What Does 5G Have to Offer?


7 min reading time

Visual representation of 5G wireless

To support a more connected future, including smart cities and autonomous cars, we need a high-performing wireless infrastructure. So where are we at with 5G?

The Gs Explained

First, let’s back up and look at what the ‘G’ in 4G actually means (you can skip this part if you’re already familiar).

‘G’ stands for a generation of wireless technology.  1G tech was rolled out in the 1980s, and used good old-fashioned analog radio signals.

  • The max speed of 1G is 2.4 Kbps.

2G, initially introduced in Finland in 1991, represented a major break, since it pushed cell technology from analogue to digital. The shift brought about new features like call and text encryption, SMS, adding pictures to messages, and MMS.

  • The max speed of 2G via General Packet Radio Service (GPRS) is 50 Kbps, or 1 Mbps with Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution (EDGE).

The next generation, 3G, introduced in 1998, enabled data transmission to go much faster, allowing new use cases like mobile video streaming or calling.

  • The max speed of 3G is around 2 Mbps for stationary devices and 384 Kbps in moving vehicles.

4G technology, introduced in 2008, again essentially enabled new use cases that required faster downloading speeds, like gaming services, HD mobile TV, video conferencing, and 3D TV.

  • The max speed of a 4G network for a moving device is 100 Mbps, or 1 Gbps for slow movement like when someone is walking or standing still.
Graphic explaining wireless tech evolution

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) gives you an idea of how powerful each generation of wireless technology has been in terms of download speeds. Image Source

 So, What Will be Different With 5G?

5G is less about being able to stream Netflix really quickly than about creating an infrastructure backbone for connected cars and connected devices everywhere.”

Fast Company

First off, we need to be clear that there isn’t yet an official definition for 5G. But everyone agrees that its being designed with IoT and smart cities in mind – especially autonomous cars, smart homes, wearables, and augmented reality devices.  The idea is to create a powerful, flexible wireless infrastructure, anchored via smaller-sized cells distributed in homes and offices, versus the current reliance on large, sweeping cell towers.

This infrastructure needs to outperform 4G in terms of capacity, lowered latency and flexibility to bring about enough change for innovative connected device use cases. The definition for a stand-alone 5G network will therefore be more about performance standards and less about it’s technological components. After all, in a (near) future where homes will be equipped with connected appliances, and in which people drive to work in autonomous cars decked out in wearable objects, 5G will be a key underlying component.

Chart explaining future of 5G

The ITU projects what 5G will bring users, and the technical hurdles that will have to be overcome first. Image Source

What 5G will most certainly have:

  • Lower latency (1 millisecond?)
  • Faster speeds (20Gbps?)
  • Air interface with greater flexibility
  • Massive capacity
  • OFDM encoding (similar to LTE)

 And 5G will most likely:

  • Transmit data over unlicensed frequencies (currently used for wifi)
  • Exploit networks of small cells, rather than big cell towers, to provide up to a million connections per square kilometer
  • Have always-on capabilities
  • Have higher energy efficiency

The 2016 5G Operator Survey, carried out by the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA), sums 5G up in the following way:

5G heralds a unified network architecture optimized to support agile business models, diverse applications, and wireless connectivity demands needed for emerging mobile solutions. To achieve this, 5G needs to be a “chameleon” technology that can adapt to differing demands of wireless services — whether to support high bandwidth, low latency, bursty traffic, ultra-reliable services, or a combination of these capabilities.”

Whether 5G will revolutionize your world will depend on if these performance standards can be achieved, if the accompanying IoT technology that 5G is being designed for is all that attractive, and ultimately what type of media you consume.

If you know your way around the telecom industry and want some more details, you can check out the TIA’s webinar below, 5G Operator Survey Results: “5G Needs to Be a Chameleon Technology” (March 2017)

Who Decides on 5G Standards?

The 5G standards are still a work in progress.  It will be the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), also known as the International Mobile Telecommunications (IMT)-2020 that will have the final say.  However, mobile operators and vendors will obviously be able to participate.  They are free to submit specification suggestions to a mobile industry standards body called the 3GPP, who will submit a proposal to the ITU on behalf of the IMT-2020 standard.

What About AT&T’s 5G Evolution Network?

There is a bit of confusion as to when 4G service ends and 5G service begins, partially because some aspects of 5G can initially be deployed in a 4G framework.  Specifically, AT&T is playing fast and loose with their branding, announcing a ‘5G Evolution’ network, which in reality is their brand for gigabit LTE. This is a slightly optimized version of 4G LTE, which is slated to be rolled out by all major US carriers this year.

It’s very important to say that 5G hasn’t been standardized yet,” cautions Watson. “There will be some pre-5G deployment — operators saying, ‘We’ve used this spectrum to offer slightly-higher bandwidth services, and we’re going to call this 5G.’ This happens with every new technology… it’s just marketing spin.”

Julian Watson, Senior Principal Analyst for IoT at IHS Markit in ITU News (June 2017)

 Do We Really Need 5G?

This depends on who you ask.  Some are convinced, as outlined above, that 5G is critical to underpinning the burgeoning IoT, with its increased capacity, speed and flexibility. As Houlin Zhao, the ITU Secretary‑General, explained in the Forging Paths to 5G report,

Better health care, smarter cities, vastly more efficient manufacturing are all being made possible as the “Internet of Things” era gathers pace with an array of innovative solutions that are powering our modern economy. But none of these things can reach their full potential without 5G networks. Indeed, smart 5G systems will soon be essential to meet the data-intensive demands of billions of people who are using ever-growing amounts of video daily.”

Others, however, don’t expect to see many changes to their current use cases, as the TIA discovered in their survey:

For enhanced broadband services, 56 percent of respondents believed use cases will be significantly transformed. However the remaining 43 percent of respondents were less optimistic or uncertain. Only 30 percent of respondents believed that machine-type communications will be significantly transformed by 5G, and 50 percent expected that ultra-reliable and ultra-low latency services will be not be significantly transformed by 5G.”

Is Security an issue?

Awareness of security risks is increasing.  The worry isn’t so much about 5G itself but about the services it’s enabling.  With the IoT use cases projected for 5G, there will be many more entries into the network, and therefore that many more angles of potential attack.  The autonomous vehicle use case is particularly vulnerable. 

What’s the Timeline?

The original announcement was for an official 5G rollout in 2019-2020.  However, carriers and equipment manufacturers agreed on an accelerated schedule, planning on a few initial launches in 2018 and broad deployment in 2019.

Many operators are already testing or are planning to test 5G in the upcoming months, even though the standardization process is still underway.  These tests will help determine the kinds of service that will eventually be deployed during the official rollout, and pre-standard 5G launches by specific markets (Australia, China, Japan, Korea, and the U.S.), have been strategically chosen by nation states. They stand to gain a competitive advantage, especially by increasing a soft power influence by showing off 5G capabilities at major events like the Winter Olympics in South Korea (February 2018) and the FIFA World Cup in Russia (June/July 2018).

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Resources for further reading:

Forging Paths to 5G (ITU News Magazine)

5G Operator Survey 2017 (TIA)

5G: Stop, Collaborate & Transition (InterDigital)

Next Generation Protocols – Market Drivers and Key Scenarios (ETSI)