Dawn of the 5G: How a new cellular protocol may supercharge wireless

An image of the sun rising at dawn.

5G is designed to take mobile and fixed wireless to a whole new level. In fact, “groundbreaking” is an appropriate word for this telecom advance that will offer speeds and bandwidth unheard of today. While cost, refinement and application continue to be worked on, an incremental roll-out has begun with broader momentum expected by 2022.

Different from what’s come before, 5G’s enormous data speed, bandwidth and throughput were developed with more than phones in mind. Designers cast their gaze on other uses, including fixed wireless in the office, the industrial plant, the hospital and in municipal operations. In fact, fixed wireless may be the first to benefit from 5G. Other beneficiaries of 5G could be automated vehicles, tools such as augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Beyond 4G LTE

Mobile telecom has advanced in roughly 10-year increments. 3G moved beyond 2G mobile phones by innovating voice functionality, adding internet access, and the ability to send and receive multimedia and texts. Today’s 4G, based on internet protocol (IP), offers better speed and functionality. It also introduced long term evolution (LTE), a radio interface improving smart phone connectivity. 5G will be a different animal.

5G uses a new standard called define new radio (NR) allowing for vast flexibility and a gamut of spectrum bands ranging from 1 gigahertz (GHz) to millimeter wave (mm wave) that is estimated between 25 GHz and 300 GHz. That’s a dramatic jump.

With 5G, data rates could run up to 100 times faster. Mobile data volumes are expected to expand by a factor of 1,000. Sensor battery life would extend roughly 10 times. Latency would drop by a factor of 10, which would dramatically stabilize video conferencing, and enable video streaming that easily accommodates 4K or higher resolutions and seconds-only downloads. On-demand virtual networks and remote robotics would be possible.

Standards for 5G are now set and issued by 3GPP, the international group that governs cellular standards. Phone carriers, chip makers and modem manufacturers are diligently working to accommodate 5G. Today, demos and testbeds in cities around the country have commenced, allowing phone carriers and municipalities the time to figure out how best to employ and deploy this new telecom technology in built and outdoor environments.

Fredrik Jejdling, executive vice president and head of business area networks for Ericsson, Stockholm, said, “In 2024, we project that mobile 5G (globally) will reach 40 percent population coverage and 1.5 billion subscriptions, making it the fastest generation ever to be rolled out on a global scale.”

In addition, forecasters in the “EricssonMobility Report-November 2018” predict 20 billion connected IoT devices by 2023.

The firm cited additional benefits of 5G technology. They included better security both in subscriber privacy and subscriber untraceability, a telecom protocol evolved from “always on” to “always available” (greatly extending battery life) and network slicing and distributed cloud, allowing robust edge computing for quicker access to big data.

“5G can positively impact future IoT adoption,” said Bill Menezes, senior principal analyst for Gartner Inc., a global research and advisory firm based in Stamford, Conn. “It can support a great number of devices in a wirelessly connected coverage area. The question remains, is 5G wireless applied in a fixed and wired environment using Wi-Fi or other protocol, or purely applied as a mobile connection? Right now, I think 5G is being viewed as a complementary technology.”

5G will also improve network performance of lighting, security and other building operations by boosting energy efficiency. It could also elevate smart-city functionality.

“5G-IoT would powerfully enable smart city goals by dramatically raising the number of sensors, their functionality and ability to gather ever deeper data from smart poles and other sensor-based smart applications,” Menezes said. “You could see similar success in adopting Industrial IOT (IIOT).”

For the electrical contractor, the promise of IoT could be fully unleashed. The real gamechanger will be sensor density, potential installation transmitters and supportive technologies such as 5G distributed antenna systems (DAS). The construction site could also be enhanced when 5G hot spots emerge. Think of how low latency and high bandwidth could upgrade the performance of AR goggles, perhaps working with BIM on site and back at the office, and other wireless and mobile tech.

Tandem architecture

5G will be rolled out two different ways. Peter Linder, head of 5G marketing for Ericsson North America, described them as “nonstandalone” and “standalone.”

