One of the most striking elements of 5G is its overhaul of the core infrastructure that the network is built upon. Current cellular networks are hierarchical in that they deliver content to an end user served from a centralised datacentre. Some commentators even going as far to state that the changes that 5G will deliver could be as profound as the steam engine or printing press.
Latency, reliability and security are all impacted by the performance of the network as a whole. 5G changes that relationship to create a decentralised and dynamic network that can be tailored to the specific needs of each user thanks to the virtualisation of the network and the use of slicing.
From an infrastructure point of view, 5G will transform our thinking of what it means to deliver high bandwidth services to consumers or within a business context.
“To understand the size of the 5G opportunity for businesses, it’s important to understand how 5G interplays with other technologies – and especially its relationship to edge computing,” said Justin Shields, Products and Solutions Director at Vodafone Business. “When combined with multi-edge computing (MEC), the speed of data processing and pushing applications to the edge of a network will be accelerated – meaning that information will not need to constantly travel between a central datacentre and a device. For businesses, this kind of improvement in data processing speed and power means that connected ecosystems will be powered by instantaneous connectivity giving businesses and customers more control than ever before.”
Another core aspect of the 5G network is its transition from a hardware-based network to software. By virtualising the RAN (Radio Access Network) and using the flexible nature of NFV (Network Function Virtualisation) and its complementary technology SDN (Software-Defined Network) for management protocols, uncoupling the network services from its hardware legacy can move much of the data and processing to the edge of the network where low latency communications and delivery become possible.
The first phase of 5G New Radio (NR) deployed in 2019 uses a Non-Standalone architecture (NSA) that couples the LTE with 5G-NR radio layers. These two layers are aggregated via an X2 interface which allows for simultaneous ‘dual’ connectivity between LTE and 5G radios.
Says McKinsey & Company: “Only nine years after the launch of 4G, we’re getting ready for the next generation. While each technology cycle brings greater opportunities to mobile operators, it also requires greater infrastructure investment. To maximise their returns on 5G, service providers need to understand how network infrastructure and the associated cost base will evolve over the next few years. With this knowledge, they’ll be in a strong position to design an infrastructure investment strategy that best suits their unique needs.”
As the 5G network operates in the millimetre wave (mmWave) spectrum, it will have the ability to augment with smaller cells, the current 4G network infrastructure. Where large antennas have been a typical and familiar component of 4G LTE, 5G will see a proliferation of smaller antennas that will divide the current cells into smaller units. These new antennas will disappear into the built environment to create a blanket of connectivity that will be needed to deliver the new services 5G is promising.
Michael Watson, Partner at Shulmans LLP, points out, the placement of new masts could potentially be an issue as the 5G infrastructure is built: “Following the introduction of the new Electronic Communications Code and the Digital Economy Act 2017, the property sector is now very reluctant to engage with the network operators to permit the installation of new apparatus.”
Continuing, Watson expanded: “The Code provides for statutory rights that the network operators can fall back on if landowners will not enter into a consensual agreement for the installation of apparatus. However, the extent to which the operators have alienated the property industry means that it is unlikely these rights will deliver the volume of sites required for 5G in the right locations and within any realistic timescale. In short, without the ‘buy-in’ of the people who own the property assets upon which 5G infrastructure needs to be sited, the rollout of the technology for business and consumers is in doubt.”
The 5G network looks set to revolutionise how consumers and businesses alike access and use advanced data services. The smart factory and smart city will become a reality as network coverage shifts to deliver faster mobile broadband, but also more intelligent services as IoT begins to realise its promised potential.