5G: What Is It & Why Does It Matter?

Try as you may to avoid it, 5G is here. Well not actually here... it won't commercially launch until around 2020. But the groundwork is already being laid, and the hype is rampant, even though it's easier to explain why it matters than what it actually is.

As chairman of the 5G group at Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Ltd. and CTO of Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), Bruno Jacobfeuerborn explained at Mobile World Congress how network technology evolves every ten years: 3G defined the early 2000s; the second decade of the 2000s was all about 4G LTE, with LTE-Advanced updates now starting to trickle out. That's why it's so important that work on 5G starts now, so that by 2020, operators will be ready for commercial deployments. (See NGMN Chairman Outlines His 5G Vision.)

Light Reading has actually been talking about 5G since 2012 when the 5G Innovation Center opened at the University of Surrey to study advanced orthogonal frequency division multiplex (OFDM) technology and non-orthogonal waveforms for 5G. Shortly thereafter our editor-in-chief, Ray Le Maistre, posed the right question in 2013, asking "How many definitions of 5G will we end up with?" (See UK Kicks Off 5G R&D and The 5G Landgrab.)

That brings us to the present, where we are still trying to figure out a de facto definition of a 5G future that's being pegged with enabling everything from driverless cars to 8K video streaming to the millions of connections inherent in the Internet of Things (IoT). Our omniscient editor was right (for once) in that definitions around what makes a network 5G are proliferating, as the standards for the technology won't be defined until late this year or early next. (See Poll: 5G Steals the Spotlight at MWC and 5G Visions Dazzle at MWC.)

That said, a number of requirements are emerging to qualify networks as 5G.

  • Speed: 5G will be achieve peak data rates of 10 Gbit/s, which is ten times faster than LTE's peak speeds of 1 Gbit/s. Samsung Corp. has shown record speeds of 7.5Gbit/s in 5G trials, and the University of Surrey has even cracked 1 Tbit/s (terabit per second) in trials. That's about 65,000 times faster than 4G LTE download speeds, but shouldn't be expected in commercial networks.
  • Capacity: The NGMN expects 5G to eke out between 100 and 1,000 times more capacity than 4G, which will be important if it is to support IoT applications such as the connected car.
  • Latency: 5G will have latency of a single millisecond, 50 times faster than 4G, making it markedly more reliable than earlier networks, which is -- again -- important for envisioned real-time IoT apps such as remote surgery and self-driving cars.

The network will run on either spectrum frequencies below 6GHz,the low bands, or above 6GHz in the high bands, another spec that is still being worked out. The higher bands use millimeter wave technologies and tend to have more spectrum available for higher data rates, but the lower bands tend to have better coverage and propagation. (See The Many Faces of 5G , Spectrum Muddle at the 5G Huddle and 60GHz: A Frequency to Watch.)

According to a recent Heavy Reading report, common themes amongst groups discussing 5G also include elements such as:

  • densely deployed indoor and outdoor small cells;
  • new antenna designs, such as Massive MIMO;
  • intelligent, flexible, adaptable and automated networks;
  • interworking of multiple RAN technologies (Multi-RAT), including WiFi;
  • massive machine communications (MMC);
  • the tactile Internet;
  • extending the principles of SDN and NFV from the core network to the RAN; and
  • network performance metrics for energy efficiency. (See Ready or Not, Here Comes 5G.)

For more on 5G, visit the dedicated 5G section here on Light Reading, and register to attend the upcoming "Building America's 5G Ecosystem" event in NYC.

Despite the ambiguity around the definition of 5G, there seems to be a global consensus that it will be important -- even game changing -- for the future of the wireless industry. Big vendors such as Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. , Samsung Corp. and ZTE Corp. (Shenzhen: 000063; Hong Kong: 0763) have been vocal about their plans to support 5G and a number of wireless operators are speaking up too. (See 5G Threatens Mobile Sector Disruption and Sprint's Saw: '5G' Opp Is Moving Signal Closer to Customers.)

Initial deployments are expected to come from South Korea and Japan as the operators and governments there have promised deployments in time for the 2020 Olympics. The US, while a leader in 4G LTE, has been slower off the 5G mark than Europe and the rest of the world. (See 5G: So Where's the US? and 5G by 2020: Too Much, Too Soon?)

