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5G World Summit
24-26 October 2023
Porte de VersaillesParis

Everything You Need to Know About 5G

It feels like we have been talking about 5G forever - almost since the previous generation of mobile technology, 4G, was first rolled out, in fact. Along with a select band of other technologies - the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain - 5G has long been touted as a technology that will fundamentally transform the way we work, do business, communicate and consume.

And yet we are only just starting to see 5G emerge as an actual thing we can use and take advantage of.

That means there are a lot of questions to answer. In the run up to 5G World 2020, we will be publishing a series of blogs all about 5G to help our readers get up to speed with what they need to know about the technology. In this blog, we will start with the basics - what exactly is 5G, why is it viewed as such a game changer, and who stands to benefit?

What is 5G?

5G is short for fifth generation mobile or cellular technology. More specifically, it refers to the network technology used to connect devices wirelessly.

Mobile devices like phones and tablets use radio waves to communicate with one another. But what is different about mobile compared to other types of wireless technology such as two way radio, WiFi or Bluetooth is that it provides coverage over very large geographic areas - in fact, most of us have come to expect our mobiles to work pretty much everywhere we go.

How does mobile do this, when we are likely to lose WiFi signal if we go more than about 50m from the nearest router? A mobile network is best understood as a mesh of lots of small individual networks or cells (hence the term ‘cellular’ network). Each cell contains its own base station which communicates with all the mobile devices in a certain radius. The coverage areas of neighbouring cells overlap slightly, so mobile users experience continuous service from one place to the next. Their devices communicate with the nearest base station, but the base stations also communicate with each other via switching centres which coordinate traffic and make sure calls reach the intended recipient.

As you can imagine just from this very simplified description, cellular networks are extremely complex - millions of cells connecting billions of devices worldwide, carrying and coordinating an enormous volume of call and data traffic. The way networks handle all of this has been in a near constant state of technological evolution since the first analogue mobile services were launched in the 1980s - digital 2G networks in the 1990s, 3G delivering the first data services in the 2000s, 4G introducing reliable high speed mobile broadband right at the start of the 2010s.

5G is the latest step in that evolutionary process. The development of mobile technology has been driven by demand - the vast acceleration in mobile use worldwide over the past 30 years has made it essential that better, faster, more efficient and sophisticated network technologies emerge. But arguably for the first time since 3G introduced mobile data, 5G promises something more than just faster, more efficient networks. Worldwide, 5G represents a stepchange in the way we think about mobile technology and what can be done with it.

What are the benefits of 5G?

Just like a ‘generation’ of people covers a very large and diverse group of individuals, 5G, as a ‘generation’ of technological development, includes a range of different network technologies which, when combined, are expected to have a huge impact on how mobile works and performs.We will delve into these technologies in greater depth in a later blog, but briefly, the key examples which will help you understand all about 5G include:

Network virtualization: Itself a family of technologies which have the effect of abstracting network functionality from physical network resources, and switch the emphasis in network service management and provisioning from hardware to software. As in the world of computing, virtualization has the effect of making network services much more efficient, flexible and scalable.

Millimeter wave spectrum: 5G networks are expected to make use of much more of the available radio spectrum than previous generations of mobile technology, including utilising short wave frequencies for the same time. Not only will this ease the burden on crowded long and mid-wave spectrum bands, shorter wavelengths provide a greater breadth of channels, which means more capacity.

Massive MIMO: 5G is expected to vastly enhance how efficiently available spectrum is used by adopting a technology known as multiple input multiple output (MIMO). This will see signal transmitted as beams which track individual users throughout a cell’s coverage areas rather than as a dispersed field, which results in lots of wasted signal.

So what exactly will the impact of all these new mobile networking technologies be? Some big claims have been made about the impact of 5G worldwide - mobile chipset manufacturer Qualcomm, for example, has forecast that 5G will prop up more than $13bn worth of trade across a broad swathe of industries by 2035, supported by an ecosystem that employs more than 22 million people that itself generates around $3.5bn in revenue.

