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craig mathias

5G: A deep dive into fast, new wireless

Apr 02, 201913 mins
5GInternet of ThingsNetworking

5G wireless networks are just about ready for prime time, overcoming backhaul and backward-compatibility issues and promising the possibility of all-mobile networking.

4G to 5G mobile wireless network technology changeover / update / rollout
Credit: Fokusiert / Getty Images

The next step in the evolution of wireless WAN communications – 5G networks – is about to take off and for good reason: It will complete the evolution of cellular from wireline augmentation to wireline replacement, and strategically from mobile-first to mobile-only.

So it’s not too early to start learning how 5G will fit into and benefit IT plans across organizations of all sizes, industries and missions.

[ From Mobile World Congress: The time of 5G is almost here ]

5G will provide end-users with the additional throughput, capacity, and other elements to address the continuing and dramatic growth in geographic availability, user base, range of subscriber devices, demand for capacity, and application requirements. In addition, it will enable service providers to benefit from new opportunities in overall strategy, service offerings and broadened marketplace presence.

A look at the key features you can expect in 5G wireless. (Click for larger image.)

Network World - 5G Wireless - Key Features [2017] Network World / IDG

A look at the key features you can expect in 5G wireless.

This article explores the technologies and market drivers behind 5G, with an emphasis on what 5G means to enterprise and organizational IT.

While 5G remains an imprecise term today, key objectives for the development of the advances required have become clear. These are as follows:

5G speeds

As is the case with Wi-Fi, major advances in cellular are first and foremost defined by new upper-bound throughput numbers. The magic number here for 5G is in fact a floor of 1 Gbps, with numbers as high as 10 Gbps mentioned by some. However, and again as is the case with Wi-Fi, it’s important to think more in terms of overall individual-cell and system-wide capacity. We believe, then, that per-user throughput of 50 Mbps is a more reasonable – but clearly still remarkable – working assumption, with up to 300 Mbps peak throughput realized in some deployments over the next five years. The possibility of reaching higher throughput than that exceeds our planning horizon, but such is, well, possible.

Reduced latency

Perhaps even more important than throughput, though, is a reduction in the round-trip time for each packet. Reducing latency is important for voice, which will most certainly be all-IP in 5G implementations, video, and, again, in improving overall capacity. The over-the-air latency goal for 5G is less than 10ms, with 1ms possible in some defined classes of service.

5G network management and OSS

Operators are always seeking to reduce overhead and operating expense, so enhancements to both system management and operational support systems (OSS) yielding improvements in reliability, availability, serviceability, resilience, consistency, analytics capabilities, and operational efficiency, are all expected. The benefits of these will, in most cases, however, be transparent to end-users.

Mobility and 5G technology

Very-high-speed user mobility, to as much as hundreds of kilometers per hour, will be supported, thus serving users on all modes of transportation. Regulatory and situation-dependent restrictions – most notably, on aircraft – however, will still apply.

Improved security

As security remains the one aspect of IT where no one is ever done, enhancements to encryption, authentication, and privacy are expected. It would not be surprising to see identity management (IDM) solutions along the lines of those now at work in many organizations available from at least a few carriers. Current IDM suppliers as well might be more than mildly interested in extending their capabilities to 5G services purchased by enterprises.

New spectrum to service 5G

It is expected that frequencies in the so-called millimeter-wave bands above 30GHz will see service in at least some 5G deployments. Both licensed and unlicensed spectrum at these frequencies is available in many parts of the world. MM wave frequencies are often appropriate to small cells since they require smaller and less obtrusive antennas, and the inherent signal directionality can multiply spectral efficiency.

The core disadvantages for MM waves are less applicability to traditional larger cells along with poor object (e.g., buildings) penetration, but such can again be advantages in terms of frequency reuse. Regardless, more spectrum is required given the throughput and capacity objectives that justify 5G development and deployment – present spectral allocations will most certainly not suffice even with the ability to aggregate smaller blocks of spectrum.

New enabling technologies

We expect to see higher-order MIMO implementations, sometimes described as “massive” with, for example, 16-64 streams, more aggressive modulation and channel coding, improved power-utilization efficiency, and related advances. Small cells will see frequent application, and the days of large cell towers may be numbered in more densely populated areas. Current trends otherwise at work in networks today, include SDN and NFV, will also see application in 5G, with much infrastructure implemented within cloud-based services.

