The First Telecommunications Network not Designed for People Will Likely Change Lives More Than Any Other
Until 5G, advances in wireless telecommunications technology have been about connecting people. The earliest networks enabled important communications and drove demand for greater mobility with portable feature-rich phones and expanded network coverage. The digital age of 2G/2.5G networks delivered against demand and created new promise with technologies that improved network capacity while introducing productivity (email) and personalization (music, camera) tools powerful enough to disrupt other industries and make wireless phones indispensable. The demand for high-speed data drove 3G deployments as mobile internet access, location-based services, and smartphones changed ways of working and playing.
Now, with nearly as many phones on the planet as there are people, 4G (LTE) delivers a global standard that outperforms demand even though the technology is in its infancy and networks are still not fully deployed. Average data rates hovering at 45 Mbps and peak data rates reaching 200 Mbps exceed most people driven use cases. Latency rates just under 100 ms are twice as fast as the average human response time. VoLTE/OTT VoIP is outperforming WiFI based VoIP causing little concern about the loss of dedicated voice channels. Wireless data consumption has tested the bounds of “unlimited” plans, and confident operators have responded by bundling streaming services into their offerings. To put that in perspective, Americans on unlimited plans already average between 4 GB and 5 GB per month. That translates to a US population that uses enough mobile data in one year to equal well over a million years of HD video streaming.
So, with networks already designed to exceed human demand and demonstrating continuous year over year improvement. (See PCMag.com annual report on Fastest Mobile Networks, 2018.), what is the point of advancing to 5G technology?
The 5G network evolution marks a shift in focus from connecting people to connecting things, and, while many trends tagged as IoT will have limited impact, the shift to 5G is likely to be more transformative than every other wireless network evolution to date.
The 5G standard uses millimeter wavelengths to deliver capacity and speed with almost no latency. Increased bandwidth in this higher frequency enables networks to support about 500 times the number of devices, generate average download speeds of 20 Gbps, and reduce latency to 1 ms. In other words, average speed across nascent 5G networks is already 100 times faster than top speeds realized across 4G networks, and real-world latency is already 100 times shorter on 5G than 4G. With these transmission rates, people will be able to download 5 or more movies in a second and play video games in real time, but the truly transformative power of 5G is in the way this new telecommunications standard shifts paradigms across other industries and empowers other businesses to change the way they interact with people.
Some of the 5G trends that will redefine our connected world are:
Location: Higher frequency radio waves don’t propagate as far as lower frequency waves nor do they pass through structures as easily. Because of this challenge, 5G will be deployed using small cells with a coverage diameter of about a km (as compared to 500 km diameter associated with 4G towers), and the earliest practical installations will be in buildings and throughout city infrastructure. With increased network density, already good location services will become even more precise. More importantly, because small cells generally include a base station and an application base processor (mini data center), locations themselves will take on identities and interact with people passing through. Imagine a mobile commerce ecosystem that interacts with your real world or building features that change based on real-time tenancy.
Localization: Like every new network generation, 5G has evolved alongside complimentary technologies that are integrating into its standards. Some of the most important evolutions linked to 5G are software-defined networking (SDN) and mobile edge computing (MEC). SDN separates the control function of networks from the forwarding function allowing networks to operate locally while being controlled more centrally. Edge computing allows data processing at network terminals like phones, gateways, and small cells.
These functionalities, when combined with the bandwidth and density of 5G, enable localized data capture and processing, improving upon already better than human response speeds while reducing the amount of data that needs to be sent back to a central office. Early adoption will likely center around expanding video use cases and smart building operations. Ultimately, 5G will enable localized data capture, processing, and sharing that will benefit every business and the network itself will serve up valuable business intelligence. For end users, while some information will remain in the cloud, other information will become site-specific. With even smarter networks, phones are likely to devolve into much more wearable form factors able to interface with the intelligence around them.
Ubiquity: The remarkably low latency, high capacity, and high speed delivered by 5G networks create an atmosphere of continuous coverage and the perception that the network anticipating rather than waiting for commands. With this ubiquitous coverage and the deployment of billions of intelligent IoT/Edge devices made possible by 5G, the world will truly be connected. The vision of 5G isn’t self-driving cars, it is hundreds of self-driving cars sharing a space completely aware of each other and able to respond in real-time to changes. It is a vision of efficiently timed, ticketless transit systems, integrated public safety systems, and buildings that sense and respond to fire within seconds of a slight temperature rise.
Reach: With nearly ubiquitous coverage, intelligent localized devices, high-speed transmissions, and real-time responsiveness; 5G changes the definition of remote access and moves augmented reality from the gaming space to a service level offerings across industries. Augmented shopping developments and trials are already underway, and augmented educational programs have already been imagined. It is reasonable to assume that industries like manufacturing, oil and gas, and transportation will follow by using remote access to eliminate job hazards. Fully realized, we will see 5G extending the reach of healthcare to homes and remote or underserved regions. Specialists will be able to practice globally and surgeons will be able to perform remote surgeries as if they were in the same room.
Diversity: Ultimately, 5G is not the only network technology being built for a connected world. Low power networks (LoRaWAN, NB-IOT, M-LTE, SigFox) and, in some markets, 2G networks will co-exist with 5G to service the many M2M and data collecting applications being touted as IoT. Bluetooth has proven to be an excellent protocol for connecting actuators, meters, and sensors to WAN. WiFi and 4G (LTE) have significantly advanced IoT solutions and will continue to be important. But, 5G brings cohesion to the marketplace by solving the problems that need its prowess and enabling integrated solutions to come to fruition across technologies. As Tom Wheeler (former FCC chairman, Wireless Hall of Fame, Cable Television Hall of Fame) has famously said, “If something can be connected, it will be connected to 5G.”
In addition to network diversity, 5G offers levels of provider diversity. Because of the importance of localization, in-building installation, and network density, early deployments of 5G infrastructure are often being built on the edge by new, non-traditional network providers (like real estate and utility companies, transit systems, local governments, and IoT start-ups) who are then offering neutral hosting opportunities to large operators. By building the network from the point of need, 5G solutions are emerging along with the network. Solution-focused deployments should benefit consumers and businesses alike. As an early indicator, in the UK, where the big telcos have already seeded some market share to smaller solution focused providers (even in advance of 5G), mobile commerce take-rates are twice the global average. Although no direct correlation has been proven, the data suggests that ways of doing business will change and be valued.
Many are heralding the development of 5G and IoT in general as key components of the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Others have lost the vision in the midst of the hype. For this believer, the proof of life-changing solutions already exists and the promise of a truly connected world is being delivered in the real world, in the real-time that comes with advanced network technology.
Author: Christine Bolles