Intelligence Brief: What do latest 5G-Advanced specs hold?

Last week saw the release of a white paper focused on the 5G-Advanced mobile core.

As is often the case with these sorts of technical white papers, titling erred on the side of word count versus catchiness: 5G-Advanced Technology Evolution from a Network Perspective – Towards a New Era of Intelligent Connect X.

Broader visibility wasn’t helped much by a release in the middle of summer, at the tail end of earnings season and as the Olympic Games were winding down. Combined with an APAC-focused contributor list, you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much if you somehow missed this.

And yet, a source company list which includes Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia, Samsung, ZTE, KT, SK Telecom and every major mobile operator in China makes this something to pay attention to. It’s not every day fierce competitors collaborate on future forward market messaging and what they agree on is telling.

What’s it all about?
While the whitepaper title won’t win any awards for concision, it does manage to capture the key themes. Three terms, in particular tell you everything you need to know about the content: 5G-Advanced; network perspective; and intelligent connect X.

The first, 5G-Advanced is a 3GPP term for the evolution of 5G, but one which stops short of what we might get with 6G someday. Think new goals and capabilities for 5G networks, services, and operators. The term network is a broad one. Here, however, the network perspective is firmly centred on the mobile core. Yes, 5G-Advanced will touch the RAN as well as the core, but the paper avoids the former to remain focused.

And the final term? Intelligent connect X isn’t a commonplace industry term. However, it does capture the notion of intelligently connecting multiple different stakeholders along with a diverse set of user types and devices. To that end, it conveys 5G-Advanced aspirations fairly well.

What will operators need to support?
In the early days of 5G R&D, discussions of what the next generation would bring focused almost exclusively on use cases versus technologies. It’s only logical, then that discussions of 5G-Advanced would follow suit, and here the whitepaper makes a case for key market drivers across a number of dimensions.

  • 5G versus 6G. We all know 6G is coming, but is still years away. Yet, as the paper argues, “the current capabilities of the 5G network are still insufficient,” for executing on the 5G vision. To this end, enhancements in line with 3GPP Rel-18 and beyond are coming.
  • Consumer versus enterprise. 5G was built to address business and consumer needs. To its credit, then, the paper highlights 5G-Advanced must, “meet the needs of personal consumer experience upgrades and digital transformation of the industry.” Of course, where enterprise verticals are a well-understood revenue opportunity for operators, their needs dominate the whitepaper’s context setting.
  • IT versus OT. Early on, the paper notes “in addition to ICT technology, there will be more demand from production and operation in the future.” This is a nod to the need for IT and OT integration as IoT further penetrates the enterprise segment.
  • Vertical versus vertical. Any recognition of 5G touching on OT demands must acknowledge different verticals have different needs. Or, as the paper puts it, “businesses in different industries…need the network to provide them with a differentiated business experience”.
  • Cloud versus edge. Against the backdrop of new low-latency applications, the paper minces no words in stating “the network edge is the centre of future business development”. Recognising operators are looking to meld edge cloud and central cloud assets, however it also asserts the need for 5G-Advanced to “integrate the characteristics of cloud-native and edge-native”.
  • Fixed and mobile. As with the discussion of differentiated vertical demands, a 5G-Advanced focus on the enterprise requires acknowledging fixed and mobile networks will need tight coordination, or “convergence of fixed network and mobile network”. Of course, with 5G tackling residential broadband use cases, this applies to home networks as well.

What will help operators succeed?
If there is one takeaway from the whitepaper’s discussion of market drivers, it’s that 5G-Advanced will need to support an increasingly broad set of industry requirements. Different device types and vertical demands, IT versus OT processes and protocols, and diverse network topologies.

To do so, three key technology advancements and trends get much of the paper’s focus.

  • Convergence. To be fair, convergence is more of a concept than a technology. But, considering the market drivers noted earlier, it is the concept which ties all of those drivers together. Convergence across different technology generations, fixed and mobile networks, diverse cloud localities (local versus central), and enterprise IT and OT domains. And, based on a broad set of whitepaper contributors, convergence across the views of diverse ecosystem players.
  • Distributed edge. I’ve mentioned edge computing a number of times already, so it shouldn’t be surprising to see it pop up as a key 5G-Advanced tech cited in the whitepaper. From a convergence perspective, the use cases are myriad, including the integration of fixed and mobile enterprise apps, or apps at the edge of multiple generations of technologies. Digging deeper into the enterprise, the role of edge in supporting private networks, low-latency applications, and applications where data needs to remain on premise is clear. And none of this should obscure the role of edge in supporting low-latency consumer applications. Of course, these dynamics are not exclusive to 5G-Advanced or waiting for its arrival. But the market shifts and demands driving 5G-Advanced development will only serve to make the edge more important.
  • Intelligence. If the idea of converging an extremely disparate set of use cases and service requirements seems like a dauting task, that’s because it is. And, if the idea of converging disparate networks and network localities (from the network core to the edge) seems daunting, that’s because is it. Success, then, will require support which goes beyond standard human assets and skills. This is why the paper spends a lot of time on the role of AI. For network set-up, maintenance and optimisation. For service set-up, slicing orchestration and SLA monitoring. For consumer and enterprise end-users. Again, the move to pervasive AI isn’t new or unique to 5G-Advanced. But, if there’s one technology message the paper tries to convey, it’s that 5G-Advanced will drive AI forward.

To be fair, there isn’t much that is incredibly surprising in the whitepaper. Its aim is to outline a roadmap of how 5G-Advanced can (or should) support industry goals. Where those goals are generally agreed on, there shouldn’t be too many surprises. At the same time, like many roadmaps, there is some good and bad news to consider.

The bad news is much of this isn’t new. The industry has been talking about enabling verticals, edge computing, convergence and AI for years. Any discussion of how 5G-Avanced involves all of this suggests we haven’t been successful.

Ultimately, this probably isn’t bad news as much as it is just reality. The good news, then, is we know what will help to support these aspirations and the industry is intent on making them a reality.

– Peter Jarich – head, GSMA Intelligence