It’s no secret that the growing prevalence and sophistication of mobile devices has transformed everyday life. Just a few decades ago, movies could only be viewed in theaters or at home, maps were physical objects you kept in your car’s glove box, and video chatting was the stuff of science fiction. Now, anyone who can’t download Netflix, Google Maps, and Zoom on their phone is practically a Luddite. However, as wireless devices become more widespread and sophisticated, they will require additional bandwidth, quality, and network availability—which is exactly what 5G was designed to deliver.
5G, the fifth-generation mobile network, is key to the digital revolution, providing the infrastructure that will support the recent explosion of connected devices. With its widespread deployment, user experiences will be dramatically improved. New apps and devices will arise, enabled by AI, VR, and other emerging tech sectors. Businesses will see new opportunities for growth and collaboration across industries. In order to fully understand these possibilities, let’s take a look at how 5G works, what its capabilities are, and how it’s being deployed and scaled.
Evolution of Mobile Technology and Architecture
First-generation networks arose in the 1980s, with 1G enabling analog mobile voice communication. In the 1990s, 2G gave rise to digital voice communications, bringing mobile phones to reach billions of users and enabling early text communications. By the 2000s, 3G shifted the focus of mobile communications to data transmission by bringing the wireless Internet to smartphones and making texting ubiquitous on mobile devices. In the past decade, 4G allowed for the widespread adoption of mobile broadband and enabled high-definition mobile TV, video conferencing, and the rise of IoT. The widespread adoption of 5G will usher in the age of massive IoT, ultra-reliable low-latency communications, and extreme mobile broadband.
These advancements between network generations were made possible by differences in architecture and technology. 3G systems were based on CDMA, a cellular technology that assigns each data or voice packet a code, scrambles it over a wide frequency spectrum, and reconstructs the code at the receiving end, allowing for multiple users on the same frequency. A different technology, OFDM, was used in 4G to achieve higher throughput. It divides bandwidth into overlapping subchannels, which are arranged orthogonally to avoid interfering with each other.
With 5G, OFDM is enhanced with NR, a new radio access technology for cellular networks. With NR, the radio waves used to convert voice into digital signals and send and receive data are sent across two frequency ranges: FR1 and FR2. FR1 uses frequencies of 6 GHz and below. This includes low-band frequencies of under 1 GHz used by broadcast radio and television as well as the mid-band spectrum typically embraced by Wi-Fi and mobile networks. FR2 includes bands in the millimeter wavelength (mmWave) range, resulting in huge improvements in bandwidth. By allowing for both frequency ranges, NR combines the wide connectivity of mid- and low-bands with the very high data rates enabled by mmWave.
Benefits of 5G over 4G
The optimization of previous architecture and incorporation of new technology creates considerable advantages for 5G over 4G. Although 4G networks are about 500 times faster than 3G networks, their transmission rates are measured in Mbps—5G’s expansion into the mmWave spectrum allows for up to 20 Gbps peak data rates. It will also feature a 10x decrease in end-to-end latency and allow for a 100x increase in traffic capacity. Finally, a more unified platform will allow for more diversity in deployment models and new ways to interconnect.
These benefits will result in dramatic changes in the way both users and businesses interact with technology. Coverage will improve, networks will be more reliable, and user spikes will be handled much more smoothly, resulting in a more uniform user experience. Businesses will be able to scale their technology initiatives and deploy new business models, fueled by machine-to-machine communication and the ability to process huge amounts of data.
Economic Impact and 5G Use Cases
A recent study by Qualcomm noted that the 5G value chain could support up to 22.3 million jobs, and by 2035, generate as much as $13.2 trillion in goods and services. This is because 5G’s impact goes significantly beyond traditional mobile stakeholders to a variety of industries.
In the health-care industry alone, real-time monitoring, massive data transmissions, and faster download speeds would revolutionize medicine. IoT devices can allow healthcare providers to remotely monitor patients, allowing for better preventative care and more accurate diagnoses. Transmitting huge amounts of data in real-time can also fuel AI-led treatment plans tailored to specific patients. Quick transmission of large imaging files like CT scans and MRIs can shorten patient wait times and allow providers to see more patients.
Elsewhere, 5G will transform the way we shop, travel, manufacture, and run our cities. It will allow retailers to incorporate augmented reality and facial recognition payment. The transportation industry will benefit from dynamic traffic rerouting and real-time monitoring, decreasing gridlock and allowing for improved emergency response times. In manufacturing, augmented reality will allow for more troubleshooting to decrease the costs of breakdowns and detect operational inefficiencies. The possibilities are endless.
