.  At this event, the world will agree / disagree on spectrum assignments on a country by country basis.

The deployment of 5G should be viewed as an evolution that builds on all spectrum assets.  Communication service providers need to be able to make best use of the performance characteristics of each band to support their business strategy while maintaining coexistence between all the technologies deployed in the network.

The need for new additional spectrum for the advancing generations of cellular technologies and mobile networks has grown over the years based on growth in mobile data traffic and emergence of new use-cases.  And, as communication service providers consider their deployment options for 5G networks, they will need access to significant amounts of spectrum resources to achieve the full performance benefits of the 5G new radio (NR) technology.

However, managing the current and new additional 5G spectrum while also maintaining operations of existing technologies, is a challenge that is increasing with the complexity of combination of spectrum bands (see figure 2).  To enable the evolution to a full 5G experience, a complete and comprehensive spectrum strategy is essential – including a plan to handle the migration of technologies.  With such a strategy, communication service providers will significantly increase the value of their total spectrum assets by balancing and combining the use of mid-band, high-band, and low-band spectrum for optimal coverage, capacity and quality performance.

Figure 2: Indicative spectrum allocation over time

Each spectrum band represents unique properties, meaning there are diverse opportunities for a service provider to balance between throughput, coverage, quality and latency, as well as reliability and spectral efficiency. Availability of spectrum will vary globally between countries and regions, both in terms of bands, amounts and timing.

Low-band spectrum is currently being used for 2G, 3G and 4G services for voice, MBB services and Internet of Things (IoT).  Newly allocated spectrum for mobile networks include the 600 MHz and 700 MHz bands.  These bands are ideal for wide-area and outside-in coverage as well as for deep indoor coverage, typically required for eMBB and voice services.

Mid-band spectrum is currently used for 2G, 3G and 4G services.  New spectrum has been widely allocated in the 3.5 GHz band, with more spectrum planned to be made available in the 1.5 GHz (L-band) and 5 GHz (unlicensed) bands.  Bandwidths of 50 megahertz to 100 megahertz per network will enable high-capacity and low-latency networks ideal for 5G use cases such as enhanced MBB (eMBB) and Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC), for critical IoT applications.  With better wide- area and indoor coverage than high-band spectrum, the mid-band spectrum is an optimal compromise between coverage, quality, throughput, capacity and latency.  Combining the mid-band spectrum with low-band spectrum leads to exceptional network improvements in terms of capacity and efficiency.

High-band spectrum clearly provides the anticipated leap in data speed, capacity, quality and low latency promised by 5G.  New spectrum bands are typically in the range 24 GHz to 50 GHz, with contiguous bandwidths of more than 100 megahertz per network.  The high-band provides a significant opportunity for very high throughput services for eMBB, localized deployments and low latency use cases, e.g. industrial IoT, venues, etc, both for indoor and outdoor deployments.  Fixed wireless access (FWA) will also benefit from these higher bands in terms of capacity.  For wider-area coverage, combinations with low-band and mid-band are essential.

It is important to view the deployment of 5G as an evolution that builds on all spectrum assets.  Communication service providers need to be able to make best use of the performance characteristics of each band while maintaining coexistence between all the technologies deployed in the network, to match their business strategy and use-case focus.

Spectrum currently used for 4G can be migrated smoothly to 5G over time, with functions that enable combinations of both bands and technologies. Such functions will be crucial for the successful introduction of 5G (see figure 3).

Figure 3: Example of a stepwise introduction of 5G

To allow for a smooth introduction, manufacturers has developed solutions that enable a stepwise introduction of 5G in current network designs that utilize and combine current technologies and spectrum assets.  These include dual connectivity between 4G and 5G, spectrum sharing (4G/5G carriers sharing same spectrum) and inter-band carrier aggregation.  As an example, one vendor of note offers Ericsson Spectrum Sharing which enables full control to smoothly introduce 5G in an existing 4G network, as well as the possibility to turn on nationwide 5G services within existing bands from day one.

When it comes to mobile spectrum and technology generations, the whole can be greater than the sum of the its parts.


Second, the standards body governing 5G, the 3GPP. The standard release for the first deployments is due in March 2020.  It will be issued as Release 16 of the 5G standards from 3GPP and adopted by IMT-2020.

International Mobile Telecommunications-2020 (IMT-2020 Standard) are the requirements issued by the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU-R) of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in 2015 for 5G networks, devices, and services.

