5G mobile networks: A cheat sheet

As LTE networks become increasingly saturated, mobile network operators are planning for the 5G future. Here is what business professionals and mobile users need to know about 5G.

Since the introduction of the first mobile phone standard in 1982, succeeding standards have been deployed approximately every nine years since. GSM, the 2nd generation standard, was first deployed in 1992, while a variety of competing 3G standards began deployment in 2001. The first 4G LTE capable phone, the Samsung Craft SCH-r900, launched in 2010. Now, in 2018, technology companies and mobile network operators are jockeying to be first to deploy the standard they envision as being emblematic of 5G, the true next generation of mobile phone standards.

TechRepublic's cheat sheet to 5G is a quick introduction to next-generation mobile communication standards, as well as a "living" guide that will be updated periodically as standards are finalized and deployments of 5G technology commence.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

What is 5G?

5G is the name of a variety of disparate communications technologies—at a minimum, it means "whatever's next." For comparison, LTE is the most popular and widely deployed 4G technology.

WiMAX, another 4G standard, was an early competitor to LTE. In the US, Clearwire (now part of Sprint) operated a WiMAX network for mobile internet access from 2009 to 2015. Although LTE is often used interchangeably with 4G, some WiMAX deployments still exist around the world, particularly in Japan, as UQ Communications continues to operate a WiMAX 2 network.

While there is no technology that has been adopted or designated as being the 5G standard by consensus, the most likely standard to see wide deployment is 5G New Radio (NR), which is being standardized by the 3GPP, a cooperative responsible for the development of the 3G UMTS and 4G LTE standards. Preliminary finalized versions of 5G NR were released by the 3GPP in December 2017.

SEE: The race to 5G: Inside the fight for the future of mobile as we know it (TechRepublic cover story)

Importantly, 5G is not an incremental or backward-compatible update to existing mobile communications standards. It does not overlap with 4G standards like LTE or WiMAX, and cannot be delivered to existing phones, tablets, or wireless modems by means of tower upgrades or software updates. While faster communication via LTE—including technologies like LTE Advanced and LTE Advanced Pro—is being deployed on existing networks, and these technologies may use design principles like 256-QAM, these are ultimately transitional or pre-5G standards.

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What constitutes 5G technology?

The concept of what constitutes 5G technology is still being debated and planned among mobile network operators, communications hardware vendors, and academic and standards bodies. For example, Huawei, a maker of mobile phones and network equipment, envisions 5G as the era of "Everything on Mobile."

The company differentiates 5G from preceding technologies in three ways:

  1. Number of connections. Although a 4G network provides thousands of connections for each cell, a 4G network cannot meet the connection needs of Everything on Mobile. A 5G network provides up to a million connections per square kilometer. This will bring an exponential increase in the number of connections.
  2. Latency. The latency on a 4G network, 50 ms, is half of that of a 3G network. However, applications such as self-driving cars still require much lower latency than a 4G network.
  3. Throughput. A higher throughput will better meet consumer needs. The throughput of a 4G network is 10 times higher than that of a 3G network, but once 4K video services become popular, the 4G network cannot meet the new throughput demands.

Many different attributes are under discussion, though 5G technology may consist of the following (the attributes are listed in no particular order).

Millimeter wave communication

While current mobile networks operate primarily in the 0.5 to 3 GHz range, the primary focus for 5G networks is the ability to use frequencies above 3GHz. Extremely high frequency (EHF) or millimeter wave frequencies include the 30 to 300 GHz range. Discussions and tests of the suitability of the 28, 38, 60, and 72-73 GHz bands have been published in IEEE journals as far back as 2013.

While the use of millimeter wave communication allows for faster data speeds, it comes with its own set of drawbacks. Because of the short distance of communication, millimeter wave communication has a much shorter range; for densely-populated areas, this requires deploying more base stations (conversely, this makes it well suited to densely-populated places such as arenas and stadiums). For rural areas, alternatives are needed to provide a usable signal. Additionally, millimeter wave communication can be subject to atmospheric interference, particularly during storms.

SEE: Fujitsu unveils small cell mmWave 5G tech (ZDNet)

Proactive content caching

As the use of millimeter wave communication necessitates the deployment of more base stations in comparison to LTE and previous communications standards, those base stations in turn require a connection to wired backhauls to transmit data across the network. By providing a cache at the base station, access delays can be minimized, and backhaul load can be reduced. This has the added benefit of reducing end-to-end delay.

Multiple-hop networks and device-to-device communication

In LTE networks, the use of cellular repeaters and femtocells bridges gaps in areas where signal strength from traditional base stations is not adequate to serve the needs of customers. These can be in semi-rural areas and in urban areas where architectural design obstructs signal strength. Using multiple-hop networks in 5G extends the cooperative relay concept by leveraging device-to-device communication to increase signal strength and availability.

Seamless vertical handover

While proposals for 5G aim to be the "one global standard" for communications, allowing devices to seamlessly switch to a Wi-Fi connection, or fall back to LTE or 3G networks without delay or interruption, is a priority for the design of 5G.

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Who does 5G benefit?

Remote workers / off-site job locations

One of the major focuses of 5G is the ability to use wireless networks to supplant traditional wireline connections by increasing bandwidth available to devices and minimizing latency. For remote workers, this greatly increases flexibility in work locations, allowing for cost-effective communication with your office, without being tied to a desk in a home office with a wireline connection.

