5g rollout

5G: the benefits and difficulties of creating a new wireless standard

5G is on the horizon and promises to bring massively increased data speeds with incredibly low latency. However, a full commercial rollout is not expected until 2020 and early testing is only just beginning.

The new networking standard, which will eventually succeed 4G, brings a lot of challenges to the table.

Firstly, entirely new networking architecture will need to be installed in countries across the world at great expense, and the technical specifications for the standard have not even been finalised yet.

Following this, consumers need to actually be able to buy devices, such as smartphones, that are capable of taking advantage of the new networks. This is a considerable headache given that current prototype devices are the size of a large desktop computer at minimum - hardly something that can be slipped into a jean pocket.

The potential advantages of 5G are considerable. The standard will enable a whole new set of applications such as remote controlled passenger vehicles, wireless virtual reality (VR) headsets and even remote surgery that would simply not be possible on current networks.

At Mobile World Congress UK recently, Teslasuit demonstrated a VR headset earlier this week that connected through a 5G specification (below). The latency between the headset and the base computer is low enough that users can experience the full graphical fidelity made available with a powerful desktop computer without suffering from the dizzy feeling associated with a lagging VR experience.

5G powered headset with a prototype base station underneath

Among others, Intel, Samsung, Nokia and Ericsson, along with the largest American telecommunications network Verizon, have banded together to develop a prototype 5G standard which may or may not eventually be endorsed by 3GPP, the global body overseeing wireless standards, in the final specification.

“It’s about what you are trying to do rather than just speeds and feeds,” said Phil Twist, VP of Marketing and Comms with Nokia.

“There are extremely high-bandwidth applications, like if you have a high-definition virtual reality camera, that needs extremely high bandwidth (to broadcast to another location in real-time).

“If you’re trying to do a haptic feedback remote operation with a doctor sitting in a hospital, but the cataract operation is being done by a robotic arm system 30kms away from where he is, you need very short latency and very high reliability.

“Or if you’re in a factory environment, you’ve got sensors all around the place that are connected by 5G in a very high density. They are all different use cases that the networks can support, but they’re driven by the use case, not by a desire for simply a faster network.”

In addition to the obvious benefits that consumers will see with faster mobile internet - quick loading webpages, the ability to stream 4K video on the go and improved online gaming - these are examples of applications where current 4G networks are simply not adequate.

Cobham Wireless, a company that has long played an important part in defining network standards and helped to develop 4G LTE, is one of the first companies to build working 5G base stations.

Li-Ke Huang, Cobham’s research and technology director, says streaming super high-definition video content will be one of the most prominent uses for 5G following its initial deployment, but that it will have a big impact on driverless vehicles as that market matures as well as being the major conduit to connect Internet of Things devices to each other and the internet.

“Your data will follow you: you will be able to do very high bandwidth applications like online video gaming like you do at home, but wherever you want. And I'm sure more people will come up with crazy things to make use of this interface and low latency. If you want to control an auto-driving car remotely, you really want to make sure that it is low latency,” he said.

One obvious benefit of 5G that can be utilised as soon as the networks are up and running will be to improve internet coverage in rural areas.

Verizon is currently developing an early standard for a 5G network and intends to have a trial system in place by the end of 2017, which would be a world first if it sticks to its roadmap.

The reason Verizon in particular is so interested in the technology is because the US has long been plagued with inconsistent internet coverage in rural areas. Some middle US states have a very low population density and running a high-speed fibre to the wall network to these locations is a costly process which will only benefit a limited few.

Li-Ke believes Verizon will use 5G tech to solve this “last-mile issue”. While current 5G technology is nowhere near miniaturised enough (yet) to be included in smartphones, wireless hotspots are a much more realistic possibility in the short term and could bring high-speed internet coverage relatively cheaply to these typically hard to reach areas.

5G will have significant implications for high-density population areas, too. Twist says Nokia is intending to trial “a subset of the (5G) standard” at next year’s Winter Olympics and will upgrade it later as the technology develops. The networks will have a much larger pipeline through which to push vast amounts of data, potentially negating or drastically improving cell reception issues that are typically encountered during major events like the Olympics.

4G and earlier wireless standards are not set to be retired anytime soon, Twist believes. “You need to think of 5G not as a replacement for 4G, like 4G was a replacement for 3G, but as a long-term complement, with both existing for a long time together,” he said.

“The evolution of 4G, that we term 4.9G, will take you to several gigabits of speed and will take the latency down far enough that you could take your car out on the highway and be comfortable that it’s being connected, but you wouldn’t want to do it in a closed-mesh city environment, for example. It provides service continuity outside of the 5G areas.”

Li-Ke believes the new standard may be the end of generational improvements in wireless network technology. After 5G, there might not be a 6G.

“One common view is that beyond 5G, there won’t be a 6G,” he said. “5G will become so big that the different generation definition will be gone and it will become ‘continuous G’.

“One key concept in 5G is this cloud computing virtualising concept that enables continuous improvement integration. All the previous generations are defined by the interface, by the frequency and by the modulation. Well, 5G is making all of that programmable, it will all be software defined; you can introduce a new wave or new frequencies as you wish. 5G is not just defined by the interface but by the architecture.”

This doesn’t mean that innovation will end, merely that the base infrastructure has been designed to allow for incremental upgrades. This will be a preferable situation for both telecommunications companies and consumers, as it will eradicate the vast costs of setting up entirely new architecture and could mean that future devices such as smartphones could simply receive a software update to take advantage of new wireless protocols.

“There are some crazy ideas being proposed beyond 5G, like visible light communications,” Li-Ke said. “In theory, any lightbulb could be used as a base station. We are proposing some ideas towards that direction: how do we carry a 5G signal using visible light?”

These ideas will undoubtedly be explored further in due course, but right now the industry is gearing up for the mammoth task of installing 5G networks across the planet and miniaturising the chips needed to take advantage of these new networks.

A full video of the interview with Phil Twist can be seen below:

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