You probably remember mobile operators raving about the promise of 5G a few years ago. Now they’re excited about a new upgrade: 5G Advanced.

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BARCELONA, Spain — Telecom operators have not yet finished rolling out 5G wireless mobile networks. Yet the bosses of the major operators are already talking about building something called “5.5G” or “5G Advanced”.

There was a lot of talk about 5.5G at the Mobile World Congress technology show in Barcelona, ​​Spain.

MWC brought together thousands of people in the mobile industry, including from leading telecommunications companies such as Deutsche Telekom, an orangeTelefonica, BTand Vodafone.

At the exhibition, the heads of some of these companies are working to introduce a new generation of mobile Internet.

This would enable even more advanced applications than the data-intensive applications we all use today, such as FacebookInstagram, YouTube, Netflixand TikTok.

These applications are already well served by the current mobile internet, but in the future, 5.5G is expected to power more advanced applications.

This includes mixed reality headsets that are getting more powerful with tech giants like An apple launched its Apple Vision Pro and Meta building on with its Meta Quest Pro headset last year.

But it also means that some of the things that 5G promised us years ago, such as self-driving cars, unmanned air taxis and smart manufacturing enabled through the so-called Internet of Things (IoT), will also start to become a reality.

What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of mobile internet after 4G, which promises super-fast data speeds and better coverage.

You probably remember mobile network operators raving about the promise of 5G a few years ago. Operators in China, South Korea, the United States and Europe have all started rolling out 5G networks in 2019.

Now, almost five years later, 5G consumer penetration remains low.

The number of users with 5G connection is increasing. But it’s still well below “mainstream” levels.

5G is the fastest mobile generation deployment to date, surpassing 1 billion connections by the end of 2022, growing to 1.6 billion connections by the end of 2023 and 5.5 billion by 2030.

However, 5G connections are expected to account for more than half (51%) of mobile connections by 2029, and this is expected to grow to 56% by 2030. These numbers are current as of January 2024, GSMAi said.

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What is ‘5.5G’ and why are telcos talking about it?

5G Advanced, or the name for the next stage of 5G, is the next evolution of mobile networks.

Telecommunication networks require standards. These are globally accepted technical rules that define how a technology works and its interoperability around the world — interoperability is the ability of two or more systems to work together.

These standards take several years to devise and finalize and involve several players from companies to academia and industry organizations.

The standards-setting body 3GPP, which contributed to 5G, uses a system of parallel “releases” to give developers a platform to implement new features at a time and then allow more functionality to appear in subsequent releases.

In the 3GPP release system, 5G is considered to be Release 17. This means that 5.5G is referred to by the industry as “Release 18”.

Release 19 is what will effectively be 6G, another major network upgrade. Work is also underway on 6G standards, but it is still at an early stage.

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“The main priorities for the development of 5G Advanced standards are to increase the commercial relevance of 5G by expanding vertical markets, resolving deployment issues and continuing the technology evolution to build a bridge to 6G,” said Milind Kulkarni, vice president and head of wireless InterDigital Labs, to CNBC. .

“Standards research introduced, improved and finalized several new enterprise-specific features for 5G Advanced, including network sharding, integration of private and public networks, improved positioning and even applications specific to each enterprise vertical.”

Howard Watson, chief technology officer of British telecoms giant BT, said 5.5G will promise faster connection speeds, meaning you’ll be able to stream video, post things online and play multiplayer games much more faster than before.

“My children’s generation, or dare I say it, my grandson’s generation… this generation, they share a lot. And obviously sharing requires quite a bit of upstream,” Watson told CNBC on the sidelines of MWC. “There will likely be a doubling of upstream capacity coming in version 18.”

Additional benefits of 5G Advanced over current 5G, telco executives say, is that it will make the networks themselves smarter by applying AI and machine learning, while increasing performance and reducing overall energy consumption.

