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5G Technology: What Is It & How 5G Works

10th March, 1876 – The day when Alexander Graham Bell made the first successful transmission of speech in the form of electromagnetic waves using a custom built transmitter and receiver. This is often regarded as the first practical phone call made in the history of telephone.

With the increase in the usage of the mobile phones and the requirement of higher bandwidths of internet, the next generation mobile communication technology, which is termed as 5G or fifth generation telecommunication technology, will be available in the distant future (2020 according to International Telecommunication Union – Radio communication sector’s International Mobile Telecommunication- IMT 2020 programme) and provides very high speed data rates.

What Does 5G Technology Mean?

5G technology is the fifth generation of cellular network technology, following 4G. It offers faster speeds, shorter delays, and can handle more data than earlier versions. The data speeds in 5G can reach up to 10 Giga bits per second (10 Gbps).

The effect of 5G will be on almost every industry like information technology, agriculture, automobiles, manufacturing, health, entertainment etc. Before defining the views on 5G, let us briefly understand the evolution of mobile technologies.

Mobile Networks From 1G Through 5G

History says that the evolution of each of the mobile communication technology or cellular standard is based on the key uses.

  • 1G (1980s): The first generation brought analog voice communication.
  • 2G (Early 1990s): Introduced digital voice with technologies like CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access).
  • 3G (Early 2000s): Third generation networks added mobile data, exemplified by CDMA2000.
  • 4G LTE (2010s): Fourth generation, known as LTE, advanced mobile broadband services, significantly enhancing internet speeds and connectivity.
  • 5G: The latest generation builds on previous networks by offering unified and more robust capabilities. It’s designed to support higher speeds, almost no delay (latency), and can connect many more devices at once. 5G aims to broaden the mobile ecosystem into new areas. It’s expected to revolutionize industries by enabling safer transport, remote healthcare, precision farming, digital logistics, and more, thanks to its superior reliability and speed.

5G Technology Specifications

The parameters and their standards are yet to be defined for 5G technology. But from the estimated requirements of the 5G technology, some of the specifications can be defined as follows:

  • Data Rates: 1 to 10 Giga bits per second (Gbps) to the end mobile users.
  • Latency: Less than 1 millisecond (< 1ms).
  • Bandwidth: 1000 times the present bandwidth per unit area.
  • No. of devices: 10 to 100 times the current number of devices.
  • Network Coverage: 100%
  • Signal Availability: 99.999%
  • Power Consumption: 90% reduction in energy usage.

Advantages of 5G Over 4G Technology

5G technology marks a significant advancement over 4G across multiple dimensions. Here’s how it improves upon the previous generation:

  1. Faster Speeds: 5G networks are substantially faster than 4G. They can deliver peak data rates up to 10 Gbps, compared to the typical 20-100 Mbps of 4G. This leap in speed transforms user experiences, enabling ultra-high-definition streaming, faster downloads, and smoother performance in data-demanding applications like augmented and virtual reality.
  2. Lower Latency: 5G slashes network latency to as low as 1 millisecond, down from around 50 milliseconds with 4G. This near-instantaneous data transmission is crucial for applications where timing is critical, such as in autonomous driving, real-time gaming, and potential future technologies like remote medical surgeries.
  3. Greater Capacity: 5G can support a vastly greater number of devices per square kilometer than 4G, which is essential in urban areas and for the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT), where countless devices need reliable connections without overcrowding the network.
  4. Network Slicing: 5G introduces the ability to segment the network into multiple virtual networks (network slices), each tailored to meet specific needs. This capability means that a single physical network can be partitioned to provide certain slices with specific attributes like increased privacy, speed, or capacity, benefiting a wide range of applications from enterprise solutions to critical emergency services.
  5. Energy Efficiency: Despite its higher performance metrics, 5G is designed to be more energy-efficient than 4G. This improvement is achieved through more advanced hardware and software that optimize data transmission and reduce power consumption, even as network traffic volumes increase.
  6. Improved Coverage: 5G aims to provide more consistent and extensive coverage by using a combination of low, mid, and high-frequency spectrums. Each type of frequency offers different benefits, such as better penetration in buildings with low-frequency bands or increased data capacity with high-frequency bands, enhancing overall service availability and reliability.

5G Challenges

The development of a new communication technology is dependent on many factors like economies of different regions, globally accepted standards, cost, supporting infrastructure, availability to end user etc.

