The buzz around 5G, the emerging high-speed mobile communications standard, is getting deafening. The UK government used its spring budget to announce plans for an additional £16 million investment to create a National 5G Innovation network, supplementing the 5G Innovation Centre based at the University of Surrey. Just a few weeks earlier, at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, there was only one hot topic: 5G.
Oddly enough, there is no commonly agreed 5G standard yet. Telecoms companies and network operators agree that 5G should enable data to be provided on the go at high speeds and high volumes, but the exact technologies that will determine the 5G stack are still very much under development.
Still, the roll-out of the first experimental 5G networks looks to be imminent. That may explain the deluge of 5G claims and announcements from the likes of Intel, Ericsson and Samsung, which are all rushing to bring their technologies “into the wild”, hoping that a proof of concept will become the de facto standard setter.
5G, however, is not a technology gold rush; the urgency is not just about achieving market share, but meeting very real market demand. The data usage on mobile networks is skyrocketing, by 74% in 2015 alone. Already, our world is zipping through 3.7 exabytes every month – mostly thanks to streaming services and apps that depend on high-speed data connections. If data volumes continue to grow on current trends, today’s 4G telecommunications standard simply will not be able to cope.
As companies and consumers embrace the Internet of Things (IoT) and Smart Home products, and mobile video on demand soars, network operators are desperate for new technology standards to satisfy our voracious demand for mobile data. This is not a First World problem; 2017 will be the year when India with its 1.3 billion people truly joins the mobile data revolution, while you’d be hard-pressed to find a village in even the least-developed countries where not at least a few people use a smartphone.
Consumer applications may be the big focus of 5G. However, it is industrial applications and public infrastructure use cases where 5G holds the biggest promise.
While the 5G standard – also known as LTE-Advanced – is still under construction, it’s already clear that it is likely to deliver speeds that easily exceed the fastest landline broadband available now. The International Telecommunications Union, an agency of the United Nations, has already set the benchmarks that any technology has to exceed before it can call itself 5G: a minimum peak download rate of 20Gbps and a 10Gbps peak upload rate. This, however, is what’s expected at network level. Real-life users will have to peg down their expectations sharply – to an “experienced download rate” of 100Mbps, and an “experienced upload rate” of 50Mbps. Take that, copper cable-powered ADSL broadband (although some of today’s high-speed mobile networks already come pretty close to achieving these speeds).
The launch of 5G is unlikely to come as a big bang; instead, we will see a steady trickle of upgrades. Finnish networking equipment manufacturer Nokia announced last September that it would roll out an interim solution, 4.5G Pro, by the end of 2016. This standard promises data speeds about 10 times faster than traditional 4G networks, and, says Nokia, it will be followed soon by the release of 4.9G, which is supposed to push data transfers to several gigabits per second.
In the US, AT&T and Verizon are running 5G trials, which then may be expanded slowly – over the next 10 years or so – to become a wider network. The trials are being run under the Advanced Wireless Research Initiative, which is led by the National Science Foundation and was set into motion by former US President Barack Obama. Some experts believe that dramatic deregulation under President Donald Trump might give 5G in the US a head start, although it might just as well result in a repeat of the dramatic fragmentation of mobile phone standards suffered by US consumers for decades.
Another 5G leader, Swedish telecoms giant Ericsson, is partnering with network operator Orange in France, and with chip maker Intel and telecoms giant NTT Docomo in Japan to create 5G trial environments. The South Korean electronics giant Samsung is also investing massively in its 5G research, and announced at Mobile World Congress the launch of a 5G router for the home that will support data rates of up to 1Gbps. The devices will be deployed in South Korea and Japan, as part of a 5G demonstration during the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020.
It’s not just the giants driving 5G innovation. Small Irish company Taoglas has developed technology that turns mobile base station antennas for 5G into Lego-like building blocks. “As the 5G drum begins to beat more loudly, the market demand is growing for 5G antennas that can scale and adapt quickly as standards emerge,” says Ronan Quinlan, co-chief executive of Taoglas, who promises that this approach will make it easy to install and reconfigure the antennas as demand grows and operators need to scale up.
The investment into 5G will have to come from mobile operators. Around 25 are said to be lab-testing the technology; and five have already reached data speeds of 35Gbps or more. Etisalat in the United Arab Emirates boasts of having reached the highest data speed – at 36Gbps – while Ooredoo is running trials at 35.46Gbps.
Ultimately, though, 5G is about demand, not supply. So how can industry get value out of 5G networks?
1.More and faster data – for everybody
5G will not only handle more data, it can also connect more devices, with much reduced latency and improved reliability. 5G’s trick is to pool bandwidth from different frequency bands to boost its range and speed. Your mobile or untethered IoT device will then aggregate the data for fast download and upload speeds.
“5G means seamless connectivity,” argues a recent report from the National Infrastructure Commission. “Ultra-fast, ultra-reliable, ultra-high capacity transmitting at super low latency. It will support the ever larger data requirements of the existing network and new applications, from augmented reality to connected vehicles and the Internet of Things, and many more, as unknowable today as the 4G services we take for granted would have been a decade ago.”
