5G is seen by many within the electronics industry as one of the central pillars for the next expansion of digital infrastructure. It is a new technology capable of ushering in elevated speeds, lower latency, and greater coverage. 5G promises to accelerate consumer networks and revolutionize industrial wireless networks, helping to expand the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) and intelligent infrastructure such as smart traffic systems.
That said, the current wider opinion on 5G seems to be at best muted. While few see this revolutionary new step in wireless communications as a slight iteration from the previous 4G communication, they are still unaware of the significance of 5G.
So, what exactly are the key technological steps that 5G would deliver, and what impact will it have on not just consumers but the industry, too? And how will our lives change as 5G and then 6G come to fruition?
5G Technologies for Consumers and Industry
Many believe that 5G offers faster network speeds than previous iterations. Though this is undoubtedly a prominent selling point for 5G, its benefits are not to the full extent. 5G’s aim is not solely to boost speed; rather, it can be argued that 5G is the first generation of mobile communication networks designed to cater to more than human usage.
According to the definition created by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), the three major service categories for 5G include Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC), and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTCca). Among them, the latter two service categories are designed to improve the network efficiency between human-to-machine and machine-to-machine communication.
eMBB – Increasing Speed and Availability
The availability of eMBB technology results in a noticeable increase in our daily internet access speeds compared to previous generations. This improvement is the one that most people associate with 5G technology. Existing base 4G networks allow for a peak data rate of 150Mbps download and 50Mbps upload. The peak theoretical download data rate for 5G is 20Gbps, and the peak uplink data rate is 10Gbps. This is 100 times faster than the peak speed delivered by base 4G and 20 times faster than 4G LTE+.
Apart from accelerating the speed of familiar services, including streaming 4K/8K videos without latency, faster speeds offer new opportunities for data-intensive applications, such as Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), enabling us to use such technologies away from home networks and without wired connections.
But how is 5G providing such a significant increase in the speed compared to previous generational jumps? Thanks to new air interface technology! Air interface is a mobile communication term that refers to the wireless transmission specification between base stations and mobile phones. Air interface specifies what frequency of radio waves to use for transmission, what kind of antenna to use, how to encode information into the radio waves, advanced modulation, multiplexing technologies, and so on.
Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO) techniques, also referred to as spatial multiplexing, is the ability to transmit multiple data streams using the same time and frequency resource, where each data stream can be beamformed differently, increasing system throughput.
During the 2G era, the base station design featured a standard configuration consisting of two sets of independent transceiver units, and a typical 4G base station would possess 4 or 8 autonomous transceiver units between points A and B. However, with new technologies, a massive MIMO configuration delivers lower signal interference between antennas while enabling cooperation between them (beamforming). Consequently, a 5G base station can operate 64 independent transceiver units, which significantly increases the transfer rate.
Another important technology is the addition of information transmission in the millimetre wave (mmWave) band. In the past, typically, sub-six frequency bands were used for mobile communications, which is the frequency band below 6GHz. One of 5G’sinitiatives is the addition of millimetre wave bands that were least used previously and uncongested. Compared to 6GHz, the mmWave band has a higher frequency, lower coverage range, is easier to attenuate, , and provides much higher bandwidth.
URLLC – Increasing Reliability and Reducing Latency
The consensus is that introducing 5G will lead to a surge in technologies such as unmanned driving, telemedicine, remote robot control, and more. The ultra-high demand and low-latency requirements of these fields are the primary reasons why the pre-5G networks do not support the large-scale application of such technologies. For instance, when using a smartphone to browse the internet, failing to open a webpage is not particularly critical. However, network errors or delays will be a considerable problem if a doctor is performing a remote surgery. Such applications require that errors are resolved within a few milliseconds (if they occur) and need an exceptionally high level of dependability.
In 5G wireless communications, the delay between the terminal and the base station in the frequency band below 6GHz can be as low as 1 ms, while in the mmWave band, the delay can be as low as 0.1ms!
