Unlike previous network technologies, 5G tackles connectivity challenges through software mechanisms, including virtual networks, network slicing, and localized edge devices.
As technology continues to progress, the nature of data has also undergone many changes that have introduced new possibilities and brought about unique challenges. The first networks—those built before the dawn of the internet—were mostly used to share information across great distances, and as such, they were focused on text-based documents. As the internet emerged, the rise of personal computers introduced web browsers that could be used to view all kinds of media, including images and videos. This change to the nature of data triggered the need for improved download speeds to enhance the user experience, so telecom companies switched from copper to fiber optic cables.
Before 2010, most internet-connected devices were desktop machines that ran local applications and used internet-powered services for web hosting and file sharing. However, the introduction of smartphones and mobile computing created a need for running applications and accessing data remotely, which brought about cloud computing.
Fast-forward to 2022, and the nature of data continues to change with real-time data streams being the current trend. Instead of needing high download speeds, connected devices are requiring reliable data streams that have low latencies. Additionally, edge computing is becoming more popular, whereby cloud-based, time-sensitive applications are being physically located closer to end-point devices, not near data centers.
While numerous wireless network technologies currently exist (3G, 4G, LoRaWAN, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LiDAR, satellite, Zigbee/Z-Wave, and narrowband IoT), no single solution can handle the demands for next-generation connectivity, where high speed, low latency, and higher device support is required.
Wi-Fi, for example, has dominated home networks thanks to its low price, extensive ecosystem, and ease of implementation. While Wi-Fi has high download speeds, it struggles to serve devices at longer ranges and becomes overwhelmed when too many devices try to connect.
Cellular networks like 4G have been designed to handle large numbers of simultaneously connected mobile devices, which makes them a prime candidate for large-scale IoT networks. However, 4G was designed with consumer mobile devices in mind and not IoT devices, resulting in high latency, high energy usage, large network costs, and other challenges.
Fundamentally, most network technologies have been designed to provide access to data but not real-time access. Additionally, these network technologies have also focused on connectivity and delivery of services as opposed to optimizing the underlying infrastructure for next-generation computing tasks.
In contrast to other network technologies, 5G has been designed with modern applications in mind, such as IoT, Industry 4.0, and smart cities.
To cater to all these different applications, 5G introduces fundamental changes to both the physical and software networks that allow it to be modified, adapt to changing demands, and be improved over time.
Regarding the physical properties of 5G, the use of multiple higher frequencies allows for increased bandwidth (providing higher download and upload speeds). At the same time, 5G also introduces the use of beamforming, which helps to direct radio energy to specific clients while allowing for more devices to use the same channel without interference.
The use of higher frequencies does decrease the effective range of 5G (as well as reduce its penetrative capabilities), so 5G also leverages mid-band spectrum, which facilitates the combination of speed, coverage, and penetration. Densification will also be key with the introduction of smaller cells that handle fewer devices over a shorter range. As such, instead of relying on one large base station covering many kilometers, multiple smaller stations are constructed to improve 5G coverage.
Finally, 5G also allows for devices to transmit data whenever they need to (as opposed to waiting for a fixed time slot allocated by the base station). While this doesn’t affect download speeds, it significantly improves latency, which is critical for real-time applications.
When talking about 5G, it is very easy to focus solely on the physical properties of the network such as higher bandwidth, greater carrier frequencies, and reduced latency. In truth, however, 5G is much more than its physical layer. Unlike previous network technologies, 5G also tackles the connectivity challenges through software mechanisms, including virtual networks, network slicing, and localized edge devices.
The 3GPP standard for 5G Core, which is introducing a service-based architecture, is designed for cloud-native deployments, disaggregated RAN, open RAN, and edge computing.
To start, 5G networks allow for edge-computing devices to operate on local cell networks instead of requiring that all traffic be routed back to a central core site; this function is called user plane forwarding. This allows user plane traffic to be analyzed and actionable intelligence to be processed locally; only control plan data gets sent back to the central core.
For example, cloud-based applications can be moved away from a data center and executed at a 5G edge device (think compute on a factory floor switch), or close to it, so that nearby connected devices can experience incredibly low latencies.
Secondly, virtual networks allow for 5G to operate private networks that use their own domains and credentials. Virtual networks also allow for increased security and functionality while also having the ability to serve up carrier network signals or use a neutral host provider allowing for consumer coverage inside of buildings separate from secure private networks.
Finally, network slicing in 5G allows for specific services to operate on their own dedicated virtual networks that run on the same underlying infrastructure. For example, emergency services can use a unique network that operates independently of any other traffic on the network, and this could allow for additional metadata to be transmitted, including live location data and smartphone battery levels.
When it comes to the practical applications of 5G, many will be quick to think about IoT and smart cities, but 5G is suited for many applications, including sports and retail.
By far, one of the biggest advantages that 5G could introduce into sports is the ability to provide real-time sensor data from players, specifically biodata. People with active careers in sports are often required to be in peak physical health and minimize injuries to ensure long, successful careers. (Also, consider that many sporting events deal with substantial investments through betting and spectators.)
The deployment of 5G networks in sporting environments could help provide low-latency connections between medical staff and wearable sensors, and this could provide valuable insight into a player’s condition. With the addition of edge computing (via machine-learning algorithms to decode the data coming from sensors), medical staff could make informed decisions about when to remove players who may be succumbing to injuries.
This real-time data also introduces potential sources of revenue for gaming and betting agencies, as the ability for spectators to view this data could garner greater interest. For example, spectators would be able to track the long-term performance of players and better understand their career progression.
Additionally, the use of 5G networks in sporting events could help to power augmented- and virtual-reality technologies. Having thousands of spectators in a stadium can stress most modern networks, but the use of smaller, more numerous access points in 5G could help to overcome these challenges.
The combination of low latency and high bandwidth with 5G enables spectators to have real-time data streamed to smart glasses to create a new type of experience.
Finally, large stadiums could deploy subscription models for private 5G networks that provide paying users with better connectivity or a premium slice. Such private networks could also be incorporated into other stadium infrastructure, including security systems and crowd-control mechanisms.
While many applications of 5G attempt to take advantage of its low latency and high bandwidth, the retail sector can capitalize on 5G’s ability to support edge-computing devices.
For example, individual shops in a large mall could be connected to a 5G service that provides details of the shopping habits of customers who have entered their store. Visitors to the mall could subscribe to a local 5G network for improved connectivity, and the use of edge computing on the 5G network can anonymize collected data, including shops visited and paths taken. Shops that pay for the service could then observe this anonymized data to understand where shoppers went after visiting their store and gain a better understanding of their habits.
Additionally, virtual reality and augmented reality could provide shoppers with enhanced experiences thanks to the higher bandwidth and reduced latency. For example, shoppers at home could use 5G networks to browse shops virtually in real time and see what is in stock without needing to resort to online inventory management systems.
Ron Malenfant is 5G strategy evangelist at Ciena.