5G Vendor Ecosystem
A growing 5G ecosystem is already beginning to emerge with vendors racing to adopt this game-changing technology. Mobile manufacturers Samsung, LG, and Motorola already sell 5G compatible phones; Google is currently working on a 5G version of the Pixel and 5G iPhones are expected to roll out later this year. In addition, over 30 equipment manufacturers, including Panasonic, Nokia, and Samsung, partnered with Qualcomm last year to launch 5G fixed wireless service, providing homes with an alternative to fiber, DSL, or cable Internet.
Building the infrastructure to support 5G is a massive undertaking that, in most areas, is still very much a work in progress. In the U.S., mobile carriers built their initial offerings on top of 4G and LTE networks, piggybacking on existing infrastructure. Although this allowed for some enhanced connectivity, it didn’t result in anything near the speeds 5G is capable of delivering. This led many to believe 5G was an overhyped technology, but as telecom carriers like T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon begin to roll out their own 5G networks in a growing number of cities, users can expect more speed and availability.
Open RAN: Fueling 5G Adoption
One of the challenges complicating the rollout of 5G is the costs associated with adoption. Perhaps the largest deployment cost of building a wireless network is RAN, or radio access networks. In a traditional RAN, the software is tightly coupled with expensive proprietary hardware that does not support interoperation between vendors.
Virtual RAN reduced some of these costs and added interoperability by replacing some of this hardware with proprietary software that runs on COTS servers, which can be purchased from any RAN vendor. Open RAN takes this a step further by completely decoupling hardware and software. Any software can run on the hardware, which can be purchased and assembled from any vendor. This eliminates the possibility of vendor “lock-in,” and makes deployment more modular, thus reducing deployment costs, increasing scalability, and facilitating supplier participation across global markets. As a result of these cost reductions, Rakuten Mobile was able to leverage Open RAN architecture to release its 5G service in Japan, adding 5G to customers’ existing plans with no additional fees.
This is not to say Open RAN is without challenges. Using multiple vendors and white-box architecture has the potential to reduce deployment costs, but can make it much harder to identify and fix issues within a network. Working with more than one vendor also creates potential headaches when addressing product-related performance issues, troubleshooting, and determining which vendors should take ownership of performance issues.
Addressing the communication challenges of Open RAN will require open standards—publicly available standards that facilitate the exchange of data between companies. Luckily, the industry is already moving in this direction. The Open RAN TIP group formed in 2018 to promote education and deployment of Open RAN among vendors, operators, and startups. The ORAN Alliance releases open-source software, provides support for testing and integration, and publishes RAN specifications, and united more than 160 mobile vendors, operators, and research institutions.
This is all part of a larger movement in tech toward open, non-proprietary technologies. The use of APIs—programming interfaces that allow apps to communicate and interact with each other—and open-source software is increasingly popular. This interoperability of highly diverse systems allows for more innovation, less waste, and faster time-to-market. By opening up their infrastructure, network and mobile operators are allowing customers to build and deploy applications in the last mile.
Edge Computing and 5G
Although the promises of 5G’s capabilities are enormous, it’s clear that we still have a long way to go in realizing its full potential and deploying it on a massive scale. This will be fueled in part by edge computing—a networking philosophy that brings computing as close as possible to the end-user. By running fewer processes in the cloud or data warehouses and more in mobile devices, IoT, or edge servers, data packets do not have to travel as far to and from users. These shorter trips will enhance 5G’s ability to achieve the lowest possible latency and reduce costs by allowing companies to send less data back and forth to the cloud.
Not only will edge computing allow 5G to deliver on ultra-low latency and make the transmission of huge amounts of data practical, but it will also help fuel the roll-out of 5G. Because edge computing enhances 4G’s capabilities, it can allow for an experience that’s closer to 5G, thus providing app developers with the ability to test and scale 5G apps even before 5G networks are deployed on a massive scale. The capabilities of these applications will drive demand for 5G, providing a powerful motivation for telcos to invest in and build out 5G infrastructure.
Because 5G has such unique capacities, it’s impossible to know what technological advancements will come from its widespread adoption. However, edge computing will accelerate this adoption and, as networks mature, enable 5G’s peak performance capabilities. Our next post in this series will discuss the current state of 5G networks in the U.S. and worldwide, the capabilities of these networks, and use cases that have already been enabled through current 5G deployments.