The reaction speed of an average human is about 300ms, while the International Association of Athletics Federations determines that the limit of human reaction time is 100ms. The theoretical latency of 4G is 10ms. While 1ms may seem a minimal delay when applied to the field of autonomous vehicles, a car travelling at 70mph will move 3.2cm in this timeframe. For a 0.1ms delay, data transmission is instantaneous; in this example, a vehicle would move just 0.32cm.
The high reliability of 5G is primarily due to new coding and modulation mechanisms. These mechanisms have improved error correction capabilities without being excessively complex or increasing algorithm running time. Achieving low latency has necessitated new uplink, downlink, and URLLC high-priority transmission mechanisms, as well as solutions such as edge computing.
In recent times, one of the most important system advancements is the change in frame structure. In mobile communications, data is transmitted in frames, and at the physical level, the most basic unit of a frame is an Orthogonal Frequency-Division Multiplexing (OFDM) symbol. Groups of symbols form a slot, and groups of slots form a subframe, which further forms a frame. In 5G, a new frame combination method, mini-slot, is added. Each mini-slot consists of two, four, or seven OFDM symbols. In 4G LTE, the most basic slot contains seven OFDM symbols. Mini-slot reduces the minimum scheduling period by transmitting smaller groups of OFDM symbols, increasing system responsiveness.
Furthermore, 5G’s approach supports a more flexible frame structure. By allowing for modulation of the subcarrier spacing from 15KHz to 240KHz, 5G allows for different slot durations, with shorter, lower-latency durations at the higher frequencies.
mMTC – Increasing Network Capacity
Within Internet of Things (IoT) applications for forest fire prevention, a multitude of sensors will be implemented throughout the forest to monitor temperature, humidity, and precipitation. Unlike smartphones, these stationary sensors do not necessitate mobility management, but bring their own specific network characteristics and requirements. In such applications, the number of devices that must connect is considerable, as is the distribution area. Despite their limited data transmission, these massive arrays of detectors must be able to reliably connect to networks in remote areas, such as forests and farmland, where coverage is usually poor, something which 5G can achieve through localised network distribution.
Even before 5G, the IoT has existed in our lives for a long time. From shared bicycles to smart homes and connected self-service vending machines in shopping malls, IoT devices are everywhere.. Experts predict that by 2025, there will be more than 70 billion connected devices globally, which is about 8 times the world’s population.
Before the emergence of 5G, we have seen a variety of mainstream IoT networking technologies, including GSM technology that mainly relies on 2G and 3G networks (which will gradually withdraw in the future as 2G and 3G networks shutdown), LoRa technology independently deployed by enterprises, and 4G LTE communication.
By formally incorporating the Narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) and enhanced Machine-Type Communication (eMTC) standards into 5G and innovating the overall network architecture, including cloud technology, Software-Defined Networks (SDNs), Self-Optimising Networking (SON), network virtualisation, slicing technology, etc., 5G is determined to play an important role in the IoT. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) envisions that 5G could support up to one million devices per square kilometre. It is conceivable that with the support of 5G, more and more traditional devices would become advanced.
Progress on 5G Rollout
Returning to today’s reality and considering the benefits of 5G infrastructure, one may wonder that even though 5G networks being available for four years, yet many people only perceive them as “fast”, with its speed not being distinctly notable. The answer to this is – 5G is still in the early stages of rollout and the full potential it can release is yet to be realised.
Three years may be a long time period for consumers, but that’s not the case in the communications industry. After formulating any new technology, operators need to adopt the standard to build base stations, chip manufacturers must produce compliant chips, and there must be enough demand from consumers for companies to invest in the technology.
Usually, this uptake in demand results from new service innovations that engage consumers as seen in the history of the communication industry. For instance, during the 1G era, the most important innovation rolled out was the mobile calling function. Whereas, in the 2G era it was text messaging and in the 3G era, web browsing and video calling functionality were rolled out.
