5G: Matching Perception with Reality
May 31, 2019
5G augments earlier telecoms generations, rather than instantly replacing them.
We have been promised that 5G will offer performance and features that were not possible under 4G or earlier generations. Although that is broadly true, the reality is more complicated and possibly perplexing, particularly from a user standpoint. Many of us remember experiencing similar difficulties during the slow upgrade of mobile telecom infrastructure and systems from 3G to 4G. That incremental process often bewildered and frustrated subscribers (for instance, high-performance 3G services were in some cases promoted as being 4G). Unfortunately, the 5G era seems likely to replay such scenarios and we need to think about how to cut through the confusion.
Naturally, customers assume that 5G is better for them than 4G or 3G were. From an engineering perspective, we may see 5G as a set of exciting and powerful technologies, but we should understand that the term ‘5G' is also a great marketing tool that can sometimes be misused. Currently, simply adding 5G to a product announcement gets attention – even if the product is not providing a real 5G service yet.
Is 5G Really Better Than 4G?
There is at least one fundamental difference in upgrading to 5G, compared to the move from 3G to 4G – namely that 5G may not offer all users significant improvements in basic mobile performance (such as voice and web browsing), but it provides a huge leap forward for certain applications, including ones relating to the entertainment, IoT, commercial and industrial sectors. 5G augments earlier telecoms generations, rather than instantly replacing them. The technology takes advantage of higher frequency bands – in particular, 28GHz and 39GHz (with wide bandwidth and therefore greater data capacity) and also 6GHz (with less bandwidth). These new frequencies mean that 5G can support data rates from hundreds of Mbits/s up to 1Gbit/s, and potentially even higher.
Both the strengths and weaknesses of 5G are concerned with frequency. While 5G’s higher frequency bands enable access to vast quantities of bandwidth compared to 4G, they have poorer penetration of buildings, vehicles and even humid air. So in this respect, 5G is a relatively short range technology that works best with smaller cell sizes (which fortunately help to increase capacity). Due to the smaller cell size, a service provider offering full 5G coverage needs to roll out many more base stations than 4G and 3G required. In urban areas and along busy transport routes this works well. Elsewhere, the cost/benefit equation will be less favorable, suggesting that it could be a long time (if ever) before sparsely-populated areas witness full 5G coverage. To imagine one scenario: you’re probably not going to get constant 5G coverage for a trucking network that spans the USA or Australia – and will have to fall back on 4G, 3G, or even satellite communications in remote regions instead.
Communicate Real Benefits, Not Buzzwords
A downside of 5G marketing hype and confusion is that by the time we can offer true 5G devices and services, users may no longer be so impressed – because they will have mistakenly believed that fully functional 5G was already available. One way to actively counter this situation is to focus on the real benefits for users, rather than assuming that simply saying the magic word 5G will sell products.
Those benefits will probably include higher bandwidth, lower power consumption and future compatibility. An additional, significant, potential advantage of 5G is much lower latency. However, latency can be hard to explain to end users, who tend to confuse it with bandwidth or throughput – sometimes because eager marketers conflate all those terms (either deliberately or accidentally). Low latency operation is worth emphasizing though, as it is likely to be a real ‘killer app’ (though it should be noted that this will not be part of the initial 5G standard, but added to the standard in the next few years). It will be of particular value in roles such as gaming, video/audio communications, virtual/augmented reality, vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications and IoT sensor feedback. The reason for this is that 5G has the scope to offer responsive performance that was basically impossible with older mobile technologies. For entertainment and communications purposes, low latency will enable completely immersive experiences to be derived, while for real-time IoT and vehicle-based applications it will support numerous safety-critical features.
If the industry concentrates on the simple truths about 5G, then the market will be more willing to embrace it, and the service providers, carriers and electronics equipment manufacturers involved will all have happy customers. So, as we gear up for 5G, all stakeholders in this exciting new technology must remember that effective communication is paramount. Public confusion about 5G needs to be mitigated. People will be able to understand the related products and services better if we go beyond the hype and talk about the actual user benefits.