The two major issues with 5G: Infrastructure and Vision

With the risk of oversimplifying the overall outlook of 5G connectivity, in this post, I review what I believe are two of the main issues hindering the deployment and exploitation of 5G; Infrastructure and Vision. But before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with what 5G is, and what is all the fuzz about it.

5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile communications (hence the 5 and the G). On its own, 5G can be as boring or as exciting as you wish, depending on what you want to focus. It’s boring because, like all previous generation, it represents an incremental and expected improvement in mobile communication technology. Yes, 5G promises increased connection speeds (10-100 Gbps) and network capacity (1 million devices per square kilometre) and decreased latency (communication delays down to 1 ms), but so it did every other generation before.

Boring 5G

In essence, 5G means that mobile communications will be faster and more capable of managing a massive number of users. As I said, boring. Not because the numbers aren’t impressive, but because, for the average user, these improvements won’t imply substantial changes in the way they access the Internet.

True, downloading a movie in a few seconds could be satisfying, but it will still take two or more hours to watch it. So, why the rush? Other applications, such as video calling and gaming, may require a snappier response. However, serious gaming, beyond bandwidth and latency, entails a vast collection of hardware and software that is not as portable as some would like; and really, who wants to appear in full 4K detail during Monday mornings video conference? Arguably, the most noticeable difference with 5G will be the ability to stay connected in extremely crowded spaces. However, this seems more like a solution to the deficiencies of the existing infrastructure than a revolutionary feature.

Exciting 5G

Then, why should we even care about 5G? Well, that’s where the exciting part starts. 5G is regarded as the single most meaningful catalyst for the realisation of a myriad of emerging technologies. Think Autonomous Vehicles, the Internet of Things, Smart Cities, Virtual and Augmented Reality, among others. But many of these technologies already exist, so how is 5G relevant for them? I hear you asking. Well, while it is true that most of these technologies are already being tested, 5G embodies the key to making them ubiquitous. For example, to date, most vehicles that offer autonomous capabilities rely on a proprietary networks to communicate data and instructions, which limits their reach and their ability to make changes in plans on-the-fly. Similarly, existing IoT services depend on a Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connection to acquire, store and process data from the “things”, rendering them useless without such communication.

Now imagine how revolutionising all these technologies would be with ubiquitous connectivity. Imagine autonomous cars making decisions considering the most recent information on the movement of other vehicles on and above the streets; on population mobility based on wearable and smart cities technologies; on the most cost-effective time to charge their battery or sell power back to a smart-grid due to an increase in demand. Hence, 5G embodies the enabling technology required for the development of a more intelligent digital economy and society.

Why is 5G taking so long?

Now, you might be wondering, if 5G connectivity is so promising, why are telecommunications companies taking so long to implement it? Well, my keen reader, the answer, as expected, is complicated. The telecommunication sector is one of the few remaining industries that prefer consensus over individual gains from entrepreneurship and innovation. After all, each generation of mobile technology remains the dominant design for roughly ten years and requires to consider backward compatibility; interconnectivity among carriers worldwide; the collaboration between network equipment manufacturers, mobile connectivity providers and user equipment manufacturers; compliance with every regional regulation; and be profitable among all the above!

If we add geopolitical considerations, trade agreements (or rather disagreements) and market changes to the mix, we can begin to see how 5G is a bit more complicated than it initially appears. However, one could argue that none of these considerations is strictly new to the industry. Moreover, one could even be forgiven for thinking that all the industry players should be familiar with these challenges by now; after all, they have already somewhat-successfully implemented such technology at least four times before. So, what gives? Well, my avid reader. Thus, we have finally reached the thesis of this publication, which is that telecommunications stakeholders are lagging behind expectations due to; first, the immense infrastructure challenge that the deployment of 5G networks entails; and second, yet more troubling, the lack of an overarching vision that orchestrates the development of 5G connectivity.

The Infrastructure issue

So, let’s start with the most apparent issue, infrastructure. “5G” is an arrangement of standards proposed by the 3GPP organization to bring stakeholders together towards a unified deployment of the technology. 3GPP began working on the 5G concept as early as 2012, publishing its first set of guidelines by the end of 2017 and has continued updating it every couple of months. And since late 2019, 5G has started to roll out commercially in selected cities in America, Asia and Europe. We have already seen this pattern in the deployment of previous generations, so, why should we expect anything different from 5G?

Well, to put it simply, 5G technology is inherently different from any prior generation in at least three aspects. First, the assigned spectrum is much more challenging to scale. Second, its operation is much more complicated. And third, 5G runs mostly on fibre optic, whose infrastructure is insufficient in many regions. I won’t go into details with the first two aspects. If you are interested in exploring millimetre waves, massive MIMO, full-duplex, and beamforming; IEEE Spectrum published a brilliant article explaining these concepts. Also, this WSJ video describes some of the regional problems with spectrum allocation for 5G, using the US case as an example.

