The next generation WAN – where are we with 5G?

By combining a number of features from the networks that came before it, 5G will let users connect with virtually zero latency and gigabit throughput.

According to the GSMA, 5G is set to arrive within the next three years and will account for more than one billion connections by 2025, when 5G networks will be accessible by one third of the world’s population. Described as the next-generation WAN, 5G has the potential to be as transformative as the introduction of electricity itself.   

These are awesome claims – in the true sense of the word – but are they founded in fact?  Behind the heated, hyperbolic, super-shifting paradigm, what do we actually know about the details of 5G? 

A vision of the future 

The vision for 5G is that it will combine a number of features to create the next generation network: it will have all the features of 4G, with its capacity for massive mobile data; it will offer the voice, video and mobile data features of 3G; it will fall back to 2G for Internet of Things deployments; and it will include Wi-Fi spectrum.  With virtually zero latency and gigabit throughput, these features will together form the next generation 5G WAN.  

Whilst a formal specification for 5G is yet to be set, things are moving on rapidly in the industry.  In February 2017, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) – the organisation that governs the specifications that define 3GPP technologies – formally named it 5G and gave it its own special logo to recognise its growing official status.  In the March 2017 UK Spring Budget, building on the recently announced Digital Strategy the Chancellor announced a new National 5G Innovation Network.  This will receive £16 million in state funds to work with research institutions to start trials and speed-up development of the technology.

A government team will oversee the 5G programme with funding for more trials set to be awarded on a competitive basis.  The UK’s 5G Innovation Centre, based in the University of Surrey and established in 2015, is likely to play a big role in these plans.  The £70 million initiative employs 170 researchers and will provide a testbed for 5G.  The government will also explore commercial options for improving coverage across the transport network, and collaborate with Ofcom to ensure the UK is ready for the new technology.  

The 5G timeline  

Whilst the formal specification for 5G is not expected to be completed until 2019, some international carriers are already conducting 5G trials today.  Some of these may be available to customers later this year.     

How it is possible to conduct trials before the specification has been established?  To understand this, we need to look more closely at what the carriers are actually doing. 

Using non-standard architecture (NSA) – proprietary technology based on their own specification – means operators can begin testing before the standardised specification is released.  Whilst this means various apects of the technology can be tested, it is a temporary solution with a few restrictions.  As a proprietory framework, there is no interoperability between carriers – each works only with its own specification.  There is also no mobility.  With no cell-site handoffs, any ‘5G’ device will be unable to move outside of a single cell mast the range.  The framework therefore only provides fixed wireless access – widespread 5G device adoption will not be seen anytime soon.  

The technology being used is ‘millimetre wave’ spectrum – a very high frequency spectrum ranging from 6 to 100GHz – which is only effective for point-to-point wireless communication.  The spectrum is is good for carrying data, but bad at penetrating solid objects cush as buildings, people or other obstacles.  This means it can only be used effectively for site-to-site, point-to-point communication.  When the 3GPP specification arrives, carriers will be able to combine millimetre wave spectrum with sub-6GHz spectrum, which is what all Long-Term Evolution (LTE) and Wi-Fi are deployed in today.  Whilst this carries less data, it is much better for penetrating buildings and provides standards for cell-site handoff.    

The 5G upgrade  

There are two central parts to the 5G upgrade.  The first is air interface (RF).  The second is the core, which includes aspescts such as authentication to the network, billing, data centers and traffic routing.  NSA allows rapid 5G upgrades to the air interface while still relying on the 4G LTE core.  When this core interface is eventually upgraded, we will have standalone 5G.  Eventually this will encompass many wireless technologies.  Gigabit LTE will be used to gain access to super-fast speeds, as well as Internet of Things (IoT) devices, as it provides low power, long battery life. and long-range coverage.  It may also be used for digital TV or in-vehicle connections.  The combination of all available technology will provide the necessary mobility for 5G WAN. 

The focus is on adapting the industry to take advantage of the opportunities offered by millimetre wave technology.  While this very little in the way of mobility, it is ideal for fixed point-to-point communications.  The bandwidth available is so high, it has the capability to replace underground, fixed-line fibre connections.  In 2016, Google announced it was no longer intending to bury fibre trenches underground as a means of delivering internet connectivity to buildings.  Instead, just like the carriers are doing in 5G trials, the company is capitalising on millimetre wave technology.  Rather than digging a trench and delivering a fibre connection, it will beam 5G from a tower to a fixed antenna on the building.  

Exceptional potential   

The potential benefits of 5G technology are huge: less latency with more throughput, connection density, spectrum efficiency, traffic capacity, and network efficiency — all within the next couple of years.    

The challenge for network suppliers will be to manage and balance latency and bandwidth while tailoring the network elements such as Network Function Virtualization (NFV) for the needs of their customers.  The Internet of Things (IoT) industry, which primarily occupies the low bitrate range, is expecting new standards such as NB-IoT, CAT-M1, CAT0 and CAT1.  

To manage the next generation network, companies will need to consider the value of hardware combined with software-defined networking (SDN) technology.  Enabling this on the next generation 5G WAN will be fundamental framework that securely connects people, places and things around the world.  

Hubert Da Costa, VP EMEA, Cradlepoint 

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