The dawn of the 5G era is just around the corner, and the expectation for what it will deliver for consumers and businesses is sky-high. With the promise of blistering speed and low latency, 5G is expected to usher in a golden digital age of remote healthcare, autonomous vehicles and advanced robotics. It heralds an explosion of augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR) applications and accelerates the already rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT).
For the telecom industry, 5G holds the promise of new business opportunity and revenue growth. It’s a much-needed boost as the industry faces saturation, especially in the developed economies.
The telecom industry is developing 5G along the lines of 3G and 4G, the previous generations of wide-area wireless technology used primarily over licensed spectrum. It’s shorthand for the formal name IMT-2020, which is owned by the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations. IMT-2020 will define a set of performance benchmarks that candidate radio technologies have to meet, just like its predecessors.
However, unlike previous generations of wireless technologies where competing standards were put forth, the proposal from 3GPP is only candidate standard for 5G. 3GPP consists of and represents technology vendors, service providers, some national regulators and even universities. The precise definition of IMT-2020 is still a work in progress. However, for Indoor Hotspot, Dense Urban, Urban Macro and Rural applications, 5G covers three wide area wireless communication scenarios:
Enhanced Mobile Broadband (EMBB). In the dense urban setting, users should experience speeds of at least 100 Mb/s on the downlink and 50 Mb/s on the uplink at least 95% of the time. Regarding capacity, it will be possible to deliver 10 Mb/s to every square meter of space in the Indoor Hotspot setting.
Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC). In Urban Macro type of settings, service must guarantee that a small data packet can be transferred successfully within one millisecond over the radio network 99.999% of the time.
Massive Machine-Type Communication (MMTC) is meant to be used by up to 1 million low-throughput, low-power devices per square kilometer.
The rise of 5G will most likely be powered initially by EMBB, which will deliver on the promise of blazing-fast broadband. EMBB will likely be followed with URLLC, which will deliver low-latency applications, and then MMTC, which will address the IoT market.
The good news for the industry is that it already knows how to do all this. There is no magic needed, and the technology to deliver on the promise of 5G already exists: it only needs to be put together in the right way. Indeed, the view of 5G from the technology angle is one of optimism and promise. And there certainly will be some yet unforeseen applications that will take advantage of 5G.
But is it fair to say-as some pundits suggest-that 5G will bring revolutionary change for the better? That it will ally with technologies such as artificial intelligence, AR/VR and IoT to transform our lives beyond recognition? Perhaps, but it is wise to be cautious in large part because of factors other than technology, namely economics, public policy and human psychology.
Consider economics. The business model responsible for the rise of the 3G and 4G was driven by the mobile phone, a retail market that people and businesses are willing to pay for to keep connected and to access the internet. However, a big part of the 5G market is targeting machine-to-machine applications, specifically IoT and the vehicle-to-vehicle/vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2X). Service providers need to develop new business models that establish who pays-and how they pa-for these services, which is not a trivial exercise.
Another challenge is, will low-latency applications meet stringent safety regulations for critical applications such as autonomous cars and robots? Can self-driving car depend on an external network for real-time responses that are expected in the order of milliseconds?
There are a variety of other thorny challenges the industry must address that have implications for business models, revenue potential and justifying the investment for building out 5G networks.
Technology providers and equipment makers are already hard at work churning out solutions incorporating new technology, and rightly so. Service providers, however, need to assess their respective markets and coverage footprints to decide just when and how they want to introduce this new technology, weighing it against investment in the robustly developing LTE technology family.