Never in the history of the mobile phone has there been so much hype about a new technology than there is with 5G. Mobile phone operators, handset manufacturers and equipment vendors are all competing to be the first to achieve something groundbreaking with the technology. The stakes are high – the mobile industry desperately needs 5G for new revenue sources, market share and an engine to drive growth.
Since mobile phones first appeared in the mid-1980s, the industry has launched several new ‘generations’ of network and technology. Those early analogue ‘brick’ phones of the 1980s were replaced by the 2G (1990s) GSM, digital and international roaming service. 3G (2000s) offered improved internet connectivity before 4G (2010s) delivered a truly broadband experience into our hands.
5G is now the fifth generation, which comes with massively enhanced data capability (downloading an HD movie in less than a minute), but focusing on its speed alone is to miss the point of its significance.
Truly Next Generation
It is simply not sustainable to keep launching a new technology every 10 years or so. There is licence fee to pay for new radio frequency spectrum bands, new network infrastructure to build, and an increase in the management costs associated with integrating new technology with existing infrastructure – while keeping all of the other previous generations of network operational.
So, what’s so special about 5G? Capacity and coverage won’t be immediately there but more of both is expected in due course. For the user, 5G speeds will be a big draw, with quoted figures ranging from 100Mbps to 20Gbps (that’s up to a thousand times faster than 4G).
Naturally, this is being delivered in direct response to our seemingly insatiable appetite for more and more online content and, especially, video. But 5G won’t only revolutionise mobile handsets; it could also be an alternative way of providing broadband internet access to homes via Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) (which employs wireless mobile network technology rather than fixed lines).
Then there is the delay, or latency, which defines the responsiveness of the network. For 4G, this is currently around 40 milliseconds. 5G, however, could reduce the latency to 10 milliseconds for enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) applications. This could be critical for the useful development of specialist applications such as virtual reality and connected and self-driving vehicles, where even small delays can make a big difference.
Higher frequencies and new MIMO antenna technology will enable better coverage and more capacity. This will ensure a consistent user experience. Improved coverage is also critical for the functioning of the Internet of Things whereby a massive number of sensors, embedded systems and devices will need to be wirelessly interconnected for data sharing.
Technology supported by 5G will also allow operators to offer different types of services to different groups over the same network but in a better and more managed way. This future-proofs the infrastructure by creating a service-orientated network, which can evolve rather than having to be continually replaced with a new one, eliminating the need for a 6G and allowing previous network generations to be decommissioned.
Progress towards 5G has been rapid. Originally intended for commercial launch in 2020, 5G is already a year ahead of schedule. The first formal standards were approved in December 2017 and handsets are set to emerge this year. UK operators have announced commercial launch dates for mid-2019 onwards. But the pace of rollout will be driven primarily by demand, and given the huge investments in 4G and earlier generation networks, 5G has to be paid for with real revenue.
Making it Pay
The benefits of 5G come with a hefty price tag. In April 2018, UK mobile operators spent £1.1 billion on licence fee for access to the newly released 3.4GHz radio frequencies and each is pledging several billions of investment to build the new 5G service. And all of this before any revenue starts to flow back into the industry.
So how can the service effectively be monetised? And the problem is that 4G is good enough for most mobile customers. Given that most of the benefits of 5G to the operators are either hidden or of little direct benefit to everyday users, what value can be placed on simply having even higher download speeds?
The success of 5G will, therefore, depend on operators and their partners developing new markets that look beyond traditional consumers of mobile services. It may start with higher capacity for today’s services such as video, or improved functionality for tailored networks for campuses or business sites.
Ultimately, however, the investors will have to think big – and look to industries behind connected vehicles, the Internet of Things and the other major technologies of the future.
(The author is Professor, Computer Networking and Telecommunications, University of Salford. www.theconversation.com)
Getting it right in India
In India, 5G deployment strategy faces conflicting considerations. If we go for early adoption, the equipment is likely to be more expensive and being early, it will also be glitchy, needing costly maturing. On the other hand, early adoption will fast-track the country’s embrace of 5G’s benefits and increase opportunities to develop innovative use cases that support Indian needs. Balancing these conflicts needs study.
A 5G High Level Forum was set up by the government in September 2017 to articulate the Vision for 5G in India and to recommend policy initiatives and action plans to realise this vision. A steering committee was created with seven task forces on spectrum policy, regulatory policy, education and awareness promotion programme among others. It submitted its report on August 23, 2018.
The government has also launched a three-year programme ‘Building an End-to-End 5G Test Bed’ last March to advance innovation and research in 5G. Being carried out by IIT Hyderabad, IIT Delhi, IIT Kanpur, CEWiT (Centre of Excellence in Wireless Technology at IIT Madras), Society for Applied Microwave Electronics Engineering and Research (SAMEER) and IISc, Bangalore, its goal is to build proof-of-concept 5G prototypes that are broadly compliant with the 3GPP standards.
Hyderabad-based IDRBT is working on leveraging 5G to augment banking technology applications.
Ericsson installed the first public access 5G test bed at IIT Delhi in July 2018 for developing applications in the broadband and low latency areas providing access to the industry and institutions to work on India specific usage scenarios and applications.
(5G Steering Committee report, Department of Telecom, Government of India)