Additionally, for situations that involve frequently changing off-site job locations, such as location movie shoots or construction sites, lower technical requirements for 5G deployment allow for easily set up a 5G connection to which existing devices can connect to a 5G router via Wi-Fi. For scenes of live breaking news, 5G technologies can be used to supplant the traditional satellite truck used to transmit audio and video back to the newsroom.

SEE: The 10 worst things about working from home (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

Internet of Things (IoT) devices

One priority for the design of 5G networks is to lower barriers to network connectivity for IoT devices. While some IoT devices (e.g., smartwatches) have LTE capabilities, the practical limitations of battery sizes that can be included in wearable devices and the comparatively high power requirements of LTE limit the usefulness of mobile network connectivity in these situations. Proposals for 5G networks are focusing on reducing power requirements, making the use of IoT devices more feasible.

City centers, office buildings, arenas, and stadiums

The same properties that make 5G technologies a good fit for IoT devices can also be used to improve the quality of service for situations in which large numbers of devices make extensive use of the mobile network in densely populated areas. These benefits can be realized easily in situations with variable traffic—for instance, arenas and stadiums are generally only populated during sporting events, music concerts, and other conventions. Large office towers, such as the 54-story Mori Tower in Tokyo's Roppongi Hills district, have thousands of workers during the week. Additionally, densely populated city centers can benefit from the ability of 5G networks to provide service to more devices in physically smaller spaces.

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When are 5G rollouts happening?

The first high-profile 5G rollout is scheduled for the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. KT, a major mobile network operator, and Intel are working together on this demonstration rollout. According to Intel, 5G coverage will be used to deliver gigabit-speed wireless broadband, low-latency video, and live streaming video content in Gangneung Olympic Park, as well as Gwanghwamoon, Seoul and other Olympic venues across Korea. Naturally, this test will conclude with the end of the Olympic Games in late February.

In the US, Verizon Wireless has announced plans to deploy a 5G network in Sacramento, CA in the second half of 2018. The network operator is working with Samsung to deploy three to five 5G networks this year, though no other locations have been announced. Previously, Verizon had operated 5G technical trials in Sacramento; Ann Arbor, MI; Atlanta, GA; Dallas and Houston, TX; Miami, FL; Seattle, WA; Washington DC; Bernardsville, NJ; Brockton, MA; and Denver, CO throughout 2017, as well as a trial run at the Indianapolis 500 in May 2017.

Similarly, AT&T has announced plans to provide 5G services in 12 markets by the end of 2018, which will be based on the 5G NR specification. Presently, AT&T has deployed LTE-Advanced in 23 metropolitan areas across the US, which the company is marketing as a "5G Evolution" network. As noted in the introduction, LTE-Advanced is not a 5G technology. AT&T has a history of mislabeling network technologies; the company previously advertised the transitional HSDPA network as 4G, though this is commonly considered to be an "enhanced 3G" or "3.5G" standard.

Additional 5G tests and rollouts have occurred worldwide. Ericsson and Intel deployed a 5G connection to connect Tallink cruise ships the Port of Tallinn in Estonia. In China, ZTE conducted tests in which the company achieved speeds in excess of 19 Gbps on a 3.5 GHz base station. Additionally, in tests of high frequency communications, ZTE exceeded 13 Gbps using a 26 GHz base station, and a latency of 0.416 ms in a third test for ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (uRLLC).

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How does a 5G future affect enterprises and mobile users?

As technology advances, older devices will inevitably reach end-of-life; in the mobile space, this is an outsized concern, as wireless spectrum is a finite resource. Much in the same way that the digital switchover occurred for TV broadcasting, older mobile networks are actively being dismantled to free spectrum for transitional LTE and 5G networks.

In the US, AT&T disabled its 2G network on January 1, 2017, rendering countless feature phones—as well as the original iPhone—unusable. Verizon plans to disable the last of its 2G CDMA network by the end of 2019, which will render most feature phones and older smartphones unusable, as well as IoT devices such as water meters. Presently, end-of-life plans for the 2G networks of Sprint and T-Mobile have not been publicly disclosed.

Additionally, as 5G is used increasingly to deliver wireless broadband, wireline broadband providers will face competition as the two services approach feature parity. With many people using smartphones both as their primary computing device and for tethering a traditional computer to the internet, the extra cost of a traditional wireline connection may become unnecessary for some people, and enable those outside the reach of traditional wireline connections to have affordable access to high-speed for the first time.

As 5G specifications are designed around the needs of businesses, the low-power and low-latency attributes are expected to spark a revolution in IoT deployments. According to Ronan Dunne, executive vice president and group president of Verizon Wireless, 5G will enable the deployment of 20 billion IoT devices by 2020, leading to the creation of the "industrial internet," affecting supply chain management, as well as agriculture and manufacturing industries. These same attributes also make 5G well suited to use cases that require continuous response and data analysis, such as self-driving cars and traffic control.

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Image: koo_mikko, Getty Images/iStockphoto

About James Sanders

James Sanders is a Java programmer specializing in software as a service and thin client design, and virtualizing legacy programs for modern hardware.

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