Modern machinery and manufacturing plants tend to bristle with sensors; 5G should make it possible to do away with much of the comms wiring even for the most data-heavy uses. Of course, companies may have to upgrade their local area data networks as well, but this is likely to be easier than it sounds, thanks to new approaches such as Network Function Virtualisation and Software-Defined Networking.
2. Taking the brakes off the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things is rapidly taking shape in the home but, if there’s one thing that’s holding back the industrial Internet of Things, it’s trouble with getting the connectivity right – especially for “things” that are spread far and wide. With 5G, however, engineers can finally build a highly interconnected device ecosystem. It should boost productivity, help anticipate reliability issues and streamline maintenance across all stages of production and the full lifecycle of a piece of machinery.
A study commissioned by chipmaker Qualcomm (which admittedly stands to gain a lot from the roll-out of 5G) concluded that industry overall could, by 2035, produce up to $12.3 trillion worth of goods and services that are underpinned by 5G networks. This could potentially generate up to $3.5 trillion in revenue all by itself and support 22 million new jobs. In real terms, global GDP could see a growth boost worth $3 trillion between 2020 and 2035. That’s the equivalent of creating an economy the size of India.
This is a best-case scenario, of course, and a failure to agree a truly global 5G standard would quickly result in inefficiencies. For IoT to succeed, all connected devices will have to use the same protocols for low-latency, high-capacity and highly reliable connections.
Another issue is the need for backward compatibility of LTE-Advanced/5G – although, while older devices may be able to connect to the 5G network, they will not gain the benefit of the pooled bandwidth of the technology.
For IoT to happen, by the way, 5G will have to work in tandem with a raft of other wireless technologies, such as mmWave, wi-fi, 4G and others, thanks to network integration based on virtualised core and intelligent edge services.
3. Truly autonomous vehicles
Many car manufacturers think that 5G mobile networks will be a crucial piece of infrastructure when it comes to deploying fleets of self-driving cars on our streets; it will be as important as the launch of 4G was for smartphones. 5G will help self-driving cars to safely change lanes, recognise signals, create accurate maps and communicate with each other about things like potential or imminent traffic incidents, traffic jams and weather conditions.
To prevent accidents, 5G will also connect cars to cloud services for object recognition. And for our entertainment 5G may give us reliable live and on-demand TV, something that backseat passengers might appreciate.
What’s good for the car is good for the drone. 5G could unlock the true – industrial – potential of flying autonomous vehicles, or drones. According to Lynn Comp, director of market development at Intel, there might soon be 5G-supported drones flying over oil rigs with cameras, sending back high-definition video.
4. Virtual, augmented and mixed reality
VR, AR and MR technologies have a huge potential for industry – from better planning of building layouts and production line workflows to remote maintenance with a virtual expert at hand.
They have been slow to take off – partly due to a lack of connectivity. The most useful VR and AR systems are tethered to powerful computers, which sharply limits their usefulness. 5G could cut the cable for these machines and truly unleash the power of VR, AR and MR, for industrial applications that today are still in the domain of science fiction. Then, say, a ship’s engineer trying to repair a complex piece of the engine could don AR goggles and be taken through the job by a top expert at the engine supplier, without a need to fly the engineer on location.
5. Tactile internet
Finally, how about a touchy-feely internet? A number of companies and academics are developing a glove that would be able to replicate the touch of a human finger, with all (or most) of its sensory abilities. The idea is that, once paired with 5G, one could repair a broken machine far away, remotely. Using a simple robot, or helping an unskilled local operator, an experienced engineer could direct the repairs, and even guide a robotic hand in near real time. Or a surgeon could perform an operation remotely, say in the developing world, just by guiding local staff to perform tricky procedures.
It may take another four or five years, but 5G is coming. Provided there is no war over standards, and governments around the world can come off the fence and start reserving global bandwidth in the radio spectrum for the technology, machines will soon be able to capture and analyse data in real time and at a volume that seems impossible today.
At that point, it will be up to the engineers to develop new models that successfully discern the data wheat from the chaff, use the speed and bandwidth of 5G to shuttle the data to the Big Data analytics engines in the cloud, and receive actionable information in return.
As with all mobile network technologies, however, the potential for things to go wrong is huge. Not least, 5G might open up an even larger digital divide, with urban centres humming with the power of good 5G connectivity, while industrial applications based in rural areas continue to chug along using 3G speeds at best. Some people may find that they have to wait a very long time until they receive delivery on the 5G promise.
FIVE 5G HURDLES
• We will all need new phones, and machinery will need new connectivity.
• 5G base stations are smaller, but they need to be deployed in much denser networks. This will mean the roll-out of hundreds, if not thousands, of base stations in cities.
• As distance to the base station is key, the countryside may once again lose out in this digital upgrade.
• Standards are yet to be set, and if some countries object to a global standard – for example to support local industrial champions – the 5G promise could soon turn into a technical nightmare of how many standards one single device would have to support.
• Who pays is the biggest question of them all. Will it be consumers, industry, or network operators? It’s not just the cost of the hardware that’s daunting. Governments will also try to make money from bandwidth auctions.