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The Current State of 5G Deployments

The Current State of 5G Deployments

Fully harnessing the power of 5G, the fifth generation of mobile networks, is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation. 5G’s game-changing performance is due to its ability to run over radio frequencies in higher parts of the spectrum than is supported by today’s 3G and 4G networks. However, it will cost billions of dollars for telcos to pay for spectrum bands and build the cell towers and antennas needed to scale 5G networks, and consumers won’t be able to use these networks until they buy devices that can connect to 5G’s sub-6 GHz and mmWave frequencies. In other words, until 5G infrastructure is widely available, consumers won’t be motivated to buy 5G devices, and until more people are using 5G devices, there’s no reason to scale 5G infrastructure. In order to obtain the game-changing effects of 5G, either carriers or manufacturers will need to take a big leap of faith.

Enter the iPhone 12, available in just a few days. Over the next year and a half, 50 million of these 5G-ready devices will hit the market, all equipped with mmWave radios currently only available in limited use via high-end devices from other manufacturers. As a result, the iPhone 12 will be able to access not only 5G’s sub-6GHz (mid-band), but mmWave (high-band) spectrum--allowing for more simultaneous users, larger amounts of data, and significantly faster speeds. By supporting all spectrum bands, Qualcomm’s 5G modems are designed for data transmission rates of 20 Gbps and download speeds of 7.5 Gbps. Verizon states that when fully mature, 5G will have latency under 5 milliseconds and the ability to manage over a million devices per square kilometer.

The Current State of 5G Deployments

Apple’s investment in mmWave 5G devices will provide a huge motivation for carriers to scale mmWave 5G infrastructure, enabling an explosion of innovation in virtual reality, artificial intelligence, IoT devices, and other applications. In today’s blog post, we’ll take a look at the current state of 5G networks, new and emerging 5G use cases, and how Edge Computing enables 5G adoption and performance.

5G Deployments

While Apple’s forthcoming iPhone 12 will dramatically increase the number of 5G-ready devices, the projections for its sales are just the tip of the iceberg. Qualcomm President Cristiano Amon recently predicted that in 2022, over 750 million smartphones will ship, and by 2023, the number of 5G connections may be over 1 billion. By 2025, that number will more than double.

To support this explosion of 5G devices, carriers worldwide are already beginning to ramp up their 5G infrastructure. Over 90 network operators in over 40 countries are now adopting 5G, with another 300 investing in future deployments. The strategies for deploying and scaling this technology varies, however. 5G networks are capable of running on frequencies in the low-, mid- (sub-6GHz), and high-band (mmWave) spectrum. Although mmWave is capable of significantly higher speed and capacity, it is extremely susceptible to interference and has limited range. In order to scale networks that can run on these frequencies, carriers will need to spend vastly more building out its infrastructure. As a result, some companies are focusing on the sub-6 GHz spectrum, which allows for wide reach while still obtaining significantly higher speeds than 4G networks.

In the U.S., two carriers, T-Mobile and Verizon, are leading the way with 5G infrastructure. Focusing on the 2.5 GHz spectrum, T-Mobile is now delivering mid-band 5G to over 400 cities across the country. On the other hand, Verizon is investing in low-, mid-, and mmWave spectrum 5G with its Ultra Wide-Band 5G Home Internet, now available in 12 cities. This comes at a particularly exciting time, as Verizon recently partnered with Ericsson and Qualcomm, using mmWave spectrum to achieve data rates of 5.06 Gbps--about 50 times the top speeds of 4G networks.

Worldwide, South Korea was the first to make 5G networks commercially available in April 2019 via all three of its carriers, who have been aggressively promoting 5G to consumers ever since. As a result, South Korea now has over 8.5 million subscribers and expects to reach 10 million by the end of the year. As of July, South Korea’s telcos have deployed approximately 115,000 base stations across the country and agreed to invest the equivalent of $22 billion over the next two years to build out their infrastructure in cities and expand coverage to another 85 districts. The telcos’ enormous investment is made possible in part by tax credits and other tax reductions awarded to them as part of South Korea’s “Digital New Deal.” The government also auctioned spectrum for significantly cheaper than other countries and enabled telcos to use a shared deployment model, allowing for faster, wider, and cheaper deployment of 5G networks.

Other countries across the world are also ramping up their 5G efforts. As of September, China has 690,000 base stations and 160 million subscribers--a base that is quickly growing. In just the third quarter of this year alone, 44 million users subscribed to the 5G services of China’s largest operator, China Mobile. In South Africa, the government awarded temporary mid-band spectrum to Vodacom to establish the nation’s first 5G mobile network as a means of enhancing mobile service during the Covid-19 pandemic; they plan to auction additional spectrum in 2021. India’s Department of Telecommunications is also expected to auction spectrum in early 2021, and will partner with Nokia and Ericsson to use their equipment in 5G trials.

