In the telecommunications world, whenever an increasing numeric value precedes the letter “G” you can bet there will be no shortage of buzz on the topic. Starting with the days of 3G, then 4G and now 5G, each iteration has created a dust cloud of information that can seem impossible to navigate.
As with any standard created by 3GPP (a collaboration between seven telecommunications standards associations), the documentation contains multiple pages and releases of technical terms and acronyms. When spoken, you might get the impression you are in the world of rocket scientists rather than everyday cell phone users.
But putting aside the technical soup of dBs, watts, and GHz, 5G is really quite simple. Here are the major highlights of the next generation telecommunications standard as we see it and how it will affect the mobile wireless experience.
More Transmitters, More Antennas
5G will be focused mainly on preparing the mobile telecommunications network to handle the never-ending flow of data, both from people and machines. People have already demonstrated a 6x increase in data consumption via their smart devices since 2015. This multiplier will increase to 16x by 2021. Add to the mix the forthcoming wave of connected cars, IoT devices and short-wave frequencies and very quickly, the existing infrastructure becomes inadequate.
5G networks will be focused on increasing the number of wireless transmitters and equally the number of antennae a wireless device can access. Some industry experts estimate a wireless operator’s transmitter count could increase 60x.
The days of 200-foot-high cell sites and large broadcast sites are gone. Expect to see more transmitters and antennas connected to the sides of buildings, on telephone and utility poles and on street furniture. The goal is to provide signals closer to mobile devices and thereby provide better signal quality. In the 5G world, this density effort is called “UDN” for ultra dense network.
Larger Data Pipes
Backhaul standards for 3G were about 50-100 Mbps and for 4G, 100-200 Mbps. The standard for 5G will jump to about 1Gbit/sec at the network edge, as the flow of data grows exponentially. Many wireless network operators are already making provisions to upgrade existing nodes in their network but also setting a standard for all new nodes to meet this requirement. As data consumption increases, so does the need for data pipes that carry all this information. By making just this change, an operator can claim they are 5G compliant.
The 3GPP specification for 5G (Release 15 and Release 16) includes several concepts already in 4G networks but adds standards that offer greater efficiencies and other improvements. At the core of each network is the EPC, a combination of hardware and software designed to handle all the decision-making, switching, prioritization, etc. As reliance on the wireless network increases, the EPC must be able to handle more transactions and general requests. With 5G development, the EPC becomes more efficient and, ultimately, more robust and reliable in handling these requests and the onslaught of 1’s and 0’s.
5G also means new spectrum. Today’s networks run on frequencies ranging from 698-2500MHz. 5G will be introducing new spectrum in the high 24-100 GHz range. These frequencies have typically been used for millimeter wave (mmWave) technologies. While these frequencies do not travel as far and are less effective at providing coverage inside buildings, they provide significant improvement in throughput.
Expect the adoption of mmWave to take more time compared to some of the other key elements of 5G. mmWave has not been extensively used in mobile networks nor do existing devices support these frequencies. Trials with these new frequencies are ongoing; however, the spectrum needs to be cleared and made available for use.
Smartphone and IoT device OEMs will need chips to support these frequencies and component manufacturers will need to start making components that support these non-traditional frequencies. This is a large ecosystem that will take time to mobilize (no pun intended).
What does all this mean for in-building networks?
Indoor cellular networks, or DAS, have long been a solution to provide mobile coverage indoors and 5G will continue to drive this need for several reasons. For one, the use of mmWave in the macro network will not provide connectivity to the indoors. Add to this challenge the increasing number of users and devices operating indoors and the increasing signal-to-noise ratio requirements, and it’s clear that indoor DAS networks will play a key role in the network density concept and 5G rollout.
5G is the next step in handling mobile devices and traffic, but contrary to what you may have heard, it’s not revolutionary. Instead, 5G is about greater network density, larger bandwidth handling, more efficient processing and more connectivity in denser locations, including indoors. These concepts won’t all be available on day one, but will gradually roll out over the next two to four years. If 3G and 4G networks have been any indication, the ecosystem will mature quickly but this will still take time. If only 5G networks could speed up time.