Taking a Critical Look at the Future of 5G

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Over the last several years we’ve heard 5G (or fifth generation cellular network) referred to in a variety of ways. “Revolutionary Technology.” “Next Step in Business Technology.” “The Holy Grail of Throughput.” As many of the biggest names in telecom start to roll out the first stages of their 5G deployment plans we’ve been getting a lot of questions from clients and colleagues about the veracity of claims regarding 5G’s significance and capabilities. The urgency around these questions has become even greater as businesses around the world try to get past the health crisis by embracing new technologies.

But after everything we’ve heard and seen we wanted to take a moment to separate fact from fiction, so expectations are kept in check, excitement’s rightly cultivated, and people can get a better sense of the opportunities this new technology can afford them. The truth is that most businesses should be wary of marketing around 5G, as in many cases the availability is limited and services labelled things like “5GE” are simply enhanced 4G/LTE with improved data rates. There is a tremendous amount to learn and know on this topic, but we’ll break down the essentials on what 5G is, how it’s deployed, and what it can mean to businesses going forward.


What Is 5G Technology?

Throughout all modern businesses there’s one constant that influences daily operations regardless of industry: access to data. More than 60% of workloads running in the cloud depend on access to cloud data and resources from anywhere and from different devices, creating a need for a mobile network to provide increased reliability along with high throughput. This is especially true in any industry that utilizes IoT devices or Cloud storage for application capabilities, which is to say “the majority of them.”

Cellular/Wireless internet revolutionized the way businesses and individuals incorporate computing into their daily operations and lives, but the technology that built the backbone of our wireless networks has long been outdated. Major service providers (SPs) are now finding they have to overhaul their backbone networks and migrate from legacy CDMA, GSM and even 4G networks to support increased demand and new capabilities.

Smart technologies and innovations depend on rapid data throughput that the current approach just isn’t equipped to provide, but before we explore 5G, it’s important to understand the history and evolution of cellular/wireless internet. Previous incarnations of the technology include:

  • “1G” – There is formally no such thing as “1G,” but it can be thought of as the very early voice-only technology. The “generation” name was introduced after “2G.”

  • “2G” – The world had a major upgrade when 2G was introduced. Communications technology went from analog to digital, with numerous enhancements within the architecture. When you think about the infrastructure there were two major networks: GSM and CDMA. GSM is earlier than CDMA, but CDMA was superior. Verizon and Sprint were CDMA, while ATT&T and T-Mobile were GSM networks. CDMA proved to be better at the time by allowing multiple calls to be transmitted at once. However, GSM evolved faster than CDMA and became more globally adopted because it was easier to swap SIMs between phones on a GSM network. With CDMA you would need access permission and activation from a carrier to swap phones.

    Side note: From an OSI model perspective, a cellular network functions similar to a wired network, but it has its own network stacks of protocols, packet forwarding, signaling, control mechanisms, and authentication. There’s no need to dive deep into the GSM or CDMA network stack because these two networks will be shut down by the end of 2020 and in 2021 only some 3G networks will be left for a time to be used for things like electric meters, vending machines, etc. But when you see things like GPRS and EDGE technologies, these are mechanisms built to forward packets within the cellular network, much like a layer 3 routing protocol.

  • “3G” – With the third generation more enhancements came to GSM, with multiple transitional phases—sometimes referred to as “2.5G” or “2.7G”—until it made it officially to “3G.” 3G was primarily based on GSM EDGE, which was very advanced and introduced new technology standards called UMTS. This increased the efficiency within the spectrum by changing how audio is compressed during a call, so more concurrent calls can happen in the same frequency range.

  • “4G” – 4G marked yet another major leap. It incorporated two new technologies: MIMO and OFDM. MIMO enabled multiple paths to improve signal performance, while OFDM was a modulation mechanism that reduced interference and cross talk. These two technologies were what truly made modern LTE.

