At the European Conference on Networks and Communications (EuCNC 2017) in Oulu, Finland this week, 5G technical and policy experts from across Europe are meeting to discuss the remaining open issues with the imminent 5G communications standard before its ratification in 2018.
The fifth-generation mobile networks (5G) standards represent the next generation of mobile telephony subsequent to the current 4G LTE technology now prevalent in mobile devices around the globe. Public 5G networks are set to launch at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, with commercial rollout in 2020, leading to full market penetration by 2025.
With the 5G standards nearing ratification, the current state of the art consists of scattered 5G-like deployments around the world, as well as 5G test networks – most notably in Oulu, this small city in northern Finland a short distance from the Arctic Circle.
Yet, while the standards themselves are nearing completion, there remain several relatively minor areas of contention, as priorities differ across Europe, the US, and Asia. Working out these remaining issues is largely the focus of attention at the EuCNC conference.
The greater challenge surrounding 5G, however, is understanding the disruptive nature of the technology. Given the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), 5G is well-positioned to be the standards framework for global communications platforms that support real-time interactions with IoT sensors and devices at massive scale.
5G: Platform, not Protocol
In fact, the 5G standards operate at a set of different frequencies, each representing a different balance of speed and latency characteristics. Part of the 5G story, therefore, is how our mobile phones will communicate up to 100 times faster – allowing for downloads of high-definition movies in a matter of a few seconds.
The rest of the story, however, is how other frequencies support the low-latency requirements of real-time IoT applications like autonomous vehicles and automated factory equipment.
The combination of these capabilities, therefore, means that 5G is more than a set of protocols. “5G is completely different from 4G, because it’s a platform, in particular in the IoT area,” explains Pearse O’Donohue, acting director for Future Networks at DG CONNECT, European Commission. “Partners see 5G as ‘4G on speed,’ which it is not.”
In fact, speed – what experts refer to as extreme mobile broadband – forms one corner of a triangle of 5G benefits. The other corners: massive machine-type communication, supporting, for example, smart cities, and critical machine-type communication, which must support real-time interactions like for autonomous vehicles and factory equipment control.
Speed is useful for downloading large files quickly and accessing rich streaming media like video, but low latency is more important than speed for many IoT applications that fall into the third corner of the triangle.
Today, for example, a request over 4G may require a few dozen milliseconds for a response, while with 5G, that number should be below three milliseconds, or even as little as one millisecond.
If your autonomous vehicle is waiting for instructions from the cloud, those few milliseconds might be the difference between life and death. “The difference between 4G and 5G is half a car length,” says Peter Vetter, Head of Fixed Networks Research Lab at Bell Labs.
Low latency is a requirement for augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) applications as well. VR in particular has struggled to gain a foothold in the market because of latency issues, as noticeable delays can lead to vertigo, the bane of the VR industry. 5G promises to resolve such problems.
The Transformative Business Context for 5G
Describing the disruptive business benefits of 5G is itself a challenge for the 5G experts at the EuCNC conference, as people simply haven’t come up with most innovative uses of the technology. The best today’s experts can promise, therefore, is the potential of disruptive business models.
One current worry, therefore, is that initial 5G efforts will be overly tentative. “There needs to be an industry push for more innovative 5G architecture,” says Antje Williams, Executive Program Manager for 5G for . “If the focus of 5G was only on speed for the consumer, it wouldn’t be cost-effective.”
The innovative architecture Williams has in mind actually goes beyond the 5G protocols themselves to more of an end-user focus. “As a consumer, I want the best connection where I am. The decision should be made by the network,” Williams explains. “The closest point needs to transport data as much over fiber as possible.”
In other words, whatever device the user is interacting with – whether it be a smartphone or any one of a plethora of IoT devices, from household appliances to stoplights – should automatically be able to communicate over the best medium for the job, even if that medium is fiber.
Other policy and technology experts echoed Williams’ sentiments. “5G, IoT, and AI will make big changes in business and in every corner of life,” says Pekka Soini, Director General and CEO of Tekes, a leading source of investment funding for Finnish technology companies. “The challenge is how to combine the technology with new digital platforms.”
The broader vision for 5G, therefore, is empowering digital platforms that support a vast variety of communications needs well beyond our smartphones – as well as business applications outside of telecommunications. “5G and 5G policy is about all sectors of the economy,” The European Commission’s O’Donohue adds, “even sectors who don’t identify themselves as technology.”
As long as 5G achieves its promised end-user focus, furthermore, such digital platforms will align with enterprise digital transformation priorities, opening up new areas of disruptive innovation for enterprises across every vertical. If you thought today’s digital technologies were disruptive, just wait until 5G takes hold. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Intellyx publishes the Agile Digital Transformation Roadmap poster, advises companies on their digital transformation initiatives, and helps vendors communicate their agility stories. As of the time of writing, none of the organizations mentioned in this article are Intellyx customers. Image credit: Jason Bloomberg.