5G will likely require no major advances in chip or manufacturing technologies, and device power consumption will likely benefit from more limited geographic range even as higher clock rates take a small toll here. Still, much work remains in terms of both technical and feasibility analysis as well as cost, but we see no showstoppers on the horizon. There is no danger of producing another WiMAX that offers marketing hype with no clear advantages over the previous generation, and the overall level of technical risk is low. Perhaps the greatest challenge is schedule slip, as the complex nature of the systems engineering that is required needs more time than many expect.

5G and IoT

5G as a wireline replacement will have to support every class of traffic and every conceivable device, from broadcast-quality video distribution to telemetry, implantable medical devices, augmented and virtual reality, and advanced interactivity and graphics – and not just for gaming. The list also includes connected and autonomous cars, remotely-piloted vehicles (drones), public safety, building and municipal automation/monitoring/control, and disaster relief. including relocatable infrastructure with moving cells and support for dynamic wireless meshing. Also in the mix are robotics and IoT devices tolerant of limited data throughput and highly-variable latency. We expect literally tens of billions of 5G devices to be deployed over the next decade or so, so the scale of both the challenge and the demand is clear.

Industry growth

Finally, carriers, operators, and equipment vendors of both infrastructure and subscriber devices simply require the deployment of new technologies with quantifiable end-user-visible benefits from time to time in order to continue to grow their businesses. New subscriber units alone cannot accomplish this goal.

In short, 5G is a business opportunity being designed and implemented to provide all of the communication capabilities and performance we expect from a wireline network. Getting to that point, given all of the requirements above, won’t be easy, quick, or inexpensive.

5G standard

3G was the last G to have a formal definition, in this case from the ITU and specifying throughput of up to 2Mbps. The definition of 4G was never formalized, and there have even been legal battles over what might be considered 4G, with a general consensus that LTE and LTE-Advanced, as specified by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), serve as an adequate minimum. 3GPP is an industry standards group consisting of major organizations and associations, with very broad support and respect across the globe. This group has been a dominant factor in defining the cellular industry itself since 3G and has driven other key advances in cellular deployments including an all-IP core, LTE, LTE-Advanced, and many more.

Given their overall leadership, we expect that the 3GPP will essentially define 5G from both marketing and operational perspectives, by the time Release 16 appears, likely in the second half of 2019. The ITU, through its IMT-2020 program within ITU-R is also hard at work here, with expected completion of their work by, oddly enough, 2020. ETSI is also active in 5G, as is one other organization taking a major role in the debate, the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, a trade association of operators and analogous to the Wi-Fi Alliance. Their 5G White Paper is perhaps the most complete vision and working definition of 5G published to date. Regardless, some harmonization of the work of this multiplicity of efforts will clearly be required.

5G vs. LTE

As 4G ended up being defined by radio technologies, it is possible the 5G will eventually center on the same. The next-gen technology here begins with LTE-Advanced Pro, called 4.5G by some, and is initially being specified in 3GPP Release 13. Further enhancement to LTE Advanced Pro into what many are currently calling NR (new radio) is likely by Release 15. But practically, and especially from a marketing perspective, the line between 4G and 5G is already quite blurry.

Both organizational IT managers and end users will shortly notice that the marketing of “gigabit LTE” has begun. While this advance is not strictly 5G, it is likely that it will be marketed as such owing to that gigabit number. While we do expect that some end-users might experience occasional bursts of throughput above 100Mbps, gigabit LTE cannot provision the capacity required to meet expectations for regular service at such levels. Regardless, some locales will see deployments here as early as the end of this year, and new devices, including Samsung’s Galaxy S8 and perhaps even the upcoming 2017 iPhone, will include this technology. Ultimately, though, the fate of such services rests with each carrier’s plans for their deployment.

Advanced wide-area radios aren’t the only possibility; among the features mentioned for inclusion in NR is interworking with Wi-Fi. We might, however, instead suggest that contemporary Wi-Fi – 802.11ac and the 60GHz802.11ad – is already 5G technology, with very high throughput, small cells, and essentially every other necessary 5G attribute except for OSS and operation in licensed frequencies. Hard handoff between wide-area 5G technologies and Wi-Fi could become a key 5G deployment strategy going forward, especially to augment indoor reach and capacity. We might also suggest that provisioning deterministic association (as opposed to allowing client devices to decide which AP to associate with, when to roam, etc.) might be a worthwhile area of endeavor for the Wi-Fi community.