Such predictions are based on the expectation that the various individual innovations in technology that 5G represents will all combine to improve mobile connectivity in the following key ways:

  • Greater capacity: Everything from network virtualisation to the use of millimeter wave frequency bands to the efficiency gains of Massive MIMO are expected to bring about an order of magnitude increase in just how much you can run over mobile networks. Up to 1000 times more bandwidth is expected to be available compared to 4G, supporting up to one million device connections per kilometer square.

  • Faster speeds: The really eye-catching figures usually shared for 5G are the so-called peak data rates, which are calculated to offer up to 20Gbps download and 10Gbps upload speeds. However, we’re all used to our actual broadband connections not quite matching up to the advertised optimum, and ‘real world’ speeds are expected to be in the region of 100Mbps download and 50Mbps upload under average working conditions. That, however, is still around four times faster than the average UK broadband connection speed.
  • Lower latency: Related to connection speed is latency, or how much lag there is in data transfers. This is what, for example, causes buffering when you are watching a live video stream over the internet. Typical 5G latency rates are expected to be four milliseconds, a tenth of current 4G levels, but for special uses cases where near-instant data communication is critical (e.g. medical robots or driverless cars), it will be possible to get this down as low as one millisecond.
  • Improved energy efficiency: The combination of Massive MIMO beamforming technology and virtualization will mean that network resources can be targeted and allocated with high precision, including ‘switching off’ interfaces when not in use. This could lead to a 90% reduction in energy consumption by mobile network infrastructure.

Who wins in a 5G world?

Given the list of benefits outlined above, it is hard to argue that we won’t all be winners in a 5G world. As consumers, we will enjoy the benefits not just of great mobile signal everywhere we go, but of premium quality, always on connectivity - no more looking for WiFi hotspots and the ability to enjoy flawless HD video streaming and over-the-airwaves gaming wherever we go.

For businesses, 5G promises to unify connectivity while at the same time delivering an unprecedented level of flexibility in how and where employees and customers can connect to your digital business services. 5G will help enterprises complete their digital transformation journeys, providing a single point of access to cloud-based IT without the complexity of securing a web of different connection points. It will allow digital operations to function more reliably and efficiently, boosting output, cutting waste and improving service. And it will also open the door to easier, lower cost access to powerful new software technologies like AI, while simultaneously allowing businesses to connect more and more devices to the IoT, making operational technology smarter and more agile.

In terms of how this might play out in specific industry verticals, the combination of massive increases in capacity, multichannel flexibility and energy efficiency is expected to help further develop the ‘smart factory’ concept in manufacturing. Mass deployment of IoT sensors and robotic systems coupled with AI will usher in a new era of intelligent, targeted, ultra-efficient on-demand production commonly referred to as ‘Industry 4.0’. This could all add $500bn in value to global manufacturing - once 5G’s worldwide rollout provides the necessary network infrastructure to support it all. The agriculture and utilities sectors are widely expected to benefit from growth in IoT in similar ways.

Elsewhere, the key beneficiaries of 5G’s ultra-low latency and high reliability are expected to be the healthcare and automotive industries. Being able to reduce latency as low as 1 millisecond will be vital for supporting mission critical systems that cannot afford any lag in data transfer, such as surgical robots being operated by technicians remotely, or driverless vehicles which require near-instant vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communications to maintain safety on the roads. Gartner predicts that the automotive sector will represent the biggest market for 5G outdoor use cases by 2023.

Finally, to bring it back to how most of us use mobile at present - via our smartphones - it shouldn’t be forgotten that 5G will enable enhanced mobile services and on-phone experiences that businesses across a swathe of sectors will be able capitalize on. While the media and entertainment industry in general is expected to benefit from a surge in demand for streaming ultra-HD video over 5G, the gaming sector in particular will for the first time be able to compete on a level playing field with the music, movie and TV sectors in terms of streaming services to mobile devices. The retail industry will be able to create more immersive and interactive ecommerce experiences for customers, such as AR/VR dressing rooms and AI personal shopping assistants, while financial services is another sector expected to benefit from being able to connect ever-more sophisticated AI applications to its already considerable portfolio of mobile services, improving security, convenience and personalization.