5G is a hot topic these days and I often get asked what my thoughts are, what the technology is, and what it will mean for people, cities and our industry. With massive bandwidths and transmission speeds 10-100 times faster as compared to current technologies, it is often predicted that 5G technology will revolutionize cellular networking by enabling many new use cases and applications. It is also likely to alter the traditional ways of how the industry and market work due to new models of network deployment, management and commercialization. Industry bodies, companies and researchers have been working on 5G networks for a long time. But only now, due to some step changes and innovations in underlying technologies has it become possible to move the concept from theory into practical application.
Key technology enablers
Generally speaking, cellular network operators have 3 options to in increase network capacity. They can use available spectrum more efficiently, deploy more and better network infrastructure, or acquire additional spectrum. A combination of all 3 options is used to create the new 5G networks.
Spectrum efficiency is increased by the latest massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) technology, which allows operators to use multiple antennas simultaneously to increase data throughput. Alongside massive MIMO, beamforming is a new technique where transmission beams are formed and targeted towards the end-device, rather than having a base station that continuously sends out signals over a large area.
Another key aspect of 5G is the extension and alteration of network infrastructure and topology. 5G networks are expected to be significantly denser than current networks and they will be more flexible, scalable and contextually aware than current networks. 5G networks will be able to recognise the different requirements of particular use cases including coverage, mobility, reliability, latency, security, and throughput, and meet these needs according to priority and need.
Importantly, 5G is also going to use a wide range of frequency bands that are currently not being utilised and transmit signals on a whole new swath of the electromagnetic spectrum. These include frequencies above 6 GHz and potentially up to 300 GHz as compared to the bands below 6 GHz that are currently being used. These higher frequencies offer much greater bandwidth than lower frequencies and provide wider channels and faster data rates.
However, there is also a major drawback to these high frequencies, often called “millimeter waves” – they cannot easily travel through buildings or obstacles and they can be absorbed by foliage and rain. This is why 5G networks are going to continue to use current mobile bands, including spectrum below 1 GHz, to provide wide area coverage and in-building penetration, on top of higher frequency bands not used for mobile broadband previously.
It is important to note here that 5G is not one new technology or innovation, rather it is a combination of multiple new and emerging technologies and techniques applied together. The full 5G vision, where all of the new technologies are applied simultaneously with maximum effect, will be a gradual process over multiple years as the technology pieces are put in place by the operators, and they will be driven by use cases and demand from the end customers and the experience gained with the technology in early deployments.
Impact of 5G
The truth is, no one really knows yet what the true impact of 5G will be. It is likely that at the beginning the technology will be available for some very specific use cases only, the ones that exploit its strengths and play down its weaknesses.
The most widely discussed use cases today centre around autonomous driving (becoming significantly enabled by real-time information), manufacturing (shifting into the industry 4.0 age), immersive media (enabled by augmented and mixed reality), and fixed-wireless access (expanding broadband to more homes). However, these are just umbrella topics where the imagination can run wild and it is essential to go deeper to really understand where 5G will make a difference. Timing will be important too as some of the suggested use cases are still 10 or more years away, say fully autonomous driving where a significant amount of new regulations and laws will need to be developed before large numbers of autonomous vehicles can hit our roads.
To explore some of the possibilities and opportunities of 5G, imagine some of the following use cases:
- A specialist surgeon in the US could operate on a patient in Australia in real time, using robotic hands that follow her movements with remarkable precision and accuracy. She could use her skills augmented further by the robotic arms that keep her movements perfectly steady but also allow her to make real time decisions based on what she sees through her surgical VR headset.
- Autonomous vehicles could collect huge amounts of data and share it with other cars on the road instantaneously, thereby creating a functional mesh of vehicles where each of them learns through each other. Vehicles are able to move as a swarm, a smart herd, rather than each one trying to work out all of the others motivations and intentions from afar, wasting processing power trying to predict and respond.
- Drones and robots could become real world avatars for each of us, attending class on our behalf when we are ill. Or on a trip to Machu Pichu, we could take mini vacations through the eyes of the gadgets. We can own a drone or rent one from a squadron using some form of drone sharing system. This will allow us to experience things we could otherwise not, say due to physical impairments or financial or priority based constraints.
- The Internet of Things is currently limited to relatively low speeds, low power and low data volumes and could grow very quickly with possible use cases exploding. Imagine digital frames replacing windows in our buildings with live, super high resolution feeds from a rain forest or the beach. And smart TVs funnelling nearly unlimited data wirelessly, presenting ultra-high resolution, interactive, live TV via 5G data pipes.
- Cloud-based processing is predicted to take off too. Imagine video games where all the generating of graphics, the moves and actions a character makes on the screen when the player presses a button, happens in a server farm somewhere on the other side of the world and the information is delivered wirelessly to our screens, so quickly that we don’t notice this was not done locally on our machines at home. It is instant and the controller at home is purely an access point for the gaming resources, rather than containing these resources itself.
Extrapolating this concept further, consider mobile phones. Rather than cramming super high end computer chips in our mobile handsets, what if we could primarily use them as access points for computing resources that are located elsewhere. This would increase a mobile’s battery life by days, while simultaneously increasing computing power because it can simply reach out to cloud-based processors through a 5G data tunnel and take as much computing power as it needs, when it needs it. All the computing would be done on remote server farms and the output is simply delivered to our screens without any perceivable lack in transmission.
In fact, we could reach a point where all of our devices are simply screens with cellular antennas, plugged into 5G data pipes connecting them to super computers in giant warehouses, and we just tap into them when we need them, whatever we need them for, at whatever scale of power we need in the moment, for our particular shell of a device. A compelling concept, especially as we are running into hard limitations of microprocessor components and battery technologies.
However, it is not all positive news and exciting possibilities. There are also some legitimate concerns around 5G technology, for example that it has the potential to widen the gap between urban and rural dwellers, which already experience stark differences, including access to today’s high speed internet. In fact, there are still huge swathes of Australia and elsewhere in the world that do not have cellular network coverage at all.
Another trend to watch is that mobile network operators are turning themselves into media and IoT data companies, diversifying away from being simply big pipes delivering data to users. They increasingly try to create and sell unique content on top of their network services, like a Netflix or Spotify, amongst other things to recoup the massive investments they make in 5G networks. The concern here is that if net neutrality rules are not enforced, these network operators could negatively impact the quality of their competition’s offering to encourage customers to use their own, something that has already happened in the past when net neutrality rules were not enforced.
After much noise and many years of research 5G seems to be finally happening. And it has the potential for significant change in not just technology, but in society, because of all the secondary effects of the revolution in a structural backbone piece of technology upon which we all have come to rely in countless, often invisible ways.
5G could be the innovation of the decade, however it could also remain a niche option, definitely interesting for some specific use cases like autonomous vehicles, but beyond those not relevant for most people most of the time. It could prove to be just another upgrade, or shift, but not as relevant to the masses as is currently being predicted. After all, many of the revolutionary predictions are being made by companies that have some stake in this technology doing well.
I say let us stay optimistic and explore the possibilities but also keep expectations moderated and proceed with caution.