As the evolution of this communications technology continues, 5G is built on the foundation of 4G architecture and the improvements in the LTE standard. These technologies paved the way for the initial phase of 5G.


Exploring the 5G Deployment Model

Although many major providers have made it seem in their marketing that 5G’s ready for primetime, there will be two real phases of 5G deployment. Currently we see what we call the “transition” phase from 4G LTE, in which there is not yet a standalone deployment. This phase utilizes the LTE core network as the anchor and control to establish the connection, and 5G is the data plane use for fast data transmission. In other words, 4G is the control plane, and 5G is the user plane, which we’ll talk more about in the next section.

The true standalone 5G deployment, on the other hand, will be the full build from the ground up of the new network core, base stations (which will be mounted everywhere), large antenna arrays (or “Massive MIMOs”), with beamforming distributed NFV-based architecture at the Core and Radio Access networks. These components are essential to providing true 5G—especially when it comes to making use of millimeter wave frequency range—and are where the real value of 5G resides.


Understanding the 5G Spectrum

Let’s take a look at the 5G spectrum and see where things fit on the RF band spectrum. 5G reuses 4G spectrum (mid-band) and introduces two new spectrum areas for data: one for long distance/lower power and better penetration that is the low band frequency range, and one for short distance and high data rate/low latency in the millimeter wave range. Currently it uses the mid band and with improved data rate there. Some important 5G/4G performance specs and expectations to keep in mind:

  • 5G is expected to provide 2Gbps peak throughput, with average/sustained throughput of 400Mbps in millimeter wave

  • 5G is expected to provide 400Mbps peak throughput, with an average of 40Mbps in the mid band

  • 4G is maxed at 300Mbps peak throughput in the mid-band with sustained at far less, possibly 20Mbps or less

  • Low band radio can have a maximum throughput of only around 40Mbps

The interesting thing is that the most interesting use cases for 5G are in the low band and millimeter wave band, which are all to be explored in future iterations. But what about WiFi? Where does it fit into this discussion? The initial frequency bands for 5G are below 6 Ghz, with frequencies similar to existing WiFi networks.

Within this current range, 5G will leverage a combination of Macro and small cells to achieve similar data rates to WiFi with obviously wider coverage. In addition, it will add a completely new, standalone architecture with many more small cells to use the millimeter wave, and the technology will achieve significantly more capacity compared to the current mobile technologies.

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How Does 5G Work?

There are five major foundational elements to a 5G deployment, all of which will inevitably be modernized to deliver true, next generation performance and capabilities.

  1. The Radio Access Network – This is comprised of physical devices, such as small cells, towers, and in-building systems that connect users and wireless devices to the main core network. Small cells will be a major feature of 5G networks, particularly at new millimeter wave frequencies where the connection range is very short (approximately less than 100 meters).  5G Macro cells will be used for wider area coverage and incorporate MIMO antennae like those we see in WiFi to send and receive signals on more than one antenna at the same time. The benefit is that more people can connect to the network and maintain high throughput at the same time. At the highest level, “Massive MIMOs,” will feature large numbers of small, steerable antennae within the same box or case.

  2. The Core Network – 5G delivers mobile voice and data. The core networks run private or public cloud instances for compute and storage, powering critical applications for customers, local and central servers for faster user content and low latency, and NFV will be a major part of that. The key function though is to move the content closer to the end user and to shorten the path between devices and the critical applications and ultimately reduce latency to levels of approximately 1 millisecond.

  3. Network Function Virtualization (NFV) – For cloud, compute, and edge compute as well, this is the software capable of spinning up network functions in real time at any desired location within a provider’s cloud platform or at the edge of the customers network, which can have the ability to connect to 5G carrier wireless network.

  4. Network Slicing – Network slicing will become a major part of the 5G architecture by segmenting the network with certain Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for a particular industry, business, or even an application type. For example, emergency services or financial services could operate on a network slice independently form everything else. The slicing can span the entire stack of the network or just portions of it, depending on the service and SLA offered.