Instead, I will highlight that telecommunications companies need to focus on the underlying network required to get 5G up and running, particularly fibre optic. And I know, the fact that the latest generation of the mobile network requires wired infrastructure is a bit counterintuitive. Still, the benefits offered by 5G are only possible by taking advantage of the speed of light and recent advances in optical data transmission. Furthermore, to achieve the speed, capacity and latency promised by 5G, the technology requires the installation of more base stations (antennas) to cover the same area. Many more. A conservative estimate suggests that 5G will require 10-20 times more base stations than 4G. For consideration, it is estimated that China has 3.5 million 4G base stations that provide coverage to 900 million subscribers. Thus, the infrastructure issue could be summarised into two simple questions. How fast can the required infrastructure be implemented? And how much would it cost?

Unfortunately, none of the forecasts offers a reassuring picture. In 2017, Bloomberg estimated that it would cost $200 billion (£155 billion) a year for at least five years to roll out 5G in the US. That’s a steep price to pay for the current 265 million US subscribers. With comparable numbers for other countries, is 5G really worth it? Well, I can’t presume to know the future or the answer to that question. But, I can dare to say that current commercialisation strategies are not ambitious enough to guarantee a profitable future for 5G, which is an logical segue to the second issue, the lack of an overarching vision for 5G.

The Vision issue

So, how do all the concerns described above boil down to a vision problem? Well, for starters, 5G is in a very different situation than all its predecessors, since it is the first generation intended for connecting trillions of devices, as opposed to connecting merely a few billion people. Furthermore, by devices, I am referring to the myriad of smart, dumb, mobile, mission-critical or disposable objects that will require to access the internet—each of them with different priorities, configurations and requirements. And yes, 5G must be capable of dealing with all this demand and complexity. Then, why are telecommunication companies so troubled to just sell us faster smartphones?

Instead, I believe that all 5G stakeholders should be more concerned with developing an intelligent, responsive and resilient ecosystem that allows the interaction of such a wide variety of devices. Such an ecosystem must consider aspects that the 5G standard is specifically designed to tackle; AvailabilityInteroperability, and Security.

Availability is simple, 5G must always be available, everywhere and for everyone.

5G interoperability, instead, must be addressed at several levels. At first instance, by considering the individual requirements for the vast array of devices that will require connectivity; from handheld to wearable devices; from Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) to Home Entertainment systems; from Smart Cities to Smart Factories. Then, there are the geographical considerations, 5G not only must reach areas beyond the current 4G coverage but also must allow operating across regions; for example, accessing equipment from the other side of the world. Lastly, 5G must be able to interoperate through the increasingly fuzzy line dividing the physical and digital world, enabling users to access, explore and make sense of vast collections of data.

Security is perhaps the least discussed, yet one of the more relevant aspect that 5G has to guarantee. And the requirements are simple. First, data must be treated transparently; this is, clearly stating where it comes from, where it goes and how is it going to be used. Second, the privacy and dignity of users must be respected at all costs; empowering users to maintain control of their data at all time. Third, 5G networks will require an active protection force, responsible for dealing with the increasing number of cyber-attacks that such an expose network will most certainly face.

By meeting these requirements, it is possible to imagine, for example, a Latin American company deploying CAVs to carry out maintenance at an autonomous station located somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. This type of service will require real-time access to the data generated by the CAVs and the workplace; an HD video transmission and Augmented Reality visualisation for the team that supervises the operation at the base; and the capacity to parse an extensive library of equipment specifications, maintenance processes and additional documentation to identify the best way to proceed. All of that while maintaining a high level of transparency, privacy and protection. 5G must make this, and similar scenarios, possible!

Conclusion

Without a doubt, 5G offers the promise of an exciting future, with a myriad of emerging technologies continually redefining our society, economy and environment. For this reason, the organisations responsible for its development must agree and promote an overarching vision that leads the way. Thus, facilitating a collaboration framework that will enable each stakeholder to create, distribute and capture the value with 5G.

Whether to deploy the remaining infrastructure, develop ecosystems for innovation with 5G, or the generation of new business models; only through consensus and collaboration will be possible to overcome the challenges for 5G above promptly, efficiently and for the benefit of the society.


And if you got all the way down here, I have nothing left to say but to thank you for your attention. This particular post took me longer than expected since I wanted to include as many aspects as possible, yet keeping it align with the two key issues I discuss.

Let me know if there are aspects that I should have included, or if there is some other topic I should address in the future. It would be great to hear your opinion on the topic.

Thanks again, and see you in the next one.

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