With that said, in the 1G era, though the mobile calling functionality was available, phone calls were a privilege reserved for a few business travellers. It was not until 2G arrived that mobile phone ownership expanded. The same goes for video calls. While 3G supported this functionality, we are only seeing a rapid uptake as we transition from 4G to 5G. 5G is a further iteration in communication technology standards, it will take years of efforts by companies and governments to transform the technology into a perceptible social change. Even then, it will probably be innovative usages of 5G and possibly a further transition to 6G that highlights its power to consumers.
Industrial Applications Initial Results
Although the future predictions of widespread driverless vehicles and remote surgery providing more cost-effective operations has yet to be realised, and the mmWave band that facilitates 5G speed and latency peaks has not yet been rolled out in many countries, the industry has initiated the large-scale deployment of 5G infrastructure.
The mining industry is one of the early sectors to engage with industrial 5G. Mining regions are typically located in more secluded areas. With the aid of 5G technology, workers can remotely operate mining equipment, which significantly reduces workers’ risk and increases efficiency. Data from the Pulan Copper Mine, China’s first mine to use 5G technology at high altitudes, shows that using unmanned loaders can reduce the mining process by about four hours by eliminating the need to evacuate personnel before and after blasting.
Worcester Bosch, manufacturer of the household boiler has opened its first 5G factory in the UK using a private 5G network and mobile edge computing infrastructure. The Worcestershire 5G Testbed (W5G) factory uses 5G to operate real-time machinery sensors, helping engineering teams solve production line issues before they escalate. Since the installation of a network of collision detection sensors in the factory, employee safety has significantly improved, and initial production has increased by 2%.
A Look to the Future – 6G
Despite the 5G rollout being in its early stages, there is significant buzz around the next iteration – 6G. From 2G, 3G, and 4G to 5G, mobile communication technology is updated approximately every decade, with 6G expected to be commercially available around 2030. The ITU has set the future vision for 6G in Geneva on the 22nd of June 2023, with countries including the United States, China, and the UK forming industry working groups.
Although the 6G standard does not exist yet, there are already clues about its technical direction. Besides improved peak speed, latency, traffic density, connection density, mobility, spectrum efficiency, and positioning capabilities, 6G networks could enhance satellite-ground integration and communication awareness.
The two important research directions for 6G are terahertz and low-orbit communication satellites. Terahertz is an electromagnetic wave with a higher frequency than current mmWaves. A higher frequency band means larger the use of bandwidth, but worse the diffraction. At the same time, the broader the spectrum, the greater the demands for communication devices. To cope with this evolution, massive MIMO needs to develop into ultra-large-scale MIMO and antenna units need to become smaller.
Low orbit satellite communication is also a current technology that is a trending topic. Compared with 5G, 6G will consider native support for low-orbit satellite communications. This involves the unified design of satellite and ground cellular communication architecture, wireless air interface. This design will help to seamlessly switch between satellites and ground including passing satellites. Although communication satellites are likely to be in an auxiliary position compared to the deployment of ground base stations, they are of great significance for communications in the sea, air, or remote areas.
Mobile communication is one of our modern digital world’s most important underlying technologies. From 1G to 4G, each generation has improved productivity and created vast economic benefits. This effect reached its peak after the emergence of 4G, and it has brought about the prosperity of mobile internet applications and completely changed the society we live in.
But can 5G replicate the remarkable changes that 4G has brought to our lives? As discussed, on the civilian side, although the increase in network speed is perceivable, no phenomenal new applications can fully utilise the performance of 5G and bring about significant changes to society. Perhaps immersive technology will be a good future use scenario, or maybe a truly innovative application yet to emerge. On the commercial side, 5G is already improving the efficiency of many businesses.
With the evolution of 5G and 6G, some technological concepts that we have discussed for a long time, such as holographic communication and digital twins, may finally be realised. Whether each concept can take shape ultimately depends on more than the underlying network, but there is no doubt that the construction of 5G and 6G will promote the growth of technologies previously only seen in Sci-Fi movies and further expand our digital world.