Barriers to 5G

While the ultimate marketplace success of 5G is all but assured, a number of issues remain. Perhaps the most important among these is the availability of spectrum sufficient to assure that the broadband promise of 5G is realized. As we noted above, we expect a significant portion of the spectrum devoted to 5G, and globally, will be in the millimeter-wave bands above 30GH, almost certainly including spectrum at 60GHz and ranging up to 70-80GHz or even higher. But how much of which specific frequencies might become available is the domain of government regulations, which vary on a national basis. In addition, the proportion of currently allocated spectrum that might be re-farmed or allocated so as to coexist with current production systems is also an open question. The further application of spectrum auctions is also a concern to those developing 5G business models, given the vast amount of money involved. And, finally, conflict of the form already being seen in the unlicensed bands between LTE and Wi-Fi demands workable and effective solutions regardless.

Other potential issues include the following:

  • Backhaul – The capacity of the interconnect between cells of any form, as well as to the remainder of a carrier network and the Internet itself, must be commensurate with the capacity provisioned to subscribers so as to avoid bottlenecks. A major increase in backhaul capacity is thus in the cards, and we expect the millimeter-wave bands to see major utilization here as well.
  • Coexistence and evolution – 3G, 4G, and 5G will need to coexist for some time, adding complexity to both carrier networks and end-user devices. The obsolescence of earlier generations is essential to improved spectral efficiency, so carriers will need to carefully plan and stage rollouts and upgrades alike.
  • Other regulatory policies – In addition to spectrum regulation, other regulations in such domains as net neutrality, the taxation of communications services, universal service, and overall national broadband policies will need to be revisited and perhaps even reconsidered altogether.
  • Pricing – Finally, we have at present no idea what form the pricing models for 5G might take. While voice, messaging, and similar narrowband services will likely remain flat-rate, the pricing of 50Mbps-plus IP services is unknown. Just as we saw unlimited data plans vanish only to reappear years later, the possibility (likelihood?) of such volatility is an element that should be part of organizational planning going forward, including with respect to service plans selected under BYOD policies.

5G availability

Note that 5G activity continues to build, with even a few field trials now underway, at least nominally. While sometimes these trials are marketed under that designation, they are not really early deployments because the underlying standards, let alone the required hardware and software, do not yet exist. We do not expect the general availability of 5G much before the 2020/2021 timeframe, and critical mass, a term we use to describe reliable availability in major population centers, not occurring before 2025. And, fear not; while 3G service should begin to fade around 2025, 4G availability should be good at least until 2030. Organizations thus have plenty of time to plan and complete the cutover to 5G, although we expect that mobile-device vendors and carriers may provide incentives for a more rapid market uptake.

The timeline you can expect for 5G wireless. (Click for larger image.)

Network World - 5G Wireless - Timeline Network World / IDG

The timeline you can expect for 5G wireless. (Click for larger image.)

Given the pervasiveness of BYOD initiatives and the fact that they will continue to be the dominant model for organizational mobile-device provisioning, most organizational IT departments will ultimately need to devote only minimal effort to the day-to-day management of end-user evolution to 5G. Most of the work here should be in updating reimbursement policies as 5G service plans gel.

But organizations should begin to consider what 5G might mean to their own internal operations. Just as 802.11ac broke the gigabit barrier and eliminated the need for wired drops to all but a few end-users, 5G may represent the final cord-cutting for everyone, everywhere. Remember – 5G is about replacement, not augmentation. And, as we expect 5G to include current-generation Wi-Fi, organizational investments in in-building networks should be little affected by the advent of 5G. We do expect at least a few carriers and operators to get into the managed-services business, however, offering one-stop shopping for both WLAN and WWAN and even some value-added services. And high-capacity wired backhaul and interconnect links will also be unaffected by 5G, at least for the foreseeable future.

As for the remainder of IT initiatives, including cloud, virtualization, and more, 5G should be transparent – just another fast link that also happens to be mobile. 5G, restating our initial thesis above, is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

Which brings us to a final point: will there ever be a 6G? Believe it or not, we doubt that such will be necessary. 5G itself will evolve over time, transparently incorporating leading-edge innovations like Massive MIMO to continue to meet the ever-growing demand for wireless connectivity. So, for now, anyway, it’s safe to conclude that all of us – vendors, carriers and operators, IT departments, and even end-users – are far enough up the wireless experience curve that the transition to 5G, despite the remarkable advance in overall capability, may very well be the smoothest cellular upgrade ever.

craig mathias

Craig J. Mathias is a principal with Farpoint Group, an advisory firm specializing in wireless networking and mobile computing. Founded in 1991, Farpoint Group works with technology developers, manufacturers, carriers and operators, enterprises, and the financial community. Craig is an internationally-recognized industry and technology analyst, consultant, conference speaker, author, columnist, and blogger. He regularly writes for Network World,, and TechTarget. Craig holds an Sc.B. degree in Computer Science from Brown University, and is a member of the Society of Sigma Xi and the IEEE.

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