“With 4G to 5G, you introduce elements into existing architecture and step up as you go with more 5G elements,” he said. “In nonstandalone, the network talks to the 5G radio through the 4G radio, allowing for reuse of the existing infrastructure. Initially, this could be the more common approach.”

Standalone 5G is just starting to emerge. Linder described the use categories of 5G. They include enhanced mobile broadband that includes fixed wireless, Massive IoT and Critical IoT. Benefits of enhanced mobile would include the next evolution of smartphones, 4K and higher video resolutions, and improved AR/VR performance.

Massive IoT would connect millions of devices transmitting a low volume of non-delay-sensitive data (low bandwidth and not latency critical). Market applications could include smart buildings, transportation logistics, smart meters and smart agriculture.

Critical IoT pertains to wireless control used in industrial manufacturing, production processes, smart grid distribution and automation, transportation/traffic safe and control, and future remote medical surgery. This wireless signal would provide an instantaneous connection that is super reliable and resilient.

“Buildings with a fiber architecture wanting to tap into 5G without using microwave delivery will need to upgrade their fiber installation,” Linder said. “While 5G radios can be served with fiber or microwave for the front-haul transport between radio and baseband units, the backhaul will require a capacity upgrade from 1 gigabit ethernet (GbE) [standard for 4G] to 20 GbE and above.”

4G transmission towers with large 4G cells won’t disappear, but 5G will largely operate through “small cells.” Think of transmitters the size of a backpack. These small cells could be co-located on a 4G tower, but more often located on power poles or buildings themselves. The closer the 5G signal to the user, the better the signal strength. Getting the most out of 5G technologies may require the potential installation of hundreds of thousands of small cells.

Powering small cells not mounted on a 4G tower is a challenge. One promising answer may be connectivity that effectively combines power and fiber in an end-to-end system, thus eliminating utility drop costs.

Doug Brake, director of broadband and spectrum policy for the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), a public think tank based in Washington, D.C., said right-of-way issues between phone carriers and municipalities remain a sticking point.

“AT&T, Verizon and Sprint have flavors of 5G in small areas of the market where they hope to launch 5G,” Brake said. “These areas are clusters within a city equipped with the needed small cell transmitters to help deliver 5G signal. A big point of discussion and contention are how, why and when a municipality would greenlight a 5G infrastructure. What does a city charge carriers who rent real estate to install small cell transmitters? What can the carrier offer as enticements beyond the faster speeds of 5G (e.g., high speed to lower income neighborhoods, promoting STEM programs for children)? Cities want to benefit from the new network itself, but it has to benefit its citizens. Conversely, the carrier has concerns, such as cost of returns for small cell installations, and the rent being asked for their installation. Model agreements need to be made.”

Brake cited progress being made with the Federal Communications Commission stepping in to formulate policy for small cell deployment so the carrier, the municipality and its residents benefit.

5G questions

Higher deployment costs in achieving lightning speed in a 5G mm wave spectrum is a concern. Its restricted range can also be easily blocked by buildings, trees, foliage and obstacles. That’s why an expensive propagation of small cells will be needed.

Capable 5G mobility is a challenge as well. While phone carriers are developing 5G phones, fixed wireless may be the first wider application of the new protocol.

“You gain some benefit with 5G, but it poses challenges,” Menezes said. “Everyone will need an endpoint on the same 5G service, be it phone, laptop or other device. Maybe that’s a hurdle. At this point, there’s no sign of an endpoint radio that will cover all conceivable spectrum bands that different carriers might use. Also, there’s no sign the carriers would support a multicarrier capability of that sort allowing users to connect with whatever signal is strongest at their location.”

ITIF’s Brake also thinks the business case for 5G is not yet resolved.

“5G is expensive. What is the business case? Do we envision a wide-scale role of this technology or one focused on denser areas and enterprise applications? What is the process for spectrum availability for cities and towns?” Brake asked.

We may not know what a 5G world looks like today, but it seems likely its wireless benefits may be too good for businesses and consumers to pass up. Stay tuned.

About the Author

Jeff Gavin

Freelance Writer

Jeff Gavin, Gavo Communications, is a LEED Green Associate providing marketing services for the energy, construction, and urban planning industries. He can be reached at gavo7@comcast.net.

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