The Oxygen of Digital Life

It’s Different This Time

5G_lThe development of wireless standards is driven by uses, and the need to talk, text and surf has inspired successive generations of wireless services to provide clearer voice, richer communications and faster connectivity. From 1G to 4G, mobile subscribers sought more coverage and bandwidth.

But now, as the uses for 5G’s requirements are being presented, it’s clear there’s something different this time. The next iteration of mobile technology will be much more agnostic as to what’s being networked and how, and connections could be between any combination of people and objects. As Qualcomm puts it, 5G will be about “creating the connectivity fabric for everything”. This vision is about establishing 5G as the backbone that helps to ensure greater accessibility of and to unite a proliferation of technologies (like Bluetooth, LTE, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth) that will continue to evolve in parallel with 5G.

The concept of the Internet of things has been around for several decades and the term dates back to the 1990s, but it’s only become a key influence in driving specification requirements in the past few years. It appears that 5G will be the mobile technology generation of things. CCS Insight recently highlighted 4G’s milestone of 1 billion connections — an impressive accomplishment after half a decade of service, and the cream of 7.5 billion mobile connections in the world today. But those are mainly handsets connecting people, while machine-to-machine communications still account for just a sliver of the market.

Component and infrastructure suppliers like Ericsson, Nokia and Qualcomm have been offering up their visions for 5G. People remain an important part of the connectivity equation, but the Internet of things is driving requirements for more ubiquitous connectivity, greater network capacity and lower latencies. In the age of mobile healthcare, autonomous driving and cloud computing, robust connections will be an enabler. Terms including drones, lifelogging, virtual reality and wearables have entered the common lexicon since the development of LTE, and individuals will have numerous things to connect and massive amounts of data to store.

Qualcomm refers to 5G mobile technology as the “fabric for everything”, and Ericsson uses the term “everything connected”. The recurring “everything” theme proposed by industry players isn’t just about the connections between stuff, but also the methods. There’s a network neutrality of sorts here. Available white papers with usage proposals demonstrate that cellular standardization has never been as technology inclusive as 5G. It’s a potluck recipe of existing connectivity ingredients and new technologies, unified by the goal of seamless connectivity. 5G will cut across spectrum and air interface technologies in a way that hasn’t been standardized previously. This isn’t about starting from scratch, but about looking for complements to current technologies given new requirements.

The industry is no longer thinking about cellular in isolation, but as an opportunity to unify access technologies, unlicensed and licensed spectrum to create a more user-friendly network that’s integrated, scalable and edgeless. Under this vision, devices aren’t merely end points, but inclusive parts of the network.

There’s still a certain vagueness to 5G, as there tends to be half a decade before services go live. Standardization work is just starting within 3GPP and is still in the presentation stage, but there’s a general consensus from the first workshop and a broad target of 2020 for the first network roll-out. The next generation of wireless should support better mobile broadband (consistent data rates upwards of 50 Mbps and peak rates of multi-Gbps), support “massive” machine communications (up to several hundred thousand simultaneous active connections per square kilometer), and provide ultrareliable and low-latency communications (with end-to-end latencies as low as 1 millisecond).

Qualcomm talks of a unified air interface based on OFDM waveforms that can deliver a wide variety of services with diverse requirements of data rate, mobility, latency, coverage and reliability. Ericsson talks in the same way about networks, emphasizing the need for a flexible system that can intelligently apply resources of speed, capacity and coverage appropriate to a given application or service.

The industry has mentioned billions of things being connected. In this sensor-filled world, it seems difficult to exaggerate the potential or to fully appreciate all requirements and uses in 2020. Projections have a track record of being conservative only because the layers of innovation tend to grow in ways not possible to imagine. The electric grid was originally rolled out to enable a candle replacement, but it’s now practically everywhere and used for almost everything. There are parallels here. Qualcomm looks at 5G as something beyond a generation upgrade — as “a new kind of network”.

As development work begins, it’s clear that 5G will lead to a new way of thinking about connectivity. This needs to extend to the Net neutrality debate. The FCC’s stance on Net neutrality is laudable, but it simply doesn’t scale for a world where everything is connected and traffic needs prioritization — Netflix shouldn’t get the same access as the emergency services, for instance. The 5G technology stands to be the oxygen of digital life, but requires enlightened thinking from regulators.

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