Development of 5G Use Cases

Because 5G promises speed and capacity that’s so much greater than previous generations of wireless networks, much of the innovation that it will enable won’t even be conceivable until networks are more widely available. However, current deployments of 5G and using edge computing to enhance 4G networks have given us a glimpse into what use cases 5G might enable. Broadly speaking, 5G services result in technological advances in three different types of communication: extreme mobile broadband, massive machine-to-machine communication (mMTC), and Critical IoT. We’ll take a look at examples of each in this section.

Extreme mobile broadband (eMBB) will provide users with enhanced experiences in gaming, shopping, and accessing media. Users will not only be able to download media faster, but stream it more seamlessly, anytime and anywhere. Virtual reality will be significantly improved with less lag time that allows for a more realistic experience, and augmented reality experiences will allow for more personalization, in retail and other locations, such as stadiums. In South Korea, current 5G stadium deployments have already enabled a more immersive experience at sporting events, where fans can access real-time statistics simply by pointing their phones at players, or use VR headsets to watch the game streaming from multiple angles. During concerts, the popular application LG U + Idol Live allows fans to watch from home as if they were sitting in the theater or practice dance moves as if they were onstage with performers.

In addition to personal mobile device use, 5G will enable mMTC: ubiquitous connectivity and communication between huge numbers of devices that have no complex hardware or software. This is the case with the many sensors and cameras used in smart cities to monitor and manage traffic lights, waste collection, utilities, and environmental conditions. In smart agriculture, an array of wireless IoT devices can be used for livestock monitoring or precision elimination of weeds and problematic plants--allowing for fewer pesticides and healthier products. One such use case has already been tested on potatoes and sugar beets in the Netherlands using 5G, autonomous robots, and AI hosted on a smart edge platform.

In contrast to mMTC, which is about wide coverage with low cost and efficient energy use, Critical IoT covers devices and applications with stringent latency and reliability requirements, such as autonomous driving. For autonomous driving or future possibilities such as remote surgery, avoiding interruptions in connectivity and ensuring millisecond-level latency could literally be a matter of life and death. In Peachtree, GA, deploying 5G has allowed the city to not only develop a 1.5 mile test track for self-driving cars, but create a fleet of teleoperated scooters that drive themselves to riders’ requested locations as well as pull themselves upright and clear themselves off of sidewalks after a trip is over.

Azion: Enabling 5G Deployment through Edge Computing

As more 5G-enabled devices are rolled out and 5G use cases are developed, the two biggest challenges to widespread adoption are the costs involved in scaling 5G networks and maximizing the performance capabilities of these networks. Azion provides crucial support in overcoming these challenges by helping service providers virtualize their infrastructure edge and implement Multi-Access Edge Computing.

As discussed in our last post, one of the biggest expenses in deploying 5G is the cost of Radio Access Networks (RAN). Network functions are traditionally embedded inside expensive proprietary hardware. Using proprietary hardware forces service providers to lock in to a specific vendor, potentially driving costs even further. In helping providers virtualize their infrastructure, Azion allows service providers to replace proprietary hardware with software that can run on hardware from any vendor, making RAN cheaper to build and easier to scale. As a result, providers can save over 70% of what they would spend on legacy solutions.

In addition to overcoming the expense of scaling infrastructure, service providers must face another challenge in building 5G networks: delivering on performance. Unreliable or underperforming networks could hinder 5G adoption, creating something of a Catch-22 for service providers who are still building out their network infrastructure. Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) provides an answer to this dilemma by enhancing the capabilities of 5G networks. While the fifth generation of wireless networks essentially provides a wider, faster highway for data to travel on, MEC shortens the distance data has to travel. By moving computing capabilities to the edge of the network, MEC provides another way for service providers to decrease latency and increase capacity. This can not only fuel 5G adoption by improving service as 5G infrastructure is built out, but allow mature networks to fully deliver on the capabilities of 5G, enabling its ultra-low-latency, high reliability use cases.

Ultimately, transferring data to and from centralized networks and cloud providers is slow, costly, and inefficient--three big problems for the low-latency, high-throughput applications that 5G will enable. Overcoming these problems will be key to successfully deploying 5G, making MEC an important enabler of the next generation of wireless networks. In our next post, we’ll dive further into MEC by breaking down its architecture and discussing its role in achieving 5G performance parameters.