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Mats Granried, director general of the GSMA, told CNBC that he hopes the industry will continue to focus on staying in the 5G environment for years to come, as there is still a lot of work to be done on monetization.

“I hope we can stay in 5G territory for a long time, because usually in a 4G environment, you and I were the users. And it’s pretty quick for us to just say, change the SIM,” Granried told CNBC’s Karen Tso. “In 5G, 5G is a technology standard that is primarily business-to-business. And it takes longer for businesses to convert and use new technology.”

“That normal of 10 years between standards, I wonder if that’s going to be enough,” added Granried. “We hope we can stay in a 5G environment. 5G Advanced — 5G standalone, that’s absolutely fine. But bide your time and make sure we have enough mileage to capitalize and monetize and show the world that 5G is a fantastic technology. “

With 5G Advanced, telcos can start making more money from 5G deployments by charging higher prices. And since the main focus of 5G is enterprise applications, it could be a much more significant source of money for network operators than for consumers.

Telecoms have not yet revealed how much more a 5G enhanced data plan will cost compared to 5G. But analysts expect it will seek to monetize 5G Advanced by improving subscriptions and using AI and other technologies to manage its networks more efficiently.

Since the main focus of 5G is enterprise applications, it could be a much more significant source of money for network operators than for consumers.

The telecom industry is abuzz with talk of so-called “private 5G” networks, non-public mobile networks that are installed on-site at companies’ workplaces, such as a smart factory or a remote surgical operation.

When will 5G Advanced be here?

Chinese telecommunications equipment supplier Huawei expects 2024 to be the year it officially begins commercial deployment of 5G Advanced. For Huawei, 5.5G is a network that will support 10 Gbps downlink speeds – and in case you’re wondering, yes, that’s very fast.

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Last week, Huawei unveiled eight 5.5G “innovation practices” that it says will help operators build 5.5G networks across all frequency bands. The company is working with operators in the Middle East, Europe, Asia Pacific and Latin America to deploy 5.5G.

It will take some convincing for consumers to switch from 5G to 5G Advanced, given the little noticeable improvement they’ve seen since upgrading their phones to 5G over the past five years. But Philip Song, Huawei’s chief marketing officer for the carrier business group, said it was important that telcos communicate the use cases of 5G Advanced well to consumers.

“The most important thing for us is how we can support customers,” he said at a press briefing last Tuesday in response to a question from CNBC. The “biggest success” for 5.5G will only arrive if operators “validate solutions” and communicate it sufficiently to customers.

In some markets, operators are still working on rolling out 4G, Song said – but he doesn’t think that matters because different parts of the world “are at different stages”.

Watson told CNBC that he thinks 5G Advanced will arrive on the EE network later this year. That’s because the 3GPP 18, or 5.5G, version of the standard is now open for experimentation and telcos are working on trials. It is expected to end by June 2024, by which time the protocols that enable 5.5G should be stable.

“Edition 18 we’re going to start rolling out this year,” Watson told CNBC. “We also plan to launch 5G on our own this year.”

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5G standalone is different from 5G Advanced. Sometimes referred to as “true” 5G, it refers to the development of a 5G network that uses technology independent of 4G and comes with the promise of realizing the full potential of 5G.

5G Advanced, on the other hand, is a complete evolution of the network.

However, there is no definitive date when 5G Advanced will start rolling out. And the telecoms are on alert to put it into operation.

“I hope that we will reach the bandwidth, the latency, the capabilities should be enough,” Mats Granried, director general of the GSMA, told CNBC’s Karen Tso at MWC last week.

“This is what we are fighting to see in Europe. In five years we will have quadrupled data usage. And I’m really concerned about what’s going to happen at this point.”

“Are we going to have outages? Are we going to have traffic jams?” he added. “Are we going to have a much worse situation, a much worse landscape? By having this worse landscape, Europe’s competitiveness will decrease.”

— CNBC’s Arjun Harpal contributed to this report