5G: paving the way for a new era of connected cars, IoT and mobile broadband
5G mobile networks are coming sooner than previously thought and will offer an experience equivalent to home broadband fibre connections on a mobile device.
The new standard boasts massive technical upgrades over 4G in terms of data throughput (how much data can be uploaded and downloaded within a given time) and latency (how quickly your phone communicates with the cell towers).
Initially, it was predicted that 5G would roll out in 2020, but in the last year mobile operators have ramped up their efforts in order to launch to consumers in at least some markets next year.
“5G is a unified platform that will serve different sets of use cases,” said Dino Flore, Qualcomm’s vice president of technology.
“This includes mobile broadband, as well as mission critical services like car connectivity. These communications need to be very low latency, very high reliability.”
While the future looks bright for 5G, the last year has been a rocky road as providers bickered over the underlying technology before finally agreeing on a global standard in December.
“We tried to get the preliminary 5G standard out by the end of last year,” said Evan M. Gray, vice president of product and marketing, Cobham Wireless, which had input into the final 5G specification.
“There was a real fear that if they didn’t get that standard out, there would be a risk of fragmentation. This is hugely important in order to drive the industry forward in lockstep.”
While 4G has been consistently improving since the first networks started appearing in 2009, with even gigabit LTE being tested last year, Gray said that operators are now maxing out its performance capabilities. Considering demand for mobile internet is increasing rapidly every year, a new technology had to be deployed in order to meet demand.
The most obvious use case for 5G will be to improve mobile internet for consumers. The new networks will have no trouble streaming 4K video straight to a mobile device or dealing with the massive data needs of huge crowds at sporting events, for example.
The low latency is the real star of the show, as it will open up a whole set of unique use cases that would not be possible on 4G.
Firstly, it will be a boon for online gamers, who will appreciate lightning-fast connections in multiplayer matches, along with the ability to stream VR content directly from the cloud without the need for beefy hardware.
“Last year, I tried a virtual reality headset run over 4G and within five minutes it felt like I’d been in a cross-channel ferry,” Gray said. “The reason is the latency, because 4G latency is too high to deliver virtual reality. The experience was rather unpleasant.”
Gamers will not be the only people that benefit, even if they will be some of the first. Over the next decade it is anticipated that 5G will create huge opportunities for industry, devices in the Internet-of-Things (IoT) and eventually connected cars.
“The possibilities of IoT are immense,” Flore believes. “The important thing is how we can use the platform we have developed for mobile, which has now reached eight billion connections, to change the world by interconnecting things around us.
“This will be the challenge for the next 20-30 years.”
The reliability and broad scope of 5G will allow it to be used to support many more devices than 4G currently allows.
Entire factories will be able to be automated using the network, avoiding many of the difficulties and limitations of WiFi which is currently being used today in many circumstances.
The number of devices that can be supported by an individual WiFi network is comparatively tiny compared to 5G and its range will allow machines and robots to remain connected even when they leave the factory.
Furthermore, 5G supports ‘network slicing’, which grants key utilities and industries a guaranteed chunk of the network in order to ensure that critical elements that rely on a consistent and reliable internet connection are not impacted by high data usage from other nearby users.
The aviation sector is one example of how 5G can be utilised to great effect in IoT devices.
Unbeknownst to most, even mid-sized planes today have around 3,000-4,000 sensors that all need to be networked to each other and to the main computer system.
“It is very difficult to connect all these sensors and all the cabling that goes with it poses a lot of constraints and delays,” Flore said.
“90 per cent of these sensors can be simply connected wirelessly; at that point it becomes much easier and reduces cost for the aviation sector to design the plane.
“Once you don’t have cables, you are not constrained and can have maybe 10,000 sensors that you run on a private 5G network.”
Agriculture is another example of where 5G could have a transformative impact. The sector has always been unceasing in its attempt to automate more and more processes that were once carried out by hand and then by human-driven machines.
With the race to develop increasingly advanced farming robotics and other initiatives like driverless tractors already underway, the comparative range of 5G will see it become an essential technology to connect devices and machines together across acres of farmland.
Driverless and connected vehicles undoubtedly represent a paradigm shift in the auto industry that will shake the foundations of the long-established sector unlike any technology that has come before.
The new vehicles will ultimately require a consistent internet connection that can only be truly served with the ultra-low latencies provided by 5G technologies.
From route alteration based on upcoming traffic, downloads of large, detailed maps when entering new areas and essential software updates for the driverless AI, internet connectivity will become not just a nicety, but an essential component for all vehicles in the future.
Qualcomm is creating a platform that will allow cars to connect to other cars, pedestrians and infrastructure such as traffic lights in order to give them ultimate awareness and improve their safety features.
With some years to go before these vehicles become mainstream, there is still time to get the infrastructure in place.
Creating a network extensive enough for connected cars will pose a challenge. Although 5G boasts much greater range than any other wireless standard capable of providing such low latency and high data throughput, its infrastructure requirements will be considerable.
“There are strengths and weaknesses to all the technologies,” Gray said, while comparing 5G to earlier networks. “2G is very good at penetration, good macro, large cell size.
“Generally, the cell sizes get smaller as the generation number increases; lower frequencies can deliver bigger cells but carry less data.”
Thus, one of the downsides of 5G is that many more antennas will need to be installed across a landmass to achieve decent coverage and this is something that will affect connected cars in particular - although Gray noted that a lot of 4G infrastructure can be easily adapted to fit into a 5G system.
Despite some setbacks, especially compared to other markets such as the US and China, the EU roadmap anticipates that 5G networks will see initial rollout next year, with full deployment across Europe in at least one major city in each member state by 2020.
“By 2025, the plan is to cover all urban areas, plus all the major transport paths such as highways and roads,” said Qualcomm’s government affairs chief Wassim Chourbaji.
He warned that the current investment capacity of mobile operators, at least in Europe, is diminished due to large numbers of operators and the fierce competition between them.
“The problem in Europe is that the average revenue per user has been going down,” Chourbaji said. “This means that the investment capacity of operators has been eroded over time.
“What’s needed is infrastructure sharing. That’s now in the EU regulatory framework that’s being discussed and will be adopted this year.”
Currently, many networks have variable coverage in different locations because most of the infrastructure is built by each operator individually.
Chourbaji believes that if networks cannot collaborate to share the cost of infrastructure installation, Europe will struggle to achieve acceptable levels of coverage due to the high initial investment.
With 5G spectrum auctions still yet to take place in the US, UK and many European countries, such discussions can be held at a later date. It is clear that greater levels of cooperation will be needed in future to ensure a smooth rollout.
Meanwhile, the first 5G-ready smartphones are already on the horizon, a fact that manufacturers like Apple and Samsung can celebrate as a way to persuade consumers to upgrade their devices.
“We expect to see devices this year, at least early-access stuff,” Gray said. “But people will stretch the definition of 5G in the same way as they did with 4G. So who will have the first 5G phones? Good question. But I think what matters is the services.”