This decade, 4G – compared to 3G and 2G – has already delivered huge gains in performance: from 150Mbit/s to over 1GBit. Through the next decade, 5G is building on this with not just an evolutionary growth in bandwidth, but also better use of wireless spectrum, and improved connection reliability that will not only improve existing use-cases, but also provide essential flexibility and innovation space for new applications.
This flexibility is essential, and so became a core part of the 5G specification, which covers extreme bandwidth (eMBB), ultra-low latency and wired-(URLLC) and space for billions of connections (mMTC) – seeding the potential for new apps and services to grow without worrying about limitations. This isn’t vacant enthusiasm either: we have so many mobile-first services available today didn’t exist prior to 4G smartphones, and with smartphone ubiquity and utility so obvious and global its a safe bet that 5G will again yield a flurry of new and innovative services, experiences and investments.
How will 5G improve our lives and what kinds of new opportunities can we expect?
Building smarter cities can provide a wealth of benefits, but this is built on ‘operational intelligence’, which is to say services that react to the real-world, rather than just being fixed. Sensors and cameras will make up the bulk of the data gathering, and then cellular connectivity such as NB-IoT will relay it to a Cloud service for collection and digestion. This forms just part of the billions of devices that are expected to join the IoT ecosystem in the next decade; some of which will do some edge-processing but most of which will require some form of remote connection capacity that’s likely to rely on cellular rather than unlicensed bands. NB-IoT is already due to become the most popular LPWA (low-power wide area) network within the next two years; this reuses 2G cellular spectrum for those countries that have retired 2G services, or it can use the inter-band space of 4G LTE.
Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)
A big market opportunity for 5G is not actually mobile devices, but instead in replacing your home broadband. Termed Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) this essentially is a device you plug in anywhere at home that converts a fast 5G connection into home Wi-Fi/Ethernet, letting all your Wi-Fi only devices – laptops, tablets, smart TV, smart appliances, doorbell, security cameras, games console have the benefits of multi-Gigabit bandwidth 5G offers. This replaces the need to replace copper wiring with fiber to every house, saving significant infrastructure cost, and also frees the home user to put their 5G-enabled router just about anywhere, instead of within wires reach of the landline.
As most broadband users are on sub-Gigabit speeds today, it could provide a truly significant boost in internet performance at home. While for remote villages or developing countries where internet services are sparse or difficult to wire, it could be the gateway to internet availability for the very first time.
Internet of Vehicles (IoV)
IoV covers a lot of aspects of vehicular connectivity: whether personal or commercial. Some vehicles today include cellular connections, but the usage is often limited to basic apps like maps, music or emergency calling. In future it’s expected that new services will be introduced into vehicles – whether for in-vehicle entertainment; 4K movies, TV, music, internet, ticket sales and advertising (buses, coaches, trains), or increasing levels of autonomy. Public Wi-Fi is typically slow and spotty, yet it can be an essential asset for tourists or Wi-Fi-only device users (laptops) so this service certainly has growth potential. With vehicles now competing for cellular space alongside smartphones, 5G’s better spectral efficiency will certainly provide capacity to meet this growth.
Autonomous vehicles, meanwhile, will require ultra-reliable, low latency connectivity (that won’t be available until a few years into 5G) and V2X (vehicle to everything) standards that are only now in discussion.
Suddenly areas that were previously of low cellular demand, like highways, have hundreds of calls for high bandwidth streams, information services and in future, mission-critical low-latency requests.
5G is designed to be application variable between extreme bandwidth, ultra-low latency and massive connectivity. Gaming on smartphones has recently exploded in popularity with games like Fortnite becoming an international hit. However, instead of rendering the game on the smartphone itself, game streaming services instead do the heavy lifting remotely and stream the display output to devices instead. This reduces the pressure on the smartphone, while simultaneously opening up many lower-performance smartphones, or even other devices like smart TVs, to be able to play games with high-end graphics. It will also offer other advantages such as being able to pause a game on one device and seamlessly continue playing it on another.
As games are extremely latency sensitive – the user button press has to be acted upon within a few milliseconds – having the ability to tune the wireless connection in favor of being ultra-responsive is literally a game changer. Big investments being already made by companies such as Google, EA, Microsoft and Sony, who are a testament to this technology becoming an expected inflection point.
Better connection reliability
Deeper into the spec of 5G, we find it enables much better spectral efficiency. This means, the available wireless space is better used. If you’re out anywhere where there’s a lot of people (and inevitably their smartphones) like shopping malls, airports, train stations, sports stadiums – this is a real advantage. For example: as a match hits half-time or the period ends, triggering 80,000 people in the stadium to pull out their smartphone to check the scores elsewhere, it puts an immense and sudden pressure on a single point of cellular infrastructure. 5G is designed to provide this kind of capacity through better use of wireless air-space, so all these people should see no noticeable difference in user experience.
5G mobile devices and base-stations work together to provide a still ‘good enough’ performance the closer you get to the edge of cellular reception, meaning you’ll still get a useful 100s Mbps performance rather than kbps.
Growth of remote interactions
The remote-service model yields a real potential for services such a as tele-education, -office, -industrial robotics or -health services. Tele-education could provide more real-time opportunities between students and teachers. Office and industry can bring remote workers together to foster closer working relationships, operational efficiency and working assurances to satisfy HR. Tele-health provides several applications such as remotely providing medical services to at-home patients, reducing the burden on hospitals, or providing the mission-critical connection backbone for remote surgeries, where a field-specialist is using precision robotic arms whilst in another city or country.
XR describes the evolution of VR, MR and AR; a reality model that is not limited to the device but will continue to be an opportunity for future industries listed above. Where going beyond the flat screen into an immersive experience that’s closer-to-real will require personal freedom; that infers an ultra-low latency, ultra-efficient cellular connection of sufficient bandwidth for the application. 5G’s flexible design should meet this type of highly application-specific criteria.
The AI wildcard
All this is even before we come to the potential of Artificial Intelligence. While developing rapidly, AI is still in its application infancy and we don’t know how it will change the landscape of products – user, commercial, industrial or civic. The balance between AI processing on-device or in the Cloud is likely to swing back and forth as new software is created, new opportunities are discovered and new services are launched and improved upon. Whether they become part of consumer smartphones, commercial IoT, or used in smart cities, who knows, but it’s likely, though, that all will require some amount of data-offloading or discussion to a central service, which ultimately means many more devices or data-throughput requests to meet in future.