What if, no matter where you are or how many people are connected to a network, you were able to perform every function you wanted with lower latency and at faster speeds than what is possible today? Think limitless connectivity: 5G mobile communications technology. While the very concept of 5G technology is still in its infancy, leaps and bounds are being made each year to establish its underlying technologies via research efforts across the globe. This next generation wireless system is projected to debut as early as 2018 by the 5G Creative Mobile Strategy forum in South Korea. However, most engineers do not believe 5G technologies will truly make its way into the hands of end users until sometime after 2020. VDC believes the latter, as several market elements between standardization and communications technology must advance and align to fulfill the prospect of the next mobile network generation.
Although the definition of 5G has yet to be solidified, common visions for this technology include: broader spectrum availability, multiple antennas, new waveforms, and heterogeneous networks. In order to make efficient use of available spectrum, 5G researchers are investigating millimeter wavebands which offer wider bandwidths thus increasing data capacity. By implementing multiple antennas, also known as multiple-input and multiple output (MIMO) technology, the spectrum will be able to maintain multiple data streams seamlessly. In order to support greater capacity, new and more-proficient signal structures—such as non-orthogonal multiple access multiplex (NOMA) and generalized frequency division multiplexing (GFDM)—must be examined. Heterogeneous Networks, or “HetNets,” will augment, possibly even replace, traditional, large tower base stations. HetNets employ small cells (e.g. femtocells, picocells, etc.) to strengthen connectivity when placed close together on rooftops or buildings. The utilization of HetNets will benefit high-traffic areas and increase backhaul capacity. If these visions of 5G are brought to fruition, wireless communication systems will never be the same. Although the aforementioned components of 5G will undoubtedly create an overall better network, there are many factors that will determine the direction and success of this next generation system.
While embedded technology will eventually be capable of creating a 5G network, it does not mean that there is currently a real business driver behind the switch to 5G. The companies that supply a 5G network are going to have to create not only a rich user experience in a technical sense, but they must also develop incentives and new business models encouraging adoption. If the transition is not seamless, 5G could go down the same path as WiMAX which fizzled away from popular use. Even 4G LTE has not picked up as quickly as vendors and network operators would have liked.
So what makes 5G different from these historical “break-through” technologies? Potential drawbacks of this next generation network include battery life and high product costs. If devices will always be connected, embedded engineers will need to implement new strategies to reduce device power consumption—which will come in the form of new advanced hardware architectures, low-power (yet higher-compute) processing cores, and improved battery technology. Another associated factor of always being connected is cost; how much does endless connectivity cost exactly? Additional costs for establishing and maintaining connectivity will be levied by mobile network operators to justify the capital expenditure required for 5G deployments. A 5G network requires several technological advances that will consequently increase the cost of associated devices. With these potential drawbacks in mind, several countries, companies, and academic institutions are investing billions of dollars worth of research into the creation of a 5th generation wireless system.
Few countries are in the race for creating and implementing a true 5G wireless system. South Korea, Japan, and the United States are the front runners with China and the European Union trailing behind. South Korea has begun to invest a $1.5 billion budget into their 5G Creative Mobile Strategy. This creative forum is led by SK Telecom and includes steering committee members Ericsson-LG, LG Electronics, and Samsung, as well as Intel and Qualcomm. Japan’s NTT DoCoMo is collaborating with six vendors—Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Fujitsu, NEC, Nokia, and Samsung—in research and experimental trial efforts. Like Japan, the United States has no government-driven 5G research and development efforts. Thus, academia and private enterprises are leading these countries’ 5G research efforts. U.S. companies such as National Instruments and Agilent Technologies are top researchers in 5G technology. WICAT is a multi-university, academic research and design center and conducts extensive research surrounding 5G. WICAT includes Polytechnic Institute of NYU, Virginia Tech, University of Texas at Austin, Auburn University, and the University of Virginia. Intel formed a research partnership with several universities to investigate 5G technologies. Other companies involved in 5G research include Broadcom and Huawei. These institutions are only of few of the thousands that are researching next-gen networks.
Possibly the largest determinant in developing and deploying 5G wireless systems is infrastructure capability. Even if there is a high demand for this new network service, whether the cellular industry has the funds to build up the new required infrastructure is arguably the most important factor of 5G’s future. The technology may be there, but installing new wire lines and base stations requires significant investments.
5G will have massive implications for nearly every industry. In a world with 5G-based networks, M2M connectivity will be the norm and expected. Whether you are connected to your fridge, microwave, car, or office equipment, these machines will be able to monitor themselves and advise users of their status quo. Connectivity will be pinnacle to business processes; thus value chains will be shaken, facilitating new opportunities within industry and new business models. Pervasive M2M connectivity will help automate basic tasks for companies, creating a more dexterous workforce. M2M services are a powerful driver in bringing 5G to the forefront; however, the technology and user experience must be seamless in order make this limitless connectivity a standard in our world.
By Delane Zahoruiko, Research Assistant