2G to 5G: Wireless Becomes the Fourth Utility

There is an impressive array of technology that is planned for the transition to 5G that will enable many new possible services.

Jeff Steinheider, product marketer, Freescale

April 17, 2015

5 Min Read
2G to 5G: Wireless Becomes the Fourth Utility

While the world is just getting used to 4G, the next generation of 5G technology is right around the corner. Talk of 5G has begun to ramp up over the last six months and major wireless carriers are beginning to issue significant global announcements about their plans for a 5G world. But how did we get here?

Fifteen years ago, 2G brought the world digital voice transmission, SMS and mobile Internet. For the first time, we had people-to-machine connectivity, albeit at much lower speeds than what we are used to today. Email was the first application to gather widespread interest, which took advantage of the mobile Internet.

From there, we advanced to 3G, which brought higher data rates and the capability to support simultaneous voice and data. At first, adoption of 3G was slow. Voice and SMS were still the primary applications, and 2G speeds were still acceptable for email to the phone. However, with the advent of the smartphone, the consumer soon developed the taste for nomadic computing, with consumers streaming video and compulsively checking their Facebook accounts. The increased demand heralded 3G HPSA +, and suddenly we saw the advent of the tidal wave of data that is still rolling today.

Today's 4G technology offers higher levels of bandwidth, but our appetites for bandwidth-intensive services like streaming video have grown much larger. Over 75% of mobile data today is video driven by smartphones but the quality leaves much to be desired. As tablets and smartphones become larger in form factor, consumers expect 1080p quality video. The bottom line is that while 4G does its job well, and offers significant improvement over 3G in terms of latency, bandwidth and overall connectivity, it has only created demand for faster and higher quality service that can't be met by today's technology.

The next generation
5G will be the wireless standard of the future. The wireless community is still debating the details of 5G, but the overarching goal is achieving the ultimate user experience. From a bandwidth perspective, the global objective of 5G is to deliver 100 Mbps for everybody, everywhere. Many have even referred to 5G as the "fourth utility," since ubiquitous broadband access is so important for both businesses and individuals in today's world. 5G is going to be the launching point for more application convergence. The market is already focused on fixed and mobile network convergence for typical communications applications, but there is much more on the horizon. Low latency wireless connectivity is imperative to providing fast machine-controlled responses to enable autonomous cars, the wireless factory and elements of the Internet of Things.

2G/3G/4G technologies have enabled the start of the Internet of Things, however 5G will be the enabler of the "tactile" Internet, essentially sensor and actuator networks. For example, factory automation, process control and robotics are technology areas ripe for wireless innovation. Today, we see pockets of industrial WiFi used in very specific applications, but a low latency, deterministic, high-bandwidth wireless technology could completely revolutionize the factory floor by providing the fail-safe wireless connectivity necessary to connect machines within a wide variety of applications.

5G -- stretching the boundaries
It is going to take some significant and fundamental changes: The industry will need 10x more spectrum, 10x better spectral efficiency and 10x more cell density in order to achieve the desired 1,000 bit area density improvement. The need for increased bandwidth in dense deployments becomes obvious if you have ever tried to use your mobile phone in a sports arena.

In order to achieve this significant improvement in capability, network operators will need to make several changes to their wireless networks. Wireless cell infrastructure density will need to rapidly increase such that we end up with an almost viral network that can scale as we need it. This will mean including a variety of cell sizes and architectures beyond the traditional macro network deployments. In order to achieve the 10x increase in spectrum, 5G will be forced to expand into the millimeter wave arena, possibly exceeding 80GHz, compared to the sub 4GHz spectrum used by previous generations of wireless networks.

Planning for 5G
It is expected that 5G systems will be deployed beginning in 2020, which is now less than five years away. Most major economies around the world have already started to lay very significant plans for 5G. Consortiums are being formed all around the world to determine the specifications that will need to be in place by 2020 to allow for the natural progression of 5G. The European Commission has already allocated over €700 million to be spent between now and 2020 to enable 5G technology.

While some of the transition to 5G will be revolutionary, such as the adoption of millimeter wave frequencies, which will require new infrastructure and mobile devices, there will be evolutionary changes as well that are starting with 4G networks today. Network densification has already started with 4G, network operators are deploying small cells, DAS and centralized RANs to keep up with data demand in dense urban networks.

SDN is already being introduced to networks today to help operators manage their transport networks that provide backhaul to wireless base stations. This will extend to include management of the wireless equipment as well, helping network operators coordinate multiple wireless technologies and vendors to provide seamless connectivity to consumers. NFV will provide operators with the flexibility to quickly roll out new services and adapt to changing network requirements, and this can also be adopted with today's generation of wireless network equipment.

There is an impressive array of technology that is planned for the transition to 5G that will enable many new possible services. It will be exciting to see which killer app will drive the direction of 5G development.

— Jeff Steinheider, Product Manager, Freescale Semiconductor Inc.

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About the Author(s)

Jeff Steinheider

product marketer, Freescale

Jeff Steinheider is a product marketer for Freescale's QorIQ Qonverge family of SoCs targeted for small cell applications.  Prior to joining Freescale, Jeff spent 11 years in various engineering roles and product management for 2G and 3G base station products, ranging from macro cells to indoor femto cells.  Jeff holds a Masters of Engineering and Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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