Specs and standards: What is the deal with 5G, anyway?

(c)iStock.com/Filippo Bacci

It seems just a short while ago when 4G networks were rolled out, with mobile carriers making a lot of fanfare about the new technology and the promised increases in performance. Back then we were reading about the first ground-breaking 4G enabled phones and also a certain actor promoting it in the UK as the best thing since sliced bread!  

4G access is a commodity now. We sit up and take notice if our phones aren’t connecting to the network at that sweet 4G speed. 3G, H+ (or whatever symbols appear at the top of your phone) are now also-rans. The great thing about 4G is in most ways, it has lived up to the hype - throughputs faster than DSL, and latency to permit real time applications such as video calls to really shine. I’ve seen occasions where I will be sitting in a meeting, and someone will actually pull out a 4G Mi-Fi hotspot and use that instead of the building Wi-Fi as it’s just faster and easier to get things done with. 

For now it seems that we have our bandwidth and latency prayers answered with 4G. Of course, a time will come when we outgrow 4G for day to day applications and that technology will be viewed as sluggish and unresponsive.  

So what is the deal with 5G and what is it going to deliver? The first answer is naturally there will be more speed and less latency. However, to roll out a new mobile standard simply for that purpose is counter-productive. Unlike Jeremy Clarkson, we can’t just yell out to apply more “POWER!”, and be sitting on a new standard. 

At the moment the various bodies putting together the 5G standard, the IEEE, ITU, 3GPP, universities, corporates, are still trying to figure out what we actually need by the end of the decade. And then they have to figure out what is going to service us the decade after that, well into the 2030s. 

The 5G specification thus far roughly includes: 

  • Downlink throughput of 1Gbps, with multi gigabit capability in the future 
  • Latency of less than a millisecond 
  • Lower energy consumption than current devices 

This is great news for for those bandwidth hungry applications, as expected data usage keeps growing. New “Everything-as-a-service” technologies will be welcomed on 5G as our home and work lives continue to move into the cloud. For example, consumer level devices, such as VR video streaming, require a much higher bandwidth to deliver a true VR experience and this will be reflected in much higher resolutions and frame rates that need to be streamed from the cloud.  

However the challenge for a 5G standard also comes from another angle, with a rather different set of requirements: the Internet of Things (IoT). In an IoT environment the vast majority of devices will still be smart sensors, where the latency or throughput is a secondary priority to other factors. The 5G standard should also be able to integrate billions of IoT devices seamlessly. 

This could see the standard and what we perceive as the typical SIM card/device relationship to take a different direction. Not just in terms of embedded SIMs - but other factors. Can 5G support or replace a narrowband, low power technology like SigFox or LoRA? How will they be able to offer something which can do multiple gigabit throughput on a sky-high frequency while allowing a low level constant chatter from billions of endpoints - with all the features to effectively manage that? 

We don't have all the answers yet, but the next few years will prove very interesting to see what the boffins come up with, as the first 5G networks are expected to come online by 2020 - just three and a half years away.

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