5G: How the Industry is Preparing

5G is the talk of the town. There is no denying it. While its outlines are still blurry, one thing seems clear: important changes are coming. But could the true digital revolution really have yet to arrive? How far will 5G push Artificial Intelligence? How big can Big Data get? What about the Internet of Things? With a rollout planned for 2020, the industry has its work cut out for it.

Defining 5G

Mobile distributors are still struggling to clearly illustrate 5G, a term that simply refers to the fifth generation of mobile networks. Our current understanding of 5G is based on criteria relating to its features and requirements as established by particular authorities. According to the NGMN’s (Next Generation Mobile Network) 5G White Paper (2015), 5G connections must be based on “user experience, system performance, enhanced services, business models and management & operations”. The GSMA (Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association) crunched the numbers: 5G will be 10 to 100 times faster than 4G, have 1000 times the data volume, it will reduce latency by 5 times, have batteries 10 to 100 times more efficient and offer the perception of 100% coverage.

Infrastructure to build

While a number of international research groups and public-private partnerships are working to develop the technology surrounding 5G, the industry has begun to set up the infrastructure necessary to host it. We can expect a significant change in scenery. The huge relay-antennas around city limits are likely not going anywhere for some time. However, millions of miniature antennas will be added to the network, scattered increasingly within the urban environment: on lamp posts, park benches, street lights. These small cells will be part of a heterogeneous network that will become denser and denser while being massively converted to MIMO (Multiple-Input Multiple-Output). By simultaneously transmitting and receiving signals, this technology reinforces the signal and cuts on interference. Meanwhile, operations are expected to become increasingly virtualized and consolidated in centralized data centers. However, to optimize resources, providers will also have to convert many of their existing technologies to new standards.

Made to measure for tomorrow

Some users may be surprised to hear of this new generation of mobile networks so soon. It is true that, with its rocky rollout, many people have only recently gained access to 4G. The fact remains that today, an individual can load a web page on a mobile phone in less that half a second. With this technology in hand, it is reasonable for one to wonder why the switch to 5G is necessary. The truth is, the fifth generation is not designed for today’s needs. It is meant to enable the technology of tomorrow.

The promises surrounding 5G are far-reaching. We can expect significantly augmented speed. Considering the exponential rise of demand in mobile data, this is no surprise. However, the fifth generation of mobile networks cannot simply fulfil today’s needs. It must anticipate. It must enable a new wave of technological innovations. This being said, all eyes are fixed upon the Internet of Things. 5G is seen as the key to its fulfilment, the way for us to truly connect everything. Today, we speak of smart homes. Soon, we could know of smart cities, where virtual reality and autonomous cars are part of everyday life. This is where 5G proves its worth: while it will certainly be enviable for a user to download films on a phone in a few seconds, this technology will be indispensable to the millions of communicating smart cars.

Expectations & Reality

It is clear to all major players of the industry that 5G will not rely on one grand technological innovation. It will exist as an organic ensemble that will soon reach the maturity to support our ambitions. The flexibility of this definition leaves room for all kinds of speculation. However, if we look back at the way previous generations were rolled out, we can see that these  transitions are often more complex than we predict. The current hype surrounding 5G may be blurring our memory and creating unrealistic expectations. Jonah Wiberg, CTO of the Vodafone Group, expressed it this way: “I’m worried that people think [5G] is going to be gigabit speeds for everyone and solving all problems including world hunger”. Meanwhile, 4G continues its development, and previous generations maintain interesting specific functions, like a much wider coverage that is well adapted to devices which require only limited bandwidth. Therefore, by combining the 5G rollout with these well-established technologies, we can hope for a smooth transition to a technology that would, eventually, reach the height of our ambitions.