  5. Beamforming – Beamforming is also a major part of the 5G architecture; it will require the massive MIMO antennae. 5G user equipment, including mobile phones, will need to be equipped with MIMO radios to receive these beamed signals. MIMO, just like in WiFi, is a technology that allows the massive MIMO base station antennae to direct the radio signal to the users and devices rather than in all directions. Intelligence built into the beam steering technology uses advanced signal processing algorithms to determine the best path for the radio signal to reach the user. This increases efficiency as it reduces interference from unwanted radio signals.

As a result, the entire architecture needs to be built to provide for low latency (private cloud, edge compute, etc.), higher bandwidth capacity leveraging the small cells for millimeter wave frequency, and wider coverage by leveraging Massive MIMO with efficiency using the beamforming capabilities.

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What Kinds Innovations does 5G Enable?

Depending on your industry, the introduction of 5G technology will look different to you, but below are some of the potential uses across industries and business types. These applications are simply the tip of the iceberg; many analysts expect that in the next several years we’ll see the dawn of many uses that are yet to be invented.

  • The most obvious is mobile devices, including phones and computers, which will continue to use the mid-band and can then also use the millimeter band for much higher data rates, as well as WiFi.

  • 5G could provide support to a multitude of outdoor sensors and devices which are constantly transmitting data and require low power, low bandwidth, and over longer distances can use the low-band spectrum.

  • Mission critical and real-time use cases like industrial robotics, autonomous driving, remote medical procedures, and more will use frequencies in the low band, mid band, and millimeter wave.

  • Fixed wireless Cellular WAN backup reliability can be improved when operating in the low band spectrum, providing better penetration and speeds up to 40Mbps max. And when the millimeter wave spectrum becomes more available, 5G-enabled WAN can become a major option as a primary WAN transport method.

  • For businesses and industries such as educational school campuses, agricultural locations, and connected communities, 5G will be able to provide AI-driven data and insights closer to the end user, cloud, or edge compute, which can result in a better experience and long-term growth.


Getting Your Business Ready for 5G

Given the promise of 5G it’s easy to get excited. But before you begin developing your 5G roadmap, it pays to think about how the ability to increase your data consumption rate and 5G investments might help you take advantage of future technology opportunities. At the infrastructure level the most obvious investment opportunity you could take advantage of now is in your wireless infrastructure. This includes infrastructure elements that enable connectivity, speed, and capacity, such as WiFI6 802.11ax, new wireless equipment with increased reliability, and MU MIMO / OFDMA, with Multigigabit support. We also recommend devices that enhance IoT readiness, as well as BLE and other 802.15.4 protocols like ZigBee, Flexible radio assignment, and security. Devices that enable the collection of location analytics, insights, and visibility will also become more powerful alongside 5G.

Beyond the initial step, we recommend developing a transition plan for the near and long term. It requires a strategic approach to take full advantage of the IoT capabilities enabled by 5G data availability. Consider the financial resources you’re willing to devote to this upgrade; it’s expected by many analysts that the transition to 5G wireless will cost businesses significantly in the coming years. A high-level roadmap of your future deployment can not only keep your business on track with regards to the technology upgrade, but also help plan the ideal state you’re hoping to achieve in the future.

This technology is new for everyone, but it’s vital to have a deployment partner who is capable of remaining flexible as 5G matures and grows in popularity. We recommend an IT infrastructure provider equipped to stay abreast of the technology’s evolution and is willing to work with you to see what works best for your business’s composition and goals.

Do you have the physical infrastructure in place to accommodate a shift? What about the people you have working for you? Are they equipped to provide the innovative insight required to fully take advantage of such a shift? Throughout the advent of the digital economy, flexibility and adaptability have become some of the most important traits a business can cultivate, and this is especially true during technological transitions such as this. If you’re wondering how your business might benefit from and deploy 5G, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Copyright © 2020 TenFour | Written by Devin McKernan | Photo by Avi Richards

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