What is 5G? Signalling the next generation of high-speed networks

5 Oct 2016

5G will be about network intelligence as well as speed. Image: Jeena Mool Studio/Shutterstock

5G is being proclaimed as the next step in the future of communications, promising speeds 100 times faster than today’s 4G networks. How realistic is this?

Already, the marketing mavens in a variety of industries are salivating at the prospect of doing something special with 5G, or fifth generation mobile.

But it could be 2020 before we see any manifestation of the technology in any serious or tangible way.

In the early 2000s when 3G came to mobile, it boasted broadband-like speeds and amazing superpowers.

Instead, 3G was a slow burner and only today is it the lynchpin of reasonable connectivity speeds on mobile devices.

Its sibling (not successor), 4G, was given a speed impetus through the refarming of spectrum around the 700MHz and 800MHz regions, which were formerly used for TV signals.

Like 3G before it, 4G was heralded as going from supersonic to light speed in broadband terms. It prompted a flurry of spectrum auctions that netted the Exchequer a €450m windfall in Ireland alone.

4G certainly enables speed increases as high 150Mbps in some cases, but its impact and potency depends on how many cells are available and how many people are using their phones within those cells. In reality, users are getting nowhere near those speeds; they receive between 12Mbps and 40Mbps in optimal conditions and only in built-up, well-populated areas.

5G is being trumpeted as the next step in this tradition. But it will be very different in its arrival.

What is 5G?

5G won’t be just wireless; it will include and unite fixed and optical networks to ultimately deliver a superior wireless experience to the end device. For most end users, 5G could be the standard that would unite all of their personal, productivity and internet of things (IoT) devices.

The first thing to understand is that 5G is not going to be about speeds per se, although ultimately it will improve them. It is really a collection of standards, including wireless and software, that when combined, will constitute the fifth generation of mobile.

It will mean not just faster speeds, rather more devices communicating with high bit rates but with low latency and low power.

5G will underpin the future of vital services from transport to healthcare and energy, media and entertainment.

It will require shorter transmission ranges between cells. Traditional mobile cell towers were usually miles apart. 5G cell base stations will need to be anywhere between 500 metres down to 50 metres apart to provide users with low latency speeds.

Will it be faster than 4G?

In theory, yes, but 5G will be more about intelligence than speeds. Crucially, it could potentially lead to a more robust and stable wireless experience.

Chinese telecoms equipment giant Huawei believes 5G will provide speeds 100 times faster than 4G LTE currently offers.

It could also increase network expandability for hundreds of thousands of connections in busy, built-up areas.

The key to this will be the proliferation of thousands more base stations closely linked to each other and all of them, of course, connected to fibre backhaul.

What could it mean for the consumer?

By the time 5G arrives, the average digital home could see its number of connected devices quadruple as IoT products and services enter the home and the car. Users will need wireless connectivity over-the-air but also within the home, capable of working in concert.

This is where the intelligent switching of 5G could come in, enabling users to set priorities. For example, a smartphone user may want to prioritise their social media communications such as WhatsApp over all other digital services on their device or nearby network. A football fan wanting the best possible Premier League experience may be able to intelligently switch priorities on the network to shuttle top quality video over everything else.

What will it mean for telecoms operators?

Mobile operators are tired of seeing services by over-the-top players like Facebook and Whatsapp eat their lunch and signal the death knell of SMS. They are viewing 5G as an opportunity to fight back by providing services that are beyond the remit of the internet players.

But this will require more and more investment; no easy task when your lunch is being eaten.

Buying into the notion that 5G will arrive quickly and supercharge connectivity and broadband as we know it, the EU is looking for a complete overhaul of the union’s telecoms rules, to include setting a minimum requirement of 100Mbps in every household and a 5G minimum connectivity of urban centres by 2025.

This could require an estimated investment of around €500bn if such lofty targets are to be realised.

Car manufacturers, who see the future intrinsically linked to high-speed connectivity between autonomous vehicles, are also looking to 5G to underpin future products and services.

For example, in recent weeks, telecoms companies and car makers including Audi, BMW and Daimler from the automotive side and Ericsson, Huawei, Intel, Nokia and Qualcomm from the telecoms industry joined forces to create the 5G Automotive Association. The aim of this was to integrate 5G technology into future connected and autonomous vehicles.

What frequencies will 5G operate on?

There are different schools of thought on this, and the only real answer is: all of them.

The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) bases its definition of 5G on the 802.11ac standard, which it approved in 2014. Networks using 801.11ac or Gigabit Wi-Fi will operate in the 5GHz band using orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), which could facilitate a simultaneous stream of HD video to multiple clients in homes and businesses, as well as faster synchronisation and backup of data.

The 802.11ac standard can enable speeds of between 433Mbps and 867Mbps on a smartphone and between 867Mbps and 1.69Gbps on a tablet or laptop. With the right antenna and fibre backhaul, speeds of 3.6Gbps to a premises are also possible.

Another possible wireless technology that could be pivotal to 5G is E-band, a former NATO wireless technology that operates in the 71GHz to 95GHz spectrum range that could also enable 1Gbps speeds in defined locations.

In the US, the Federal Communications Commission voted overwhelmingly in July to designate a large block of spectrum for next generation wireless broadband services. This includes higher bands than previously used, including 28GHz, 37GHz and 39GHz that could improve speeds of up to 100 times faster than delivered by today’s 4G wireless networks.

In Ireland, perhaps in preparation for 5G, telecoms regulator ComReg is planning to prepare for 200pc more wireless capacity in the next two to three years, as further spectrum bands such as 700MHz, 1.4GHz, 2.3GHz and 2.6GHz are released to support demand. It is keen to avoid the mistakes of 2011, when the massive surge in smartphone was not foreseen.

Ultimately, 5G will be about pulling together a plethora of different communications standards and frequencies, including 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi as well as services in these new frequencies, to operate in concert in an intelligent way for the most robust, solid outcome for the end user.

Stay tuned!

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years