Is the Hype Around 5G Real?

By Isaac LaBauve May 2019   |   Article   |   15 min read   |   Email this article   |   Download
5G is new, exciting, and fraught with the risk that non-linear opportunity provides. What is 5G, really, and its capabilities and limitations? We define 5G and separate related technologies, examine the practical and theoretical differences with 4G, and draw conclusions on the potential value to wireless networks by the 5G standard.
Is the Hype Around 5G Real?

Is the Hype Around 5G Real?

Much is said about the new mobile wireless specification 5G. Many tout that the new technology will make possible a number of heretofore unimaginable services and products based on the technology. However, many of the products and services being created are quite vague and lack concrete examples. Therefore, it is important to understand not only which technologies will actually benefit from the new 5G specifications but also how they will benefit, so that companies can allocate resources appropriately and not spend money on wasted efforts. In addition, it is important to note which technologies could proceed using technology available today so that similar resource allocation decisions can be made.

5G Explained

Many publications and opinions seem to broadly paint any new network technology, wireless or otherwise, as 5G. However, 5G (indicating the 5th generation) is a reference put out by the industry association 3GPP to define how devices, specifically those on a wide area network (WAN), will communicate with each other on this new generation of technology.

To understand how our wireless WANs work, it is important to first understand some basic information about wireless signals. All electromagnetic waves fall into what is known as a spectrum. This spectrum is the range of cycles per second, or hertz (Hz), in wave oscillation.

Many readers are no doubt familiar with the terms 2.4GHz and 5GHz, as these are the common bandwidths used for in-home wireless networking, also known as wireless local area networks (WLAN). It is important to note that waves with low frequencies have a very good range and are able to pass through solid matter more easily. The drawback for these waves is that their low frequency also leads to lower data transmission rates

Conversely, higher frequency radio waves have a much shorter range before the atmosphere absorbs too much of the signal. Much higher frequency radio signals can even be blocked by solid matter and require line of sight for a connection. However, with the higher frequency, a much greater rate of data transfer is possible. These are the advantages and drawbacks of the higher frequencies used by 5G.

Figure 1. The relationship between wavelength and frequency

The relationship between wavelength and frequency

These frequency notes are important because, according to the Global System for Mobile Communication Association (GSMA), one of the key features of the 5G specification is that it will use frequencies in three different ranges 1

The lowest of these bands is the sub-1GHz band, which is expected to use frequencies near 700MHz. These waves will allow for broad coverage and deep building penetration but will have a lower data transmission rate of around 100Mbps. This band is similar to the current sub-1GHz spectrum used in 4G LTE networks.

The middle band to be used is between 1GHz and 6GHz, and is expected to use frequencies near 3.5GHz, which is again similar to sections of the current 4G LTE network with theoretical peak data rates of up to 1Gbps.

The new band in the 5G specification is frequencies above 6GHz. This new band is expected to use frequencies around 30GHz, with a theoretical maximum data transfer rate of 10Gbps.

But because high frequencies have distance and penetration shortfalls, there is a need to create many more nodes, also known as small cells, than are currently in existence for the current 4G infrastructure.

Additionally, 5G hopes to take advantage of a new technology called massive MIMO (multiple-input multiple-output). Massive MIMO aims to increase the number of send/receive antennas on a cell tower by an order of magnitude. The drawback to this technology is that due to the omnidirectional nature of these antennas, there is a much greater risk of signal interference.

To compensate for this signal interference, the 5G specification also