Whilst the roll out of 5G is inevitable over the next few years, industry leaders continue to debate exactly what 5G will look like. There is a common agreement that there will have to be increased data rates. On top of that, 5G will bring with it improved device connectivity, energy savings, more capacity, lower latency and cost reductions.
However, consumers are not generally concerned with the delivery method. They just want to get their data, whether uploading and downloading photos to Facebook and Twitter, checking emails or browsing the web. As long as the service is accessible, works and is cost effective, it is irrelevant to most consumers whether their data is coming via the cellular network or over Wi-Fi. Users want access 24/7, wherever they are. That is the real challenge.
Also remember that many people are still using basic 2G services, and even though 4G is now growing at a faster rate than 2G or 3G, its market penetration is still only 9% globally. Coverage is still patchy; just travel on a train and look at the signal being received – 4G is the rarity. This is because most carriers have yet to fully roll out their 4G, or LTE (long-term evolution), networks. Some have jumped up to the faster LTE-Advanced, while others are working to expand Wi-Fi technology to give a more efficient use of their networks.
For carriers, this message means that they should not just focus on cellular, but rather look at data being delivered to the end-user by a combination of means, through licensed and unlicensed technologies such as Wi-Fi. Consumers are demanding an inexpensive, always-on experience and the industry has to rise to this challenge. Plus, combining technologies in this way will take the pressure off existing cellular networks.
The successful rollout of 5G will rely on the spectrum as a primary consideration. The proponents of 5G are talking about delivering a standard that will perform well across all of the spectrum; from 600MHz to 80GHz. Let us be honest, this is unlikely to happen, and different standards or variations on the standards will be needed for different parts of the spectrum. Some of this will involve existing communications standards, such as 60GHz Wi-Fi, also known as WiGig.
In other words, a multi-standard approach is needed for wireless mobile communications as the industry seeks to satisfy insatiable end-user appetites for faster, better and cheaper services, when and where they want it.
This is also putting more pressure on the designers of the cellular radios themselves. Already, these devices are not single but multiple radios handling cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and more. This will increase with the use of 5G and other wireless technologies. One answer is cognitive-based software defined radio (SDR), which allows communications via various waveforms simply by reloading or reconfiguring the software for the application. Integrated into 5G networks, cognitive SDR could help identify the frequencies and spectrums that are available and reconfigure itself to achieve optimum performance.
Thankfully, serious research is being carried by various organisations to find the answer to the questions that 5G will pose. For example, the 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey in the UK has brought together leaders in academia and industry to create a working test bed for 5G technologies. Similarly in the USA, 5G research is taking place at NYU Wireless at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University where researchers are using New York City itself as a test bed with prototype base stations and mobile units. There are many research activities looking at using the various frequencies available in millimetre-wave networks for making 5G more energy efficient, with some demonstrations having taken place by a number of organisations.
In summary, whereas 2G, 3G and even 4G networks were and are about providing coverage, with 5G the focus has to be on what the consumers want. Now, with the spread of smartphones, consumers are much more data hungry than they have ever been. On top of that, it is not just people but machines and sensors and other devices that need to be connected as the so-called internet of things and machine-2-machine communication brings with it the potential for billions of connections.
The internet will be used for everything from controlling traffic flow and informing refuse collectors when bins need to be emptied, to tracking pets and finding lost keys. Gaming and video downloads on to mobile devices are eating up network capacity like never before. To meet these challenges, it is already clear that one size will not fit all but rather there will have to be a combination of wireless technologies to satisfy ever growing connectivity demands.
The world is not far away from 5G arriving in 2020 but already consumers want more. Each new smartphone offers new features which require better and faster connections, and consumers do not expect to pay more for these highly complex services. The carriers that survive will not be those who concentrate purely on 5G but rather those that mix and match wireless technologies to give the consumers the connectivity experience they desire.