Thorns in 5G’s Bed of Roses

Article By : Jay Kruse

When reading about 5G, it can appear to be the cure to all of our problems. But the technology may not live up to the hype surrounding it.

As new technologies are introduced to society to solve existing problems, new problems are often brought along. That, of course, creates the need for additional developments. For example, the introduction of cars had a massive impact on personal transport and delivery of goods but presented issues with road safety, road infrastructure, and air quality challenges.

The same can be said for many modern technologies. Cloud computing has seen a need for lower latencies, internet-of-things devices have created a world constantly under threat, and Industry 4.0 has demonstrated that existing industrial networks are simply not up to standard.

One problem that these internet-related technologies have in common is the need for a common network technology that can reduce device latency, support more devices, and provide new software capabilities not currently seen in existing network technologies.

When looking at current network options, engineers find themselves having to compromise to some degree, no matter what technology they choose. Wi-Fi is cheap and easy to implement but has a limited range and can’t handle large numbers of devices on any one network. It also has high latencies, while private 4G networks have been primarily aimed at smartphones and thus aren’t entirely suitable for IoT devices. LoRa provides excellent range but at a cost of extremely low bandwidth, and current local-area-network options are either unsuitable for real-time tasks or use proprietary solutions that struggle to work with other networks.

5G touted as future-proof

One network technology that continues to gain traction is 5G. It seems to be the network solution that will solve everything with its obscenely high download speeds, lightning-fast connection times, low latency, and support for numerous future technologies. But what makes 5G so capable compared with previous technologies?

Unlike existing network technologies, 5G has been designed with modern computing in mind and targets far more than just smartphones with support for edge computing, cloud computing, large-scale IoT deployments, and private networks for businesses. As such, it has been designed to be highly configurable to meet user needs so that as demand changes, so can the network infrastructure.

5G use cases (Source: Shutterstock)

With respect to the technical capabilities of 5G networks, higher bandwidths are possible thanks to the use of higher frequencies, as well as multiple frequency bands. Simply put, a higher carrier frequency allows for greater bandwidth, and the use of additional channels allows for multiple 5G devices to operate without interfering with each other. Furthermore, the use of MIMO antenna and beamforming allows for a single-frequency band to service multiple devices simultaneously because each device has its own dedicated beam.

Lower latencies in 5G are solved using two techniques that reside in hardware and software. The hardware solution removes the need for devices to await their allotted time to send data, essentially allowing devices to transmit and receive whenever they need to. The software solution to reducing latency moves cloud-computing tasks to the edge so that data needed by 5G devices is stored locally either at or close to 5G access points.

The ability for 5G to run virtual networks also allows for businesses and other entities to run personalized networks on top of preexisting 5G infrastructure. Such networks can incorporate additional features, such as stronger security practices, subscription models, and unique application programming interfaces.

5G might not be what we expect

When reading about 5G in news and technical articles, white papers, and blog posts, it can appear to be the cure to all of our problems, but 5G may not live up to the hype surrounding it.

The first challenge 5G faces is that while multiple frequency bands have been opened for 5G, these bands are auctioned off to different suppliers. Service providers operating on higher frequencies will be able to offer the greatest bandwidth, but those operating on lower frequencies will not. As such, it’s highly likely that 5G connections will see improvements in download speeds compared with 4G, but nowhere near the 20-Gbps figure sometimes touted online.

The different bands being auctioned off to different providers also affect 5G coverage. Lower frequencies have lower bandwidth but a greater range and are less affected by trees and hills and the like. Higher frequencies, however, will have short ranges and will struggle to penetrate walls. As such, customers may find high-bandwidth 5G coverage to be somewhat lacking.

This mix of frequencies, spread across different supplies, also introduces the issue of burst speed versus average speed. Even if a 5G network can provide 20 Gbps, this may only be the connection speed between a device and its local access point. Data being streamed over the internet will be restricted to fiber infrastructure and whatever remote data centers can provide.

Finally, 5G infrastructure is still being set up by operators, and it’s possible that operators have not fully stress-tested their networks. So it’s possible that 5G networks could struggle to cope with demand. Thus, early adopters of 5G may see privileged speeds that will eventually fall as more devices are connected.

Technical challenges ahead

Undoubtedly, one of the biggest technical challenges that 5G will face is the installation of infrastructure. Because higher bandwidths have reduced ranges and transmitter powers must be limited when placed near residential areas, 5G networks will require large deployments of microcells (typically found in streetlamps and other preexisting street infrastructure). The installation of thousands of such access points will push up the price of 5G, and this cost will be passed onto consumers.

Instead, network operators can install 5G access points only where they’re needed, but this creates inconsistent networks where 5G is only available in specific areas. Therefore, deploying 5G devices will provide technical challenges as network operators slowly install new 5G access points believed to provide a return on investment.

Additionally, the barrier to entry for 5G is greater than other network technologies because of IP use and licensing. For example, Qualcomm holds key patents on mobile technologies, which it integrates into telecommunications standards, and as such, it’s entitled to royalties from the majority of cellular devices. This raises the price of cellular devices significantly ($5 for a cellular chip compared with $1 for a Wi-Fi equivalent), which can in turn increase the price of large-scale deployments.

Certainly, 5G presents numerous technological advances and advantages compared with existing network technologies: greater bandwidth, more device support, and software-defined infrastructure that allows for long-term planning.

However, users must have realistic expectations from the new network technology and take reported figures with a grain of salt. Furthermore, 5G won’t replace other network technologies; instead, it will help to power new industries like IoT, industrial IoT, and vehicle-to-everything.


This article was originally published on EE Times.

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