This next-generation network will mean much more than just downloading videos in mere seconds (although you'll be able to do that). Connectivity will become a part of everything we do, and 5G will make robust, reliable, super-fast connectivity the norm at a personal, professional and industrial level. It's easy to see why the industry is pumped for 5G, even if it's yet to truly understand what it means. (See 5G Use Cases, Pre-Standards Groups Proliferate and Prepare for a 5G Onslaught.)

It's 5G month here at Light Reading, which means we'll be exploring the next generation of mobile broadband in depth all month, including a look at the key stakeholders influencing the standards-making process, interviews with service providers on the cutting edge and coverage from our upcoming "Building America's 5G Ecosystem" event in New York City. Check back all month for more, weigh in with your questions and comments on the message boards and vote in our poll asking about the biggest challenges on the road to 5G. (See 5G Challenges.)

— Sarah Thomas, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editorial Operations Director, Light Reading

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sarahthomas1011 4/6/2015 | 2:27:50 PM
Re: 5G: What Is It & Why Does It Matter? I'd argue latency is the most important to make the network reliable enough for self-driving cars, remote surgery and other highly critical use cases, but being able to acheive all three features at once will be important -- and not easy to accomplish.
DHagar 4/6/2015 | 12:41:34 PM
Re: 5G What Is It & Why Does It Matter kq4ym, I am tracking with your thinking. 

I believe the capacity (aided by SDN/NFV) and connectivity are the dimensions that will add real value.
kq4ym 4/6/2015 | 9:07:34 AM
Re: 5G: What Is It & Why Does It Matter? With a forecast latency of 1 millisecond, 50 times faster and "5G to eke out between 100 and 1,000 times more capacity than 4G" one might speculate which is the more important. With the number of IoT applications one might guess that the capacity factor might just be the winning aspect of 5G should 1000x be acheived in five years.
mshalash1 4/2/2015 | 5:53:25 PM
Re: 5G hype You are unfortunately misinformed. The FCC has not mandated any spectrum for 5G. Nor does the FCC impose any restrictions on wireless operators, and which technologies that can deploy in their respective licenses frequency bands, and it has not done so since the early 1990's.
R Clark 4/1/2015 | 10:29:28 PM
Re: Tactile Internet At the Ercisson booth at MWC you could drive a digger and get the thrill of creating a hole a mile away.  I think it's true that the low latency aspect is what will make 5G different. The rest is broadly more of the same.
Mitch Wagner 4/1/2015 | 6:50:12 PM
Re: Tactile Internet So we seem to be talking here about remote-operated robots, like military drones (drones in Afghanistan and Iraq, operated in Las Vegas), but for a variety of purposes and using the IP network for control. 

TV Monitor 4/1/2015 | 6:47:16 PM
Re: 5G hype There will be no 5G below 6 Ghz in the US and EU. The sprectrum just isn't available below 6 Ghz to do 5G there, except for China which is pushing for Chinese 5G in 3.5 Ghz band as an LTE substitute.

 The FCC has mandated 28 Ghz or up for US 5G services. While the EU hasn't decided on which spectrum, the EU satcom operators are heavily lobbying for 31 Ghz and above for Pan-European 5G.
sarahthomas1011 4/1/2015 | 6:42:10 PM
Re: Tactile Internet Heavy Reading's Gabriel Brown touches on that in an upcoming Q&A, so I'll give you a sneak preview. He says, "The other thing -- perhaps the most exciting thing -- is the tactile Internet. There are some really good examples there, of doing remote control for surgery or controlling a digger, or robot. This is where the latency that is almost imperceptible to the human eye is important. And that's where the one millisecond comes in. The potential here is incredible, and these are types of things you couldn't do with 4G."
DHagar 4/1/2015 | 6:38:56 PM
Re: Omniscient Editor MitchWagner, sounds like a great calling and a unique niche!
Mitch Wagner 4/1/2015 | 5:12:41 PM
Tactile Internet "Tactile Internet" was mentioned in this article as one of the 5G applications. What is that? Is it the technology sometimes called "haptic feedback," where if -- for example -- you're remote-operating a robot and it bumps up against a wall, the chair you're sitting in vibrates a bit so you feel the bump?
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