5G: get ready for a major generational shift

With all the buzz around the internet of things, it’s important to remember that these miracle applications fundamentally depend on connectivity. And with potentially hundreds of billions of connected devices on the way, current technology just won’t cut it.

High bandwidth will be needed to accommodate the vast amount of traffic, and communication will need to be super-fast and reliable. Just imagine, for example, a driverless car depending on clunky 3G for its traffic updates. For many applications such as this, low latency is key.

Japan’s target is to launch 5G for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and, in the UK, Ofcom has set a target for commercial service of the same year

The answer is 5G – significantly faster than 4G, with a theoretical download speed of 10Gbps and latency of as little as 1ms end-to-end. It should support up to 100 times as many devices as 4G over any given area and have high-energy efficiency, with battery life extended by ten times and core network energy consumption cut by 90 per cent.

5G has been on the way, in one form or another, for several years. In 2013, Japan and South Korea started to work on 5G requirements; Samsung, Huawei and Ericsson began prototype development, and NTT Docomo carried out the first 5G experimental trials a year later.

5G get ready for a major generational shift 2

And it is, naturally, going to come into commercial service at different times around the world. South Korea’s SK Telecom is planning a demo of its 5G technology in 2018 at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and Ericsson and TeliaSonera plan to make commercial service available in Stockholm and Tallinn by the end of that same year.

Japan’s target is to launch 5G for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and, in the UK, Ofcom has set a target for commercial service of the same year.

5G: the backbone of IoT

In its early stages, 5G will be mostly about faster connectivity for PCs, tablets and phones, bringing challenges and opportunities comparable to those that arrived with 4G. In the longer term, though, its features are being seen as the key enabler for the internet of things (IoT).

“5G will eventually provide us with much faster networks with lower latency, which we believe will become the backbone of IoT. Additionally, the flexibility from 5G networks will be better suited to handle all the diversity of data generated by the IoT,” says Frank Palermo, executive vice president of digital solutions at IT services provider Virtusa.

“Also 5G has the ability to act as a unifying framework that combines short-range communications such as RFID [radio-frequency identification], Bluetooth and cellular while at the same time exploit new spectrums in the high-frequency millimetre wave and microwave bands.”

According to the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, 5G is defined as a network supporting data rates greater than tens of megabits per second for tens of thousands of simultaneous users. While it will be based on the IEEE 802.11ac broadband standard, which is enough for vendors to work with, it has not yet been fully standardised and quite probably won’t be until 2019.

In the meantime, vendors are continuing to test their various systems and are investing heavily in IoT-friendly technologies such as new air interface transmission schemes, higher frequency bands and advanced antenna technologies, such as Massive MIMO and beamforming, to try and make the most of limited spectrum.

Rather than broadcasting signals from a base station in all directions, beamed signals can be sent between individual terminals and a base station as required, eliminating interference and making more efficient use of bandwidth. Meanwhile, Massive MIMO involves using multiple-antenna technology to increase data rate and link reliability.

“It’s important for businesses to be aware of the work being done on the road to 5G,” says Asha Keddy, vice president in Intel’s Platform Engineering Group and general manager of Next Generation Standards and Technology.

“Currently, there are innovations being introduced to expand capacity and capability within standards bodies and underutilised spectrum. These innovations will have an impact on an enterprise’s network and infrastructure, and close collaboration with their service providers and technology enablers will be key to embracing new capability as well as new use cases.”

Because of the uncertainty over standards, it isn’t easy for businesses to plan ahead in any detail. They should, though, be following developments, according to analysts at 451 Research.

The implications of 5G for businesses

They say: “Our research suggests that 5G will potentially have an energising and catalytic effect on a whole array of technology and services in IT. But as one might expect from a major project, the overall picture is nuanced and confused. The move to 5G will be multispeed – some quarters will perceive threats, some opportunities, and some a mix of both.”

Most of us are now aware of the headline applications for IoT and 5G – self-driving cars or fridges that order more milk when you run out.

But the advent of 5G and the internet of things will bring major changes to businesses of all types, potentially affecting everything from manufacturing to marketing. Businesses will have access to enormous quantities of information that can help them make better informed decisions, increase efficiency and save money.

For example, insurance firms will be able to base their premiums on actual driver behaviour or doctors monitor their patients’ vital signs remotely.

For some applications, it will be low latency that’s crucial; for others, it could be mobility, network reliability or resiliency. But IT departments will need to evaluate how 5G and the internet of things are set to affect everything from real-time analytics, datacentre design and location-based web services to social networks and digital currencies.

“IoT allows businesses to gain actionable information to help them make faster and more informed decisions, increase efficiency and save costs using ‘smart’ things such as sensors, machines, engines, robots and more,” says Ms Keddy.

As with every new technology, however, organisations will to a certain extent be forced to start running in order to stay in one place.

“The impending arrival of 5G will also surely make mobile network operators revisit their approach to 2G and 3G networks,” says Matt Hatton of Machina Research.

“Up until now most operators around the world, most notably in Europe, have been silent on the issue of the sun setting on 2G or 3G networks. With the impending addition of a fourth air interface, we would expect more mobile network operators to make the leap and switch off the older generations.”

This could start happening as early as 2020, he says, which means that any organisation still using these services will have to begin making plans.