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.

With the advent of widespread Internet of Things (IoT) adoption—from consumer-facing products like Nest thermostats to enterprise applications in manufacturing, agriculture, healthcare, and more—alongside an increasing dependence on smartphones and always-connected computers, the constraints of 4G LTE technology are prompting an accelerated rollout of 5G communications in order to keep pace with the network demands of today and the very near future.

This cheat sheet is an introduction to 5G mobile communication standards, and the new types of devices that utilize it. The article will be updated periodically as new 5G technologies are standardized and network deployments commence.

SEE: Mobile device computing policy (Tech Pro Research)

What is 5G?

Principally, 5G is the name of a class of communications technologies—at a minimum, it means "whatever's next." The only 5G technology currently standardized by 3GPP, a cooperative responsible for the development of the 3G UMTS and 4G LTE standards, is 5G NR (New Radio). Preliminary finalized versions of 5G NR were released by the 3GPP in December 2017.

5G NR recycles the spectrum space vacated by the decommissioning of previous wireless communications technologies. The 2G DCS frequency bands, as well as the 3G E-GSM and PCS frequency bands, as well as the "digital dividend" of spectrum vacated as a result of the transition to digital TV broadcasts are some of the bands available for use in 5G NR.

Proposals exist for competing (or complementary) 5G standards that rely on frequencies above 3GHz. Current mobile networks and 5G NR operate in the 0.5 to 3 GHz range, though researchers have been testing the feasibility of using extremely high frequency (EHF) or millimeter wave frequencies—the 30 to 300 GHz range—for 5G communications. Discussions of the suitability of the 28, 38, 60, and 72-73 GHz frequencies have been published in IEEE journals as far back as 2013.

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

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). While this would be advantageous in certain use cases, it would be a poor fit for use in rural areas. Additionally, millimeter wave communication can be susceptible to atmospheric interference, particularly during storms.

There is room for more than one 5G standard. 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 in the US and Europe, some WiMAX deployments still exist around the world, particularly in Japan, as UQ Communications continues to operate a WiMAX 2 network primarily for mobile broadband.

SEE: IT pro's guide to the evolution and impact of 5G technology (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

It is vital to remember that 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 it 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 attributes of what constitutes 5G technology are still being debated and planned among mobile network operators, communications hardware vendors, and academic and standards bodies. As different groups have differing priorities, interests, and biases (including spectrum license purchases made with the intent of deploying 5G networks), 5G can mean different things to different groups. Huawei, a maker of mobile phones and networking equipment for enterprise use and mobile network operators, 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.

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

Proactive content caching

Particularly in the case millimeter wave powered 5G technologies, which require deploying more base stations compared 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. In fact, spectrum formerly allocated to high-speed microwave satellite links has been repurposed for 5G NR communication.

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 was at the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. KT, a major mobile network operator, Samsung, and Intel collaborated to deliver gigabit-speed wireless broadband, and low-latency live streaming video content. During the games, one hundred cameras were positioned inside the Olympic Ice Arena, which transmitted the video to edge servers, then to KT's data center to be processed into "time-sliced views of the athletes in motion," and then transmitted back to 5G-connected tablets for viewing.

Similarly, Intel and NTT Docomo have announced a partnership to demonstrate 5G technology at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. The companies will use 5G networks for 360-degree, 8K-video streaming, drones with HD cameras, and smart city applications, including "pervasive facial recognition, useful for everything from stadium access to threat reduction."

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.

In an interview with TechRepublic at Mobile World Congress 2018, Verizon Wireless President Ronan Dunne stated that the company is working with companies in retail, manufacturing, precision engineering, and healthcare in developing potential 5G use cases. Dunne noted that "we still have to wait for 5G radios to be available, and then the devices. What I would imagine is towards the back end of this year in laboratory environments, but in 2019, we start to see real field trials take place."

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. The company has also hinted at the availability of mobile hotspot "pucks" to connect existing devices to AT&T's 5G network via Wi-Fi. 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.

Sprint has announced that it will roll out 5G to Los Angeles, Washington DC, Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Houston. The company plans to deploy "Massive MIMO" to LTE networks starting in April 2018, which Sprint markets as having "5G-like capabilities." While this will bring speed improvements to existing compatible devices, this is a transitional technology—it is not a deployment of 5G NR. Sprint will begin a true 5G NR deployment in early 2019 on the 2.5 GHz spectrum band.

T-Mobile USA announced a plan to roll out 5G to 30 cities starting this year, with Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, and Dallas to have the service by 2019. Like Sprint, T-Mobile is claiming transitional Massive MIMO deployments as 5G, though T-Mobile's deployment is powered by Ericcson AIR 3246 modems, which support both 4G LTE and 5G NR. When smartphones with 5G NR capable modems are released, the true 5G capabilities of the Ericcson modems can be activated.

In Australia, Telstra has announced its 5G networking plans. Preparations are underway to operate a 5G test deployment in the Gold Coast for the Commonwealth Games in April 2018. The telecom plans to deploy 5G in major cities by the end of 2019, noting that the technology can be used to deliver wireless broadband to one million premises. Likewise, the National Broadband Network (NBN) company is investigating a possible purchase of 5G capable spectrum to bolster fixed wireless internet offerings.

Additional 5G tests and rollouts have occurred worldwide. Ericsson and Intel deployed a 5G connection to connect Tallink cruise ships to the Port of Tallinn in Estonia. Huawei and Intel demonstrated 5G interoperability tests at Mobile World Congress 2018. 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).

For consumer products, Huawei has announced 5G NR capable networking equipment powered by the Balong 5G01 chipset. The company touts it as being the first commercial 5G chipset, capable of download speeds up to 2.3 Gbps, utilizing both traditional (sub-6GHz) and millimeter-wave frequency bands. Similarly, Samsung announced that its 5G-based fixed wireless access hardware has gained FCC approval. ZTE indicated that 5G-enabled smartphones, tablets, and customer premises equipment is under development, and that it will launch devices in late 2018 or early 2019.

Intel announced a collaboration with Dell, HP, Lenovo, and Microsoft to bring 5G connectivity to Windows PCs with the Intel XMM 8000 series of 5G modems. The company also showcased the Xeon D-2100 processors intended for edge computing. In a statement to ZDNet, Intel GM of 5G Advanced Technologies Rob Topol said, "We do expect there to be significant growth in edge computing in the 5G era. This helps not only from a latency standpoint, but again in helping offload networks and just being more efficient with communication."

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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 Verizon Wireless President Ronan Dunne, 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 Writer for TechRepublic. Since 2013, he has been a regular contributor to TechRepublic and Tech Pro Research.

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