As we approach 2020, one of the most important areas of ITU work will be our international standardization of 5G systems.
ITU is supporting the development of a 5G environment where we will all have access to highly reliable communications, and where trusted ICTs will be key to innovation in every industry sector.
In 2012, ITU established a program on “International Mobile Telecommunications for 2020 and Beyond (IMT-2020)”, providing the framework for 5G research and development worldwide. ITU has defined the framework and overall objectives of the 5G standardization process, as well as the roadmap to guide this process to its conclusion by 2020.
“IMT Vision”, published in September 2015 as Recommendation ITU-R M.2083, put forward an initial set of 5G performance targets, which have now been elaborated more precisely in a draft report providing “Minimum requirements related to technical performance for IMT-2020 radio interface(s)”. This draft report is on course for final approval in November 2017.
These two documents make for very informative reading. Alongside enhanced mobile broadband and the Internet of Things, 5G will support ultra-reliable and low-latency communications for applications such as automated driving, remote medical surgery, collaborative robotics, and advanced virtual reality. At this high end of 5G applications, in some cases we will demand end-to-end latencies as low as 1 millisecond.
What becomes evident when looking at the ambitious performance targets of 5G systems, and the wide variety of envisioned 5G applications, is that future networks will need to be agile all-around players able to perform a wide array of specialized functions.
Engineers are developing specialized air interfaces, and specialized networks to support those air interfaces, to ensure that every application is able to perform to its full potential. As work has progressed on 5G air interfaces, it has become abundantly clear that today’s network architectures and orchestration techniques simply cannot support the performance targets of 5G systems.
In May 2015, ITU established a Focus Group on the network aspects of IMT-2020 to address exactly this challenge. The Focus Group explored how emerging 5G technologies will interact in future networks, studying network softwarization and slicing, 5G architecture and fixed-mobile convergence, end-to-end network management, information-centric networking (ICN), and related open-source innovation.
This group met the high expectations of the ITU membership, concluding its study with the delivery of five draft ITU standards and four draft ITU technical papers to fuel standardization work led by ITU-T Study Group 13. Learn more about the Focus Group’s output here.
The Focus Group’s final meeting in December 2016 also hosted a “workshop and demo day” showcasing proofs of concept and demonstrations of the wireline technologies to enable future 5G systems. Learn more about the demos here.
Softwarization, a concept rooted in data center networking, is a movement toward automating and adding intelligence to processes once carried out manually. The concept is at the heart of networking innovation for 5G, with 5G expected to depend heavily on cloud and very modern computing, transport, and data center technologies.
The Focus Group’s work made it clear that network softwarization and slicing, underpinning deeply programmable networks able to be ‘sliced’ into virtual networks with very specialized capabilities, will be fundamental to the dynamic allocation of network resources in the 5G environment, giving networks the agility required to support the specific requirements of any particular 5G application.
Telcos know softwarization to be central to the future of network orchestration, and they are fast adopting this way of working, learning from data center and cloud specialists such as Facebook, Google, and Netflix. Softwarization is already making an entrance into telco operations, with examples found in network function virtualization and software-defined networking. As we see 5G networks beginning to take shape, telcos will continue to develop their softwarization and cloud-computing capabilities, with much of this work driven by open-source innovation.
The Focus Group studied the end-to-end softwarization of all the major components of the 5G network, from mobile devices to antennas, to the data center and cloud, and perhaps one of the most important outputs of the Focus Group was its description of softwarization as it cuts through all of these layers.
To follow ITU’s progress in standardizing 5G air interfaces, stay tuned in to the IMT-2020 standardization process coordinated by ITU-R Working Party 5D (IMT systems). To follow ITU’s progress in supporting the wireline networking innovation necessary to 5G, keep an eye on the work of ITU-T Study Group 13 (Future networks) and ITU-T Study Group 15 (Transport, Access and Home).
The original version of this article appeared in IEEE Communications Standards Magazine.