5G has been buzzing around us for a while.
A buzzword and a beacon that mobile operators and manufacturers wave around to show that they are ahead of the curve. It is a battle to be the first, the best, and the wisest. Innovators, Startups, and Investors are also keen to take advantage of the oncoming wave that is slated to start a revolution in the way we connect.
So, when can we expect this wave to hit us? What exactly should we expect? Moreover, How much of an impact will it have? Let’s take a closer look at 5G and the timeline for the expected release:
The Era of Wireless Technology Standardization.
I could quickly point you to the 1990s, where mobile operators were experimenting with the latest mobile radio technologies. As an operator, the decision of which technology to use to implement their mobile network was crucial to their competitive advantage.
In the past, many US telecom operators adopted proprietary CDMA technology, while Europe mandated the use of GSM. Regardless of which technology was better at the time, there was a consensus among governing bodies that mobile technology should be standardized.
Enter 3GPP in 1998.
Think of 3GPP (The 3rd Generation Partnership Project) as a committee of experts who come up with specifications for new mobile radio technology releases. Due to their effort, phone and device manufacturers build according to the same standards allowing for greater compatibility across mobile networks.
Each publication 3GPP releases is numbered. For example, they published Release 8 in the third quarter of 2008, with specifications of 4G-LTE. It was not until 2 years later, in 2010, that we first saw the 4G network available to the public.
Due to manufacturing and implementation delays, it takes about 2 years, from when 3GPP announces a specification before network operators finally apply it to their networks.
The Road to 5G
2018–2020: Release of 4G-LTE Advanced Pro by many Operators.
Today’s wireless networks have run into a problem. More people and devices are consuming even more data than ever before. So the current 4G airwaves are getting crowded and, as a result, the quality of service that mobile operators offer is diminishing. A simple way to get around this problem is to transmit signals on a new range of the wireless spectrum. We do have a wide range available, although there is a catch:
Higher frequencies can transmit a lot of data, very efficiently, at high speeds. They also have a shorter range and a higher tendency to be blocked by obstacles and weather conditions. On the flip side, lower frequencies can transmit less data, and can more easily traverse obstacles and weather conditions.
4G is using the megahertz band, while 5G is using the higher gigahertz band. So 5G has a much higher bandwidth, lower latency, better reliability; But it also has a lower range and has a higher propensity to be blocked by weather and objects.
Putting this into perspective: a typical 4G tower can cover a 70km area while a 5G tower can cover a maximum of 500m! Having a nationwide coverage with only a standalone 5G network is a massive undertaking, requiring a multitude of antennas in a cluster, and would not be profitable for low population areas.
So it is safe to say that 4G LTE technology is not going anywhere. In fact, 3GPP has already prepared advanced and innovative versions of 4G LTE specifications as a backbone and stepping stone for the next era of mobile networks. In 2016–2017, they published Release 13 & 14 as the evolution of 4G to work side-by-side with 5G. It is called 4G LTE Advanced Pro, and it promises higher speeds, greater reliability, and compatibility with 5G.
Expect 4G LTE advanced Pro to be released between 2018 and 2020, some operators will call it 4.5G or4.5G pro. Others will call it 4.9G, while some would be brash enough to claim it as ‘5G evolution’ or ‘5G project’ (hint, hint AT&T). It will promise speeds of 1–2 Gbps but will probably deliver something between 100–300 Mbps under normal circumstances.
The Next Generation of Mobile Broadband
2020–2021 : Release of 5G New Radio pockets in dense areas.
When will we get 5G service? The answer to this question is 5G New Radio, also known as enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB). In mid-2018, 3GPP published its specifications for 5G New Radio. This, essentially, laid out standards for laying out 5G networks both in standalone and non-standalone networks.
The non-standalone specification detailed the introduction of 5G with the existing 4G-LTE backbone, which is the most obvious way forward for most Telecom operators. This due to the currently laid out infrastructure of 4G-LTE, as well as the very low coverage range of 5G cell towers.
So for the foreseeable future, our mobile networks would be 4G-LTE with pockets of 5G within dense areas. This is the non-standalone specification that most Telecom operators would follow.
This would radically improve our current mobile network in terms of speed and reliability. It would also allow a person on a mobile network to seamlessly transition between a 5G tower and a 4G tower depending on their bandwidth needs and their distance from the 5G tower. Expect New Radio to be how the majority of consumers experience 5G in the upcoming years.
Expect the first 5G pockets to start appearing by 2020; and this only for the most forward-looking mobile operators and companies. It will promise speeds of 20 Gbps, but will most likely deliver something around 1 Gbps under normal circumstances.
Internet of Many, Fast Things
2022+ : Release of 5G+, URLCC & mMTC — 5G on steroids.
As 5G New Radio pockets slowly pop up around us by 2020, we would feel a vast improvement in our mobile connectivity. For the first time, reliability & speed will become comparable to dedicated fixed internet services. However, by 2022, the 5G networks will slowly evolve with new specifications and technology that will take our wireless networks to new heights.
Many will argue that the real excitement of 5G is 3GPP’s release 16 which will be published at the end of 2019; Think of this as an evolution of 5G similar to the development of 4G-LTE since its introduction in 2008. This will bring with it detailed specifications on improving 5G to support automation, Internet of Things (IoT), private networks and other network-critical applications.
Internet of Many Things: mMTC (massive machine type communications). Think of a connected world, where a street lamp communicates with your car, your watch communicates with a weather sensor, your fridge communicates with the milk carton’s expiry sticker, soil sensors communicate with water sprinklers. This myriad of devices communicating is what IoT is about. We would need a network that supports many, many devices reliably, with the possibility of adding many, many more. We would also require a low power, cheap, antenna with a long battery life for such applications. This is what mMTC specification is trying to achieve.
The limitations of a connected world are always the network that connects it.
mMTC will introduce specifications for 5G to support up to 1 Million devices per square kilometer, increased battery life of antennas to 10 years, and allow longer range than current IoT wireless networks.
Fast and Reliable, even on the move: URLLC (ultra reliable low latency communications) Imagine a moving autonomous car on a highway. It would need to communicate with other cars and objects while moving at high speeds. You would also need a low latency connection (a fast response time) to ensure safety on the road; as even the smallest delay could be detrimental. Remote surgery, for example, although a far-fetched idea for today’s standard, would be another use case. In fact, any real-time mission-critical applications are heavily reliant on fast response times.
URLLC will allow 5G to boast very accurate and very reliable network specification with 1ms latency and 1 packet loss per billion, even for antennas that are moving at up to 500 km/h.
One 5G Network. Many Applications.
The use-cases of 5G are a little overwhelming. On the one hand, we have standard mobile broadband that requires high bandwidth with decent latency (eMBB), on the other end, we have connected sensors, smart-home devices and other IoT applications that require low powered antennas and high device density (mMTC). On yet another use-case, we have autonomous vehicles and mission-critical applications that need reliable connections on the move with very low latency (URLLC). There are many other network applications and requirements, and it would be a little overwhelming to provide a separate 5G network for each case. The solution to this dilemma is Network Slicing.
Think of Network Slicing as a method to allow a single 5G infrastructure to support all use cases under one unified network.
So the same 5G tower that would allow you to stream videos on your mobile device, would also provide an ultra-reliable network for your self-driving vehicle, and power the sensors and devices of smart-city devices; The only difference would be the type of antenna used in each of the devices.
Although a little more complex, slicing is akin to creating a Virtual network of sorts, where the underlying 5G network can be virtually sliced into separate networks with different requirements. This would simplify the deployment complexity of 5G networks, and significantly reduce time-to-market of different networks. It would also greatly reduce the barrier to entry and costs in setting up a city or country-wide network of many things.
The Rise of Private 5G Networks
I mean who can wait around for those lazy mobile network operators to set up a 5G network for us, right? Let’s do it ourselves.
With the 3GPP announcement in the December 2018 conference, they shall be including specifications and standards on the unlicensed New Radio spectrum in the next release, due at the end of 2019. This after the pressure from various industries, namely the automotive industry, in wanting to take advantage of the ultra-flexible 5G network.
My 5G Timeline Predictions
The launch of 4G-LTE Advanced Pro
Also known as 4.5G, 4.5G pro, 4.9G, Pre-5G, Theoretical Speed: 3 GBps, Advertised Speed: 1–2 Gbps, Actual Speed: 200–300 Mbps
The latest flavour of 4G-LTE networks is starting to appear in many places. This is very significant, in that 4.5G will be the generational backbone for the implementation of any public 5G network in the forseeable future.
The launch of 5G New Radio in select locations
Also known as New Radio, Theoretical Speed: 20 Gbps, Actual Speed: 1 Gbps
When the initial 5G deployments do come in, most of them will rely on 4G-LTE networks for some services, while using 5G networks for others. Factories and private companies will set up their own 5G networks internally for their IoT requirements.
The emergence of IoT & Mission Critical Applications on 5G
Also known as URLLC & mMTC, Theoretical Speed: 20 Gbps, Latency: 1 ms, Mobility: 500 Km/h, Density:: 1 Million devices per squared Km, Reliability: 1 per billion packet loss.
This takes 5G and adds hardware and operation specifications to create high reliability and density networks within 5G coverage areas. We shall be seeing 5G URLLC covered roads, where autonomous cars will begin testing, in areas with 5G coverage. We shall also be seeing more data being collected and analyzed than ever before, through millions of devices communicating with 5G towers.
The Way Forward.
It is a consensus in the industry that the road to introducing 5G is a multi-year process with constant changes to future specs.
We can take a step back and just let our imagination run wild. The excitement within the industry among professionals and non-professionals alike about the possibilities of 5G is justified, as it not only unifies our wireless communication network but also enables some of the wildest and most innovative products and applications in the future.
I cannot wait to see all the ideas and businesses that pop up. It is indeed an exciting time in the telecommunication industry.