The following are some of the many challenges that the 5G network is expected to achieve at operational level:

  • 1000 times wider area coverage of the wireless network that it is in 2010.
  • The ratio of Power consumption to service provided, particularly in mobile devices is expected to fall by 90%.
  • Providing a reliable network to connect over 7 Trillion devices in the Internet of Things that are controlled by over 7.5 Billion people.
  • Allowing advanced end user controlled privacy.
  •  Providing a faster, secure, reliable and robust network with theoretically zero (practically very small or close to zero) downtime.

The above mentioned challenges are more technology oriented and relate the development of the new communication technology to the evolution of the mobile communication. There are two other challenges that are more general and physical in nature. They are standardization and infrastructure.

The standardization of the 5G technology is the main challenge with the IMT 2020 vision. Several standardization bodies are working towards the 5G definitions and the base technical specifications are set to be rolled out in 2016.

The more physical challenge is setting up the infrastructure supporting the 5G technology. This includes allocating the spectrum and installing new antennas related to that spectrum range.

Research and Studies in 5G Technology

The estimated commercial launch of 5G is expected in 2020. Hence, many institutions, technological companies and research organizations are collaborating to form committees towards the research into 5G Technology. Some of the key areas of research are mentioned below:

Centimeter and Millimeter Wave

There is a significant amount of spectrum available at higher frequencies. 5G technology is looking beyond the congested centimeter waves which have the frequency range of several hundreds of Megahertz and are occupied by the current 3G and 4G networks.

The advantage of using millimeter waves for mobile communication is wide channel bandwidth of 1 to 2 Gigahertz in contrast to the current bandwidths of 10 to 20 Megahertz.

There are many challenges in going to millimeter wave technology, which have the frequency range of 3 to 300 Gigahertz, like circuit level design of devices like mobiles, range of the signal and penetration of the waves.

Massive Dense Networks or Massive MIMO

Massive MIMO or Multiple input and multiple output helps in reaching the goals of next generation telecommunication system to provide higher data rates to more users. It is being used in existing technologies like LTE (4G) and Wi-Fi, but the number of antennas are restricted.

With the use of millimeter waves in 5G communication, massive MIMO can use a very large number of antennas (theoretically infinity).

Battery life

Batteries that can last years are very important in Internet of Things network as the machine connected to the network may not be near a power source. 5G technology can be characterized for more efficient use of power for extended battery life.

Cognitive or Smart Radio Technology

It is a dynamically programmable radio system where the transmission and reception of signals is designed to use the best available channel in the proximity.

Pervasive or Ubiquitous network

This allows the user to be connected to different wireless technologies like 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, etc. at the same time and can switch between them without any hassle.

Potential uses of 5G

5G technology has a potential use in many industries like education, medicine or health, information technology, entertainment, automobiles, manufacturing etc. Some of the potential uses of 5G technology are mentioned below.

Virtual Reality or Tactile Internet

An example of this technology is the remote controlled surgery robot where high bandwidth and low latency are required. Such systems are still in early stages of development and are highly dependent on other systems like motion sensors and displays.

Autonomous Cars

Autonomous driving or smart cars and connected cars are automobiles which can communicate with outside world or other cars so that road journey will be safer even with the current infrastructure.

Internet of Things

The concept where a number of devices – machines, appliances or systems are connected to each other and sense, process and transfer data among them without any human control. Such systems require a reliable, high bandwidth and low latency network and can be possible by 5G.

Machine to Machine connectivity

The best example of machine to machine communication is in a smart home automation system where different devices like meters, temperature control, security, smoke detection etc. are connected to and communicate with each other and work efficiently.

Some of the other machine to machine communication systems are deployed in consumer electronics, automobile telemetry, automated health monitoring etc.

Most of these connections are still using either 2G or 3G networks. There might not be an immediate transition to 5G technology but eventually all machine to machine connections make use of 5G technology.

Wireless Cloud Computing

The concept of wireless cloud office where huge amounts of data can be stored and accessed remotely. This is possible with high bandwidth communication systems. The present 4G network has the potential to deliver this service as they do not require low latency.

Multi person Video Calling

Another service where bandwidth and latency are important is multiple video conference. Even though this requires low latency, the existing 4G technology can handle the data.

Does this 5G mean the end of 4G?

The answer is no. Less than half of the mobile markets have 4G LTE technology. Even though 4G LTE is spreading faster than 3G was, it will take almost a decade for 4G to achieve more than 90% penetration worldwide.

4G LTE is still in its early stages of expansion and with new 4G standards like LTE Advanced coming to the mobile market, there will be no immediate threat to 4G even after introduction of 5G (estimated arrival is in 2020).

Mobile network operators continue to invest in 4G and expect a return for another two decades by increasing data speeds, reducing the price over the years etc.

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