The standard is expected to be completed in 2020, but parts of it have been finalized earlier.  For example the requirements for radio access technologies were adopted in November 2017.  Following the publication of the requirements the developers of radio access technologies such as 3GPP were expected to develop 5G technologies meeting these requirements.  3GPP is developing radio access technologies NR, LTE-M, and NB-IoT that together are expected to meet all requirements.

After initial delivery in late 2017 of ‘Non-Stand-Alone’ (NSA) NR new radio specifications for 5G, much effort focused in 2018 on timely completion of 3GPP Release 15 – the first full set of 5G standards – and on work to pass the first milestones for the 3GPP submission towards IMT-2020.

While initial specifications enabled non-standalone 5G radio systems integrated in previous-generation LTE networks, the scope of Release 15 expands to cover ‘standalone’ 5G, with a new radio system complemented by a next-generation core network.  It also embraces enhancements to LTE and, implicitly, the Evolved Packet Core (EPC).  This crucial way-point enables vendors to progress rapidly with chip design and initial network implementation during 2019.

Figure 4: 3GPP Timeline

As the Release 15 work has matured and drawn close to completion, the group’s focus is now shifting on to the first stage of Release 16, often referred to informally as ‘5G Phase 2’.  By the end of the year, 83 studies relating to Release 16 plus a further thirteen relating to Rel-17 were in progress, covering topics as diverse as Multimedia Priority Service, Vehicle-to- everything (V2X) application layer services, 5G satellite access, Local Area Network support in 5G, wireless and wireline convergence for 5G, terminal positioning and location, communications in vertical domains and network automation and novel radio techniques.  Further studies were launched or progressed on security, codecs and streaming services, LAN interworking, network slicing, and the IoT.

Other activities focused on broadening the applicability of 3GPP technology to non-terrestrial radio access systems – from satellites and airborne base stations to maritime applications including ship-to-shore and ship-to-ship communications.  Work also progressed on new Professional Mobile Radio (PMR) functionality for LTE, enhancing railway-oriented services originally developed using GSM radio technology which is now nearing its end of life.


After these two major events are completed, then 5G will be real and ready for deployment.  Of course, each ITU member country will use its own timetable to deploy and allocate spectrum and adopt standards.  Not every country needs to apply the spectrum and the standards exactly the same, but that would be nice if they were all perfectly aligned regardless of how dreamlike that idea is since rarely do they ever conform seamlessly.  However, each member country has dominion over its own 5G decisions.  If they align and conform, then access to mass volume manufactured modems and handsets will make life much easier and less costly for the carriers and the consumers.


3GPP. (2019). Release 15. Retrieved on October 6, 2019 from,

Ericsson. (2019). 5G spectrum: strategies to maximize all bands. Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson 1994-2019. Retrieved on October 6, 2019 from,

ETSI. (2019). ETSI Annual report 2018. ETSI. Retrieved on October 6, 2019 from,

About the Author:

Michael Martin has more than 35 years of experience in systems design for broadband networks, optical fibre, wireless, and digital communications technologies.

He is a business and technology consultant. Over the past 15 years with IBM, he has worked in the GBS Global Center of Competency for Energy and Utilities and the GTS Global Center of Excellence for Energy and Utilities. He is a founding partner and President of MICAN Communications and before that was President of Comlink Systems Limited and Ensat Broadcast Services, Inc., both divisions of Cygnal Technologies Corporation (CYN: TSX).

Martin currently serves on the Board of Directors for TeraGo Inc (TGO: TSX) and previously served on the Board of Directors for Avante Logixx Inc. (XX: TSX.V). 

He has served as a Member, SCC ISO-IEC JTC 1/SC-41 – Internet of Things and related technologies, ISO – International Organization for Standardization, and as a member of the NIST SP 500-325 Fog Computing Conceptual Model, National Institute of Standards and Technology.

He served on the Board of Governors of the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) [now OntarioTech University] and on the Board of Advisers of five different Colleges in Ontario.  For 16 years he served on the Board of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE), Toronto Section. 

He holds three master’s degrees, in business (MBA), communication (MA), and education (MEd). As well, he has three undergraduate diplomas and five certifications in business, computer programming, internetworking, project management, media, photography, and communication technology. He has earned 15 badges in next generation MOOC continuous education in IoT, Cloud, AI and Cognitive systems, Blockchain, Agile, Big Data, Design Thinking, Security, and more.