OnQ Blog

Designing the 5G unified air interface: Evolution or revolution? Both!

For the last six months, I’ve been spending my days and many sleepless nights working on 5G—the 5th generation of mobile networks and technologies that recently began standardization efforts with expected commercialization around 2020. As part of my 5G journey, I’ve been collaborating with many engineers in Qualcomm Research who have been developing 5G technology innovations for years now. They were kind enough to bring me up to speed on the various design elements they are working on for the new 5G Unified Air Interface. 

Inside the Qualcomm Research 5G Lab.

As we all know, new "Gs," or new generations, represent major leaps in advancements of mobile technologies and have occurred every 10 years or so. Starting with 2G in ~1990 that digitized mobile voice communications, transitioning to 3G in ~2000 that introduced mobile broadband services for the first time, and most recently in ~2010, moving to 4G LTE that brought faster and better mobile broadband services which deliver the amazing experiences we all enjoy on our smartphones today.

To provide these leaps in advancement, each new "G" has brought a new radio air interface, or PHY/MAC design, that has been traditionally defined by new advanced radio waveforms and multiple access techniques: 2G to 3G (TDMA to CDMA), 3G to 4G (CDMA to OFDM). However with 5G, we are still planning a heavy reliance on the OFDM family for the new 5G Unified Air Interface, building on the foundation established with 4G LTE. The OFDM family is very well suited to meet 5G requirements thanks to its scalability to wide bandwidths, high spectral efficiency with an efficient framework for MIMO spatial multiplexing and low complexity per bit.

So, 5G is not about a radically different radio waveform or multiple access technique, which brings me back to my original question. Evolution or revolution?

Yes, the 5G Unified Air Interface is expanding upon many of the amazing technical advancements made with 4G LTE over the last 10 years or so, which I admit, can seem evolutionary at first glance. But as I worked more with the 5G engineers at Qualcomm Research, I began to understand how the 5G Unified Air Interface is delivering an OFDM-based system that is scalable and adaptable to an extreme variation of requirements. And that’s when I had my 5G "aha moment" where I could see that the true revolution of 5G lies in this scalability. The scalability of this new 5G Unified Air Interface design to meet the expanded connectivity needs of the next decade and beyond.

So, we are designing a fresh new 5G PHY/MAC design that will not only vastly enhance mobile broadband performance and efficiency, but also scale to connect the massive Internet of Things and enable new types of services such as mission critical control that require ultra-low latency and new levels of reliability and security. This 5G Unified Air Interface is being designed not only to fuel the next generation of rich mobile experiences such as Ultra HD videoconferences and live streaming of virtual reality, but also to support the proliferation of connected cars, smart cities, smart homes, wearables, robotics and much more. It is also being designed for use cases we haven’t even dreamed up yet. Let’s face it, when we were first defining 4G LTE, we were all walking around with flip phones. There is no way we could have imagined fully what is possible today, and the same will hold true for 5G when we look out to 2025+.

We are doing this by delivering optimized OFDM-based waveforms and multiple access with a flexible framework that can scale from low spectrum bands to mmWave, from macro deployments to local hotspots, and will support licensed, unlicensed, and shared licensed spectrum from the beginning. The new 5G Unified Air Interface is designed to efficiently multiplex the envisioned (and unknown) 5G services with various levels of data rate, mobility, latency and reliability. It is also designed to natively incorporate advanced wireless techniques such as multi-user massive MIMO for efficiently achieving higher capacity and better coverage at higher spectrum bands.  

Evolution or revolution? We think both. I invite you to answer this question for yourself by watching our upcoming FierceWireless webinar presented by the Qualcomm Research team. For the latest information on 5G, as well as the continued evolution of 4G LTE and Wi-Fi, please sign up for our wireless technology newsletter and check out our 5G technology website.

Qualcomm Research is a division of Qualcomm Technologies, Inc.


Opinions expressed in the content posted here are the personal opinions of the original authors, and do not necessarily reflect those of Qualcomm Incorporated or its subsidiaries ("Qualcomm"). Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries. The content is provided for informational purposes only and is not meant to be an endorsement or representation by Qualcomm or any other party. This site may also provide links or references to non-Qualcomm sites and resources. Qualcomm makes no representations, warranties, or other commitments whatsoever about any non-Qualcomm sites or third-party resources that may be referenced, accessible from, or linked to this site.