5G Communication Networks: Drivers and Implications
The introduction of the analog cellular systems back in 1980 signaled a revolution in mobile telephony through enabling the wireless exchange of voice and data signals. Communication networks have evolved rapidly ever since based on much sophisticated and smarter technologies that have completely changed the way we live and work. Every decade is characterized by a significant advancement in mobile technologies which is associated with a new generation of wireless and mobile communications. In this context, we are currently experiencing the benefits of the 4th Generation (4G) of mobile communications, which is characterized by high-speed communications, international roaming capabilities, as well as the integration of voice, video and data communications. 4G technologies underpin many of the state-of-the-art networked applications that we all use every day, such as the mainstream social networking applications and the rich set of mobile apps that include multimedia features and functionalities.
Despite the capacity and speed of 4G communications technology, there are still cases where the quality of service is far from being perfect and reliable. For instance, people are still experiencing poor service when trying to use their smartphone during events occurring in densely populated venues such as football stadiums and concert halls. At the same time, a number of emerging bandwidth savvy and low-latency applications will be soon driving 4G technologies to their limit. As a prominent example, self-driving cars are expected to access and process large volumes of data per second, in order to be able to “see the road”, understand the driving context and drive safely. Indeed, autonomous vehicles are expected to take decisions nearly ten times per second, based on the collection of information from hundreds of sensors and other vehicles.
For these reasons, researchers, telecommunication equipment vendors and services providers are already working intensively towards the fifth (5G) generation of mobile communications, which is destined to overcome the limitations of existing technologies for many state-of-the-art application scenarios, but most importantly to meet the quality of service needs of future applications such as self-driving cars.
5G will be delivering increased bit rates, along with large data volumes per unit area, based on much higher spectral efficiency when compared to 4G. This exceptional spectral efficiency will be empowered by 5G’s novel cognitive radio technology, which will facilitate different versions of radio technologies to share the same spectrum. At the same time, 5G is designed to enable more devices to connect concurrently and instantaneously without any essential loss in the end-user’s experience. Furthermore, it will boost the power efficiency of mobile communications as a means of lowering battery consumption. This will be achieved based on up to 90% reduction in network energy usage. Also, 5G targets worldwide coverage i.e. high-quality connectivity regardless of the geographic region of the end user. With 5G the entire world is expected to be in Wi-Fi zone. Moreover, 5G is expected to lower the costs of infrastructural development, while at the same time increasing the reliability of the networked applications.
5G evangelists quantify the above-listed advantages, in order to illustrate 5G’s potential. In terms of speed and bandwidth, 5G is expected to deliver speeds from 1 to 10 Gbps. As far as latency is concerned, an end-to-end round-trip time of less than one (1) millisecond is foreseen. These figures justify 5G’s ability to support a large number of real-time and data-intensive applications of the fourth industrial revolution.
Beyond specific applications, the Internet-of-Things (IoT) revolution is considered as one of the main drivers behind 5G. In the recent blogs, we have extensively discussed the rise and growth of the IoT paradigm, along with relevant applications in areas such as healthcare, trade, industry and smart cities. Moreover, we have illustrated its momentum, based on the exponential increase in the number of internet-connected devices. In a world of billions of connected devices, there is a need for new connectivity paradigms, which will ensure the quality of service in sensor and IoT devices saturated areas where billions of data streams will be produced and processed every few seconds.
5G provides this novel connectivity paradigm. Many of its features are designed in order to support the connectivity and efficient operation of IoT devices and applications. As a prominent example, its emphasis on power-efficient communications and longer battery life addresses one of the proclaimed needs of IoT and mobile computing users nowadays. Likewise, its exceptionally low latency is a key enabler for the vast number of IoT applications that rely on (near) real-time analytics, such as healthcare analytics at the point of care, analytics for predictive maintenance and quality management in factories, real-time detection of water leaks in smart cities and more.
Note also that 5G is seen as a global framework that can unify diverse IoT technologies and protocols (e.g., different low-power access protocols in smart homes or smart buildings). This unification will be particularly important in contexts where interoperability across different IoT connectivity technologies is required. Smart cities and public infrastructure projects are probably the most prominent examples.
One may argue that 5G is just about higher bandwidth and lower latency than 4G. While this is a true statement, it is also an oversimplification of 5G technologies. Like the previous generations of communications, 5G is not mere capacity improvement rather it will also include disruptive features that could possibly change the communication landscape (e.g., like data and voice integration in 3G). In the case of 5G, disruption will come from the delivery of exceptional user experience. In particular, 5G will deliver unprecedented user experience in cases where existing technologies fail. Densely populated urban areas and events are only one example. 5G will also facilitate seamless roaming and uninterrupted delivery of multimedia applications for users moving at very high speeds (e.g., high-speed train, fast cars), as well as delivery of applications at very high altitudes.
5G is still under development and not yet commercially available. Most of the large telcos worldwide are planning or already executing large-scale pilots in order to validate the technology and gain experience for further development and deployment. Several thorny issues are still to be addressed, including the development of the promised spectral efficiency and the implementation of built-in security and data protection functionalities. It is estimated that the first enterprise-scale services will become commercially available after 2020. Nevertheless, many vendors and solution integrators are already designing and developing products that will take advantage of 5G characteristics and capabilities. In a sense, 5G is already having a global impact and is all set to paint the future of ICT infrastructures and applications.
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