The tech could provide a fibre alternative, alongside other 5G uses such as IoT and broadcast
Some 1.5 billion people worldwide will be signed up to 5G in five years’ time, according to fresh research by Ericsson.
Being one of the world’s leaders in network infrastructure, you’d imagine they know what they are talking about.
As it stands, we are around a month away from the first 5G-capable device, with the first commercially available services in the UK expected before the year is out.
Now that spectrum has been allocated and tested, and plans are well under way for a second auction at the end of this year, attention is turning to how best to use the airwaves.
One advantage of 5G is the ability to add servers to coverage masts and process data requests at the edge of the network, instead of making the data travel to the core network – wherever that may be – and back. This, in turn, cuts latency, or the time it takes for a process to be completed.
5G test bed
University of Surrey 5G test bed entrepreneur in residence Adrian Braine says 5G also interacts with devices in a different way to 4G.
Braine says: “5G can distribute processing from the core to the edge of the network and download the content, which keeps the latency very low and moves a chunk of the load off the core network and onto the edge.
“For example, if you and five other people in the area were streaming the same video, rather than creating five streams that go back to the core network, the core network would send one stream to the edge, which would serve up five streams to the people watching.”
According to a report from Ovum, one such use case for 5G is fixed wireless access (FWA) – in other words, the ability to receive home broadband over the airwaves instead of via cables.
Three has already laid out plans to make FWA a priority as it rolls out 5G in the second half of this year.
The operator’s director of network strategy Phil Sheppard says the technology’s low latency means many households will not notice a difference between the best fibre connection and FWA while surfing, streaming and playing online games.
“At the Mobile Broadband Forum, we had a professional gamer using FWA who won against 100 other players connected by fixed line,” he says.
“That opens up a lot of opportunities because, unless you’re a professional gamer that needs the best fibre connection, 99 per cent of people who play games online will get a very good experience using a 5G fixed wireless access connection.”
When FWA is rolled out, Three and any other UK operator that uses it will be following in the footsteps of US provider Verizon, which has been offering the proposition to customers for four months, and joining AT&T, which plans to roll out 5G FWA later this year.
Hakan Ekmen, CEO of technology consulting and testing company P3, says the US deployments show that FWA is one of the first logical uses of 5G airwaves.
He says: “Most of the capabilities for 5G will take longer to appear, but FWA access will be the initial use case and the more innovative use cases will come later.
“We can already see the first deployment focusing on competitive high-speed access for homes and businesses in the US.
“Operators are already offering speeds of up to 300Mbps and maximum speeds are, in theory, 1Gbps, which is a nice offer.”
According to Ovum’s Three-commissioned report, deploying FWA is half as expensive as connecting the country with fibre cables, as there is no need to install the connection to the premises.
Another market expected to adopt 5G quickly is the Internet of Things (IoT) segment, with Ericsson’s report forecasting four billion cellular IoT connections to 5G by 2024.
Devices such as cameras, traffic monitors and trackers that feed back to a location are typical responses to the question of what will be connected.
Vodafone’s introduction of its ‘V by Vodafone’ range of IoT devices indicates that the operator thinks revenue can be found in such ventures.
BT managing director for strategy, marketing and digital Chris Sims says: “We see plenty of uses in the smart city, particularly around real-time video surveillance, which today tends to be wired and quite old.
“Another area we are focusing on is allowing customers to know the status of their devices from far away.
“Ninety per cent of the time, they want to know where their devices are, but often businesses are also interested in whether they are hot or cold, wet or dry, or in a humid environment. 5G allows them to look at their assets, understand their behaviour and how they are being used, and whether they need to be serviced or maintained.”
Sims added: “With 5G, communication between the unit and the network takes less time, which means everything is optimised and you will see devices get smaller and more robust, with better battery lives that can be measured in months and years.
“With that kind of battery life, you can put 5G in a device that costs a fraction of the devices today and you suddenly open up a lot of uses in the logistics, supply chain and asset management space.”
Sims went on to say that although widely available today via 4G airwaves, the ability to connect IoT devices to 5G will open the gates to their growth.
However, Sheppard says that the need for using 5G for IoT devices is not so pressing, given that 4G can currently carry the load.
“As of the moment, I haven’t seen any use cases that are very specifically needing 5G,” he says. “I have seen a few that would have benefited from 5G like more accurate location information, but 4G is already capable of that.
“I think it’s early days and there are not currently enough devices with enough of a demanding requirement to warrant 5G. Most IoT devices at present are smart meters or those for heating control or lighting control. None of that is particularly demanding at the moment.
