By 2024, Ericsson predicts that each active smartphone in North America will consume 39 gigabytes of data per month. That’s roughly a six-fold increase compared to 2018. The trend is the same across global markets, driven by improvements in our smartphones, increasingly data-rich content, and better, more affordable data plans.
At the same time as smart homes, cities and industries are linking up to the cloud, entirely new applications are opening across industry verticals with demanding requirements on network capacity and capability, including sub-millisecond latency and the ability to service over one million devices per square kilometer. A new generation of cellular networks will be needed to transform existing 4G networks and extend the reach of cellular technologies into new verticals, such as automotive, satellite, and cable.
The industry’s answer to the increased network capacity and hyper-connected society we’re moving towards is 5G cellular communication technology. 5G is the fifth generation of cellular technology standards primarily defined by 3GPP, the standardization body responsible for defining global cellular communications standards.
1G cellular technology (which never went by that name) offered wireless voice communication based on analog technologies. With each successive generation, from 2G to 3G to 4G, data gained in importance as coverage and capacity expanded, to the point that today’s 4G networks are designed primarily for data, at rates up to 40,000 times faster than first generation technologies. 5G networks take these trends to the next level, while at the same time enabling entirely new services and applications.
Not just faster...
5G standards are being defined jointly by the 3GPP in two separate releases. The first phase, Release 15 was finalized in mid-June, 2018. Release 16 is scheduled to be completed by December 2019. Together, they address future demands and enable new services through three key usage scenarios: enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), ultra-low latency and high reliability (uRLLC), and massive machine type communications (mMTC).
eMBB expands the spectrum dedicated to cellular communication to much higher frequencies that transport data at faster speeds. To do so, cell towers could be equipped with more than one hundred antennas that all transmit and receive signals simultaneously using massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (MIMO) technology. To ensure that data is delivered reliably and securely across the network, it leverages a series of sophisticated technologies, such as beam forming, which sends signals containing data packets along the optimal path to end-users.
The “uR” in uRLLC stands for ultra-reliable, and this isn’t an overstatement. 5G standards require the outage rate to be 10-5, compared to 0.05 today. And requirements for radio latency are set to under one millisecond, with no interruptions when users move from one cell to the next. Such unprecedented levels of reliability will pave the way for a new wave of innovation in industrial automation, unmanned vehicles, and healthcare, all the way to remote driving.
Finally, mMTC will continue to evolve the developments in low-power wide-area communications (e.g. NB-IoT and LTE Cat M1) in Release 16 and beyond. This will contribute to support achievable device density at one million devices per square kilometer, enabling device battery lives more than 10 years, and extreme coverage up to 400 kilometers. Most of these improvements will be achieved at the cost of reduced peak data-rates, by reducing modem complexity and repeating transmissions for enhanced coverage, not only indoors, but also in basements and underground. In parallel, new solutions such as NR-IIoT for industrial type applications are being designed to operate on the 5G New Radio (5G NR) air interface to leverage uRLLC features in Release 16+.
A few more years to go
5G made its global debut during the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, where it was used to broadcast live immersive HD images of the sporting events in virtual reality. It’s no coincidence that China, Korea, and Japan are leading the transition to 5G, along with the United Kingdom and the United States. Networks will evolve to incorporate existing NB-IoT and LTE-M technologies and their evolutions in the 5G era.
But 5G NR Standalone (SA) will require new network infrastructure and it will take a couple of years for networks to roll out worldwide. The completion of 5G radio specifications in Phase 1 was certainly a big step toward 5G commercialization. The wait will test our patience, but on the bright side, it will give all involved time to getting fully prepared for 5G.