by Barry Manz, President – Manz Communications, Inc.
Even if you aren’t an ardent follower of trends in wireless communications, the coming fifth generation is hard to miss. 5G (along with the inevitable presence of IoT) was by any measure the Big News at Mobile World Congress, and the same promises to be true for IMS next month in San Francisco. While all previous wireless generations were wildly promoted before they actually appeared, the fifth generation is setting new benchmarks in flamboyance as the standards themselves won’t be ready until 2019 and 5G-enabled products aren’t likely to hit the streets until a year later. So why is 5G different?
Compared with any previous generation except obviously the first one, when cellular technology first emerged, the fifth generation is an almost wholesale revision of how networks are created and dynamically orchestrated, at what frequencies they will operate, and what types of devices will be affected, along with a commitment to achieving data rates of at least 1 Gb/s and round-trip latency of less than 1 ms. Any one of these changes are great enough to place 5G in a class by itself, but collectively they amount to an undertaking of extraordinary proportions. Frankly, maybe we should just start over in the naming process and call 5G something else entirely. It’s that big a deal.
Let’s take a look at these proposed advances one at a time. First, rather than being defined largely by hardware as they are today, networks will be both software-defined and virtual, relying extensively on the massive processing power and data storage of the cloud, edge computing, and other techniques. Next, a standard following 4G (including LTE and LTE-Advanced) might boast theoretical data rates of 150 Mb/s or perhaps 200 Mb/s, but 1Gb/s? I’d be happy simply with just a download speed of 50 Mb/s regardless of where I happen to be (including indoors), which would itself be quite an accomplishment.
5G also extends the types of products it encompasses beyond the smartphone and tablet to include man-to-machine and machine-to-machine devices, finally making it possible for IoT to be realized on a large scale. But rather than simply enabling these devices via the carrier wireless network, it will act as an aggregator of sorts under which fall the various current standards currently competing for supremacy, but also impede IoT’s incredible potential.
The new standard should also reduce if not eliminate the problems associated with the current lack of available spectrum, as it will move cellular technology beyond 3 GHz for the first time, ultimately extending all the way to 60 GHz. Obviously, any increase in frequency comes with its own challenges (like backhaul), but operating in the millimeter-wave region poses obstacles such as the problematic propagation characteristics that are unique to these frequencies. So along with LDMOS and GaAs, GaN will find its place in the commercial world along with SiGe at the highest frequency ranges.
And, saving the best for last there is latency, or rather the lack of it, which will be essential to enable the next generation of robotics, as well as telesurgery, “serious” gaming, augmented and virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, and other applications in which near-instantaneous response times are required. Latency may well be the greatest challenge of all, as achieving round-trip times of less than 1 ms pits the industry against the laws of physics. Current cellular systems have latency of about 50 ms, sometimes less or sometimes more, but reaching down to 1 ms and below is likely to be achievable only over very short distances. This presumably translates into huge amounts of additional infrastructure as well as truly massive MIMO, and other techniques still in development.
So if you’re planning to attend IMS 2016, you’re not likely to be bored, as this year 5G will almost certainly take center stage both on the exhibit floor and especially in the sessions. I for one can’t wait.