“Where you have a large number of IoT devices in an area, 5G would give you that scalability, but I have not seen the widespread deployment but that in theory 5G will be useful for.”
Ability to adapt
One advantage of 5G is its ability to automatically adapt to what it is asked to deliver.
In contrast, any data transaction via 4G is carried out using all the throughput available – so if speeds of 30Mbps are available, that is the speed used for even the simplest of instructions.
5G only uses what is needed, meaning that if a camera needs to upload a live stream to a server it will use a certain speed, but an upload of a much smaller data package will only use the speed required.
Braine explained that 4G is wasteful of spectrum and that with different bands of 5G, the new airwaves will be much more efficient.
He says: “One of the things with 5G is that it is not in one frequency band any more: you have a low band, a mid band and a high band, so you have scalability within the radio.
“At the bottom end, somewhere around 700MHz, that can give you massive coverage of tens of miles in diameter, but low data rates of around 10Mbps. In the mid band, which is 3.6GHz, you can get up to one gigabit per second and probably a few miles in coverage.
“Long wavebands are 26GHz, which can achieve very high data rates of 10Gbps, but the cell size is probably only a few hundred metres.
“When it comes to 4G, there is a certain coverage you can achieve, giving you a certain amount of data and that’s your lot. 4G doesn’t have the capability to adapt to those different applications.
“With 5G, you have the ability to choose what is the most appropriate band for what you are doing. IoT, for example, does not use much data, but we need lots and lots of devices, and they are probably spread over a large geographic area, which is ideal for the low band of 5G.”
Experts speaking to Mobile News agreed that a lot of high-band uses of 5G will be developed over the next few years.
One use that has been highlighted is broadcasting TV over 5G airwaves. Last autumn, EE took the decision to broadcast the Wembley Cup Final, a charity football match between ex-professionals and celebrities, over 5G rather than fibre lines.
Sims says that although the broadcast was a trial, it confirmed to the operator that such a use was feasible. The ultimate goal is to be able to transmit broadcast-quality video with as little equipment as possible via 5G airwaves.
“When it comes to news media, traditionally when there is a news event, you’ll dispatch a truck with a production crew to the venue, but cities can be congested and the vans can take a long time to get there.
“For the Wembley Cup, we had a 5G broadcast from Wembley to the production studio elsewhere in London,” says Sims. “So it’s foreseeable to have a guy on a scooter with a 5G backpack and a camera, able to take high-quality footage on site and send it to the production centres.”
To illustrate the type of issue 5G can solve, Sims says: “When Prince George was born, I was in offices over the road from St Mary’s Hospital and you had 50 trucks parked outside with news crews from all over the world causing gridlock.
“It also takes a lot of time, planning and logistics for the trucks to be there, so you can easily see a future where we use 5G in a story of worldwide significance.”
According to a recent Juniper report, worldwide revenues generated from games built specifically for virtual reality are expected to rise from $1.2 billion this year to $8.2 billion by 2023.
The report went on to say that over 100 million mobile VR devices will be in use worldwide by 2023, up from 52 million now – with these devices including smartphones and standalone headsets.
Braine agrees with Sims, adding that through the aid of VR and AR, 5G will make it possible to broadcast live content both at the events themselves and at home.
Braine added: “5G will enable broadcasts in even higher resolution than we have today, and that becomes quite important when we are looking at VR applications.
“There’s been some work done to say that you need 8K video as a minimum, and possibly even 12K, to create a realistic and immersive type of experience, but that kind of data rate is not possible over 4G.”
Footage for viewers
Braine also says that at events themselves, organisers or broadcasters can show footage to those in attendance over 5G thanks to the high wavebands available.
“If you’re going to a football match and the organiser wants to stream live video to people there, give them different angles on the pitch or show replays, you have a huge number of people trying to access that content at the same time.
“On 5G, you have millimetre-wave technology capable of very high throughput of up to 10Gbps, so you could cover a stadium with lots of those small cells that can deliver a really high data rate, meaning that people can access the same content at the same time.”
Although such use cases might sound a long way off, they will be available from the moment 5G is introduced into the country.
Connected sensors and fixed wireless access are both available to a limited extent over 4G, but the capabilities of 5G will bring with them the ability to carry out more functions away from mobile devices over the airwaves than previously possible.
When it comes to mobile, Ekmen says that the end goal for 5G is to sell a “connectivity” proposition, providing access to the internet at all times.
He says: “Broadband access could also be interesting for consumers as another part of connectivity. The most realistic use for 5G is connectivity and making sure consumers are connected everywhere. Whether through a laptop, a mobile phone, a tablet or another device, this is something that traditional operators will be required to do.”