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Moving from 4G to 5G

A great deal of hype is out there, as vendors talk up the next development in mobile technology, known as 5G. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler made a good comparison. He said that one person looking at the paintings by the Master in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona sees a different picture to the person next to them. That’s what 5G is all about at the moment—a great picture with lots of different interpretations.

Korea is in the forefront of such developments, with companies such as Samsung working closely with telcos like Korea Telecom (KT) to test these new developments. China is not far behind, but Ericsson also has strong developments going on.

It came as no surprise that KT had a very interesting display on 5G at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Telstra, one of the global telco leaders in 3G and 4G, also made an announcement; it indicated that it had launched a 5-year plan to work with Ericsson on their 5G developments.

Looking at the larger mobile market to start off with, it is interesting to note that most of the world is still operating on 2G systems—and that 4G has only reached 7% penetration. While this sounds low, apparently the growth in 4G is happening faster than previous developments in 2G and 3G.

There are now 350 4G networks in operation and in the USA they account for 50% of the subscribers. Europe is set to reach that level in 2020 and China, which only launched 4G last year, already has 10% penetration—the fastest-growing market in the world. Overall impressive stats include that there are now 3.7 billion unique mobile subscribers in the world, who together have 7 billion SIM cards in use. There are 2.4 billion unique mobile broadband users, a figure that is set to grow to 3.8 billion by 2020.

There is also good news for those who are not yet connected. The majority of these people are living within existing mobile communications footprints. The main reason they are not yet connected is ‘affordability’, but with 2G handset prices now dropping to under the $20 mark and smartphones reaching the $50 mark this is set to change. Furthermore, universities in developing countries are leading a trend to make smartphones and tablets available to their students through low-cost loans, and other organisations are surely set to follow this trend.

Commercial 5G is expected to start to arrive around 2020, with full deployment towards the end of that decade. The engineers are still busily working on what the standard will have to include and this process is expected to take another five years to finalise.

  • 10-100 times current data rate for end users
  • 5x longer battery life
  • 1000x data capacity
  • 10-1000x more connected devices
  • Increased security and sustainability
  • Catering for 5 billion users

Network capacity, very low latency and very flexible spectrum possibilities are among the key technological elements of 5G and, similar to previous developments—which at that stage we called 2½G (with GPRS)—4G with LTE can be called 4½G or pre-5G, as a range of new applications are currently being introduced with technologies such as LTE-A(dvanced—Hetnet) and LTE-M(2M). They basically allow for applications such as extending the coverage (integrating WiFi spectrum), adding extra decibels (dB) to devices such as utility meters, which are often in cupboards or even underground, and increased capacity in density situations such as stadiums.

5G will do more of this, and better. And it will be more efficient. This is particularly relevant to the enormous growth in M2M devices—with predictions for 2020 expressed in Barcelona from 10 to 20 and even 50 billion devices.

Challenges of 5G

There are still significant issues that need to be addressed before 5G will reach maturity, not the least of which are the regulatory issues. It is unclear what 5G will do to WiFi. Will it start crowding out this space once it begins to encroach on it? What will be the effect on the massive number of free WiFi services that are now available around the world? Will unlicensed spectrum become licensed?

Another issue is that the success of 5G will have more to do with connected systems than with the 5G technology as such. 5G will involve a range of industry sectors and can only be successful if the applications are built in partnership and in collaboration with those sectors. This means that new business models will have to be introduced in order to develop this market.

5G also requires a very sophisticated cloud computing market, as the applications that can be created can’t be efficiently managed other than in the cloud. Security and privacy are key, as without them there will not be sufficient trust from companies (and their customers) to deploy new business models based on these high levels of connectivity and interconnectivity.

Also there are not yet regulations for M2M, and we already see some problems arriving with drones. What else is in the pipeline? Very serious and robust discussions will need to take place before M2M can reach its full potential—not to mention that there are still no standards for M2M, as we also reported in 2013 and again in 2014.

Network quality and priority issues were also discussed and a frequently mentioned example was ‘connected cars’. With autonomous driving applications starting to arrive in 2016 it is essential that split-second decisions can be made in milliseconds; otherwise serious accidents will happen. So how can such telecom traffic be prioritised within the concept of net neutrality?

Healthcare apps are another area where quality and priority is a key issue. Obviously solutions will be found, but nevertheless these are important issues that need to be sorted out.

One thing is certain. The capabilities of 5G will add a whole new dimension to what the mobile industry is all about, with more and more innovations moving to the edge of the network.

By Paul Budde, Managing Director of Paul Budde Communication

Paul is also a contributor of the Paul Budde Communication blog located here.

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