Each generation of cellular networks fundamentally changed the world we live in. 1G brought us the brick phone utilizing analog technology in the ‘80s. For the first time, phones became truly mobile albeit they were bulky and expensive, and limited to voice features. In the ‘90s, 2G brought us digital handsets with SMS and text messaging which made communication on-the-go possible. Phone sizes and prices shrank and adoption grew, although mostly for business and professional use. In the early 2000’s, 3G brought us online with mobile broadband integrating voice, video and data. 3G made it popular for not just adults but teens to use cell phones, driving mass adoption. The decade from 2010 to 2020 has been characterized by the use of 4G. 4G significantly increased the speed and capacity of cellular networks. It gave rise to an entirely new generation of applications, which fundamentally changed how we do business and communicate. The rise of ride-sharing services, live-streaming video, and a host of other applications were all possible due to 4G. Entire industries such as the gig- economy were created as a result of 4G. During the pandemic this year, 4G has made remote learning and telemedicine a reality.
As we look to the coming decade from 2020 onwards, 5G will be at the forefront. The race for 5G is not about simply deploying the new infrastruture, but getting the first mover advantage in who can build, and take the leadership role in a host of new applications and services that 5G will enable. It is this race that has captured the minds of all – from nation states to entrepreneurs.
5G brings with it significant changes. 5G provides improvements in many ways – up to a 10x faster speed than 4G, up to 10 times lower latency than 4G, up to 100 times as many devices as 4G, and up to 90% lower energy consumption compared to 4G. In order for the rollout of 5G to be successful, several new technlogieis will be required to work in tandem including:
- Millimeter wave: This is a an entirely new band of spectrum being opened up for 5G – from 6GHz all the way up to 300GHz. It is a higher frequency spectrum that can drive higher capacity as well as higher bandwidth. Initially only specific bands within this spectrum will be utilized, in conjunction with lower and mid-frequency bands from 600MHz to 3GHz.
- Massive MIMO: MIMO stands for multiple input, multiple output and refers to the antenna technology that is utilized to drive better coverage. The higher frequency bands provide an advantage in that they require smaller antennas. This make it feasible to pack more antennas on a base station, which in turn drives much higher capacity. 5G will be able to pack around 256 antennas per base station, significanty higher than the dozen or so with 4G.
- Small cells and beam forming: Higher frequencies lead to higher propagation loss. With the higher density of MIMO antennas, there can also be increased signal interference. And so the goal in 5G is to develop many smaller cells that would then be served by the high density MIMO antennas. The smaller cell size addresses the issues around propagation loss. At the same time, beam forming technology allows the 5G signals to minimize intereference by selectively targetting devices.
- Network slicing: 5G will support network slicing, which is the ability to carve off portions of the 5G network for specific use cases. For example carving off a slice for first responders. Or carving off slices for ultra-low latency applications such as autonomous driving.
- Mobile Edge Computing: This is the key to reducing end-to-end latency for applications. With mobile edge computing, applications can run in data centers closer to the 5G network thereby significantly reducing the end-to-end latency of applications.
- Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS): By separating the user data from the control plane processing, user plane traffic can be switched locally without having to backhaul traffic thereby lowering latency and increasing throughput.
The journey to 5G will require careful planning both on the network operator side and the companies leveraging and building applications over a 5G infrastructure. Ensuring visibilty into the applications and the underlying network traffic will be key to determining whether SLAs are being met for critical application needs that depend on aspects such as guaranteed latency, among others. Planning for this upfront will help speed up the journey and reduce delays in deploying both the infrastructure and the applications.
As with each generation of cellular technology, 5G deployment and adoption will occur over an extended period of time, perhaps several years. But with it will come an entirely new breed of applications and services that can take advantage of the lower latency, higher speeds and additional 5G capabilities. Yes, we will be able to download movies much faster, it may take only 5-10 seconds for a full HD movie download. But that is a very limiting way to think about 5G. New applications, like fully autonomous driving, drone-based emergency response, customized multi-dimensional content-rich news delivery, and many more advancements, become possible with 5G.
As these new applications start taking root, many of the traditional paradigms and businesses may start seeing disruption. Organizations should look to the future in terms of disruption rather than incrementalism when thinking of how to take advantage of these aspects of 5G.