Categories: BroadbandNetworks

What Is 5G And How Is It Different From 4G?

It seems like it was just yesterday that 4G arrived in the UK but the mobile industry is already looking towards the next generation of mobile networks powered by the 5G standard.

For the majority of mobile users, the difference between generations is irrelevant so long as they have a service that can support their needs. For those who are happy with their connection, the difference between 4G and 5G might be as superfluous as that between 10 and 11 on Spinal Tap’s guitar amps.

And given that many people are plagued by poor reception and slow speeds, particularly in rural areas, the importance of 5G might be difficult to convey when they lack a basic voice and data service.

But mobile operators, equipment manufacturers and researchers are all united in their belief that 5G networks will offer the ubiquitous connectivity necessary to support mobile applications of the future and the Internet of Things (IoT) – but what makes it so different?

What’s so special about 5G?

Firstly there is no ‘5G’ as yet. Various efforts around the world are underway to create candidate technologies that will form part of the 5G standard, which it is believed will be completed by next year.

One such initiative is taking place at the 5G innovation Centre (5GIC) at the University of Surrey (pictured left), which officially opened its doors last month. It has the support of all four major UK operators, and a host of major tech firms and has more than 150 researchers working on contributions to the standard.

5G will of course offer speed enhancements – the 5GIC has already achieved 1Tbps in lab tests – but Professor Rahim Tafazoli, the facility’s director, says the key characteristics of the standard will be low latency of less than a millisecond that can support industrial functions and the impression of “infinite capacity”.

Commercial networks will offer speeds of at least 1Gbps, be 100 times more reliable and energy efficient than 4G and offer capacity of 1,000 times more. 5G networks will also use big data analytics to understand the user and adapt accordingly. This, Tafazoli, says will be vital as communications between machines become just as important as communication between people.

“This [trend] demands high reliability, faster network responses (latency), energy efficiency, high capacity, high flexibility to accommodate future unseen applications and it must be cost efficient,” he said. “This makes 5G a special generation.”

Other projects, including the European Union’s (EU) 5G Infrastructure Public-Private Partnership (5GPPP) share this vision of a low latency network supporting M2M applications.

Network opportunity

The likes of Huawei, Nokia and Ericsson are all contributing to these standards and will eventually provide the networking kit used by operators around the world, so their influence is vital. The opportunity with 5G, according to Huawei, is to extend mobile connectivity beyond people to ‘things’.

“It will become a basic digital infrastructure for almost everything,” said Tong Wen, head of Huawei Wireless Research, told TechWeekEurope, adding that this transition will help operators generate new sources of revenue, offering new applications and services to businesses.

What will differ with future networks is that they will be built without a particular service in mind. While previous infrastructure has been built for specific types of traffic, 5G networks will have to be agile and able to adapt to applications that haven’t even been envisaged yet. Video is likely to be a key driver, but 5G won’t be exclusively built for it.

“5G will not only be designed just for 4K video, that’s for sure,” added Wen.

Why are operators excited?

Operators are struggling to compete with over the top (OTT) service providers as traditional streams of revenue, such as calls, dry up. VoIP, instant messaging, video and cloud are but a few of the applications that bypass telcos and they are determined for it not to happen with this generation of networks as the the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes a reality.

“The over the top model will exist [on 5G], but there will be a lot of opportunities to create new revenues,” continued Wen. “The direction we can foresee is to go for vertical sectors and transform [these] businesses.”

“One of the things we’re trying to do with 5G is raise the bar with what we can do with mobile broadband,” said Luke Ibbetson, Vodafone’s R&D Director. “It’s not that we will be pushing consumers to adopt the technology, there are new industry segments to which we can offer services that are way beyond what we can offer today. There are various use cases being examined, from machine to machine (M2M) to robotics.”

BT has been involved with 5G development long before it decided to launch a takeover bid for EE and believes 5G will help accelerate the convergence of fixed and mobile networks, resulting in hybrid infrastructure. Another opportunity for BT is that 5G will still need high capacity backhaul, nearer the edge of the network.

However the operators are adamant there is still plenty of life left in 4G – which only launched in November 2012 – and believe it will form the foundation of 5G. Huawei is also preparing to include some of the benefits in its 4.5G technology, which will offer speeds of 1Gbps and support virtual reality and industry applications.

When will they launch?

So when will 5G launch? The short answer is 2020, the long answer is a little bit more complicated

5GIC expects the standard to be finalised by 2016 and hopes to launch a 5G testbed across the University of Surrey by 2018. However a commercial network will need not only the relevant networking equipment, components and devices to be ready, but also adequate spectrum.

Ofcom is already identifying which bands will be available at suitable for 5G and it is hoped spectrum can be harmonised at the World Radiocommunications Conference in 2019 (WRC-2019). The UK regulator is one of a number of organisations touting 2020 as the likely launch window, along with Nokia, the European Union and the South Korean government.

The first 5G networks are unlikely to include all the promised advances and candidate technologies though. Indeed, EE believes there will be at least two versions, similar to how HSPA+ was an improvement on 3G and how LTE-A builds on 4G.

However don’t hold your breath for the next big generational leap. Tafazoli believes high-capacity, service neutral 5G will be so different from the networks that have gone before it, it will provide the foundation for all future advances.

“It will be the first generation of reliable connectivity to the extent we won’t have anything called 6G,” he said. “5G will be the first generation and the second generation.”

How much do you know about UK mobile operators? Try our quiz!

Steve McCaskill

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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