5G comes of age but challenges are around the corner
Beyond the well-established use cases for the next generation mobile technology, supporting networks and ecosystems present challenges and opportunities for the industry 5G has been a hot topic for the last few years and is the new battleground in which telecoms companies are fighting for dominance. But what does the future really hold? Faster and more reliable broadband certainly. But you can only make so much money from providing faster download speeds. In truth there are a large number of ways in which the advent of 5G will change the way in which we use communications technologies and the way in which communications services are provided.
What is 5G?
At a simplistic level it is just the next generation of mobile technology. However, dig a little deeper and you will soon find that it is not just an evolution but a step change. From an early stage, three use cases were identified for 5G:
- massive machine-to-machine communications;
- ultra-reliable low-latency communications; and
- enhanced mobile broadband.
The defining characteristics of this next-generation technology are that it is quick (download speeds of 1GB per second), it has a much greater capacity to carry data and it has incredibly low latency. Latency is the time taken for devices to respond to each other over the wireless network. 3G networks have a typical response time of 100 milliseconds, 4G around 30 milliseconds and 5G will be as low as 1 millisecond. To put that in context, it is the difference between a truly immersive virtual reality (VR) experience and one that makes you feel slightly seasick.
Ultra-low latency, coupled with the speed and reliability, means that super-fast, real-time mobile connectivity will be a reality, allowing an explosion of technology innovation. It will mean that a surgeon in one location can reliably perform surgery on a patient on the other side of the world. It means that driverless cars may actually become mainstream – as real-time reaction to a person stepping into the road could mean the difference between life and death. 5G will also help artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality, VR, robotics and the Internet of Things to reach their full potential. Increased connectivity will see a greater focus on new ecosystems and partnerships - all of which will take time to mature into commercially viable models.
The really interesting bit is the knock-on effect that 5G has in relation to network development. The Huawei exclusion initially threw the roll-out of 5G networks into a flat spin. It has certainly added cost and delay. But it may have also opened the door to open radio access networks (open RAN). The open RAN system allows for interchangeable kit to be used and so opens up the supply chain to smaller manufacturers. This reduces the reliance on any one manufacturer. Open RAN is not a new concept but was pioneered recently by Rakuten in Japan to enable it to build its own mobile network. Vodafone has pledged to use open RAN for 5G signals on a fifth of its sites in the UK by 2027. Another area of development is how networks will be managed. The vast amounts of data, the massive increase in network connections and the multiple services supported by 5G has led to the development of AI network management, edge processing and network slicing. Networks need to be designed to cope with differing user functionality and performance requirements. More fundamentally, 5G networks need dedicated radio spectrum. While governments around the world have freed-up spectrum, nearly all of the spectrum being made available is at the top end of the frequency range. The proposed frequency bands for 5G include 26-28 GHz and 38-42 GHz. The rule of thumb is that the higher up the spectrum chart you get, the lower the coverage. So much more infrastructure will be needed. Adding the cost of building a new, infrastructure-dense network and the cost of acquiring spectrum licences means that a massive investment is needed by the network operators. Along with the physical infrastructure, the security measures within a network are also changing. BT and Nu-Quantum recently launched a "world-first trial" of end-to-end quantum-secured communications for 5G networks. Quantum secure links are considered to be virtually un-hackable as they rely upon the use of single photons (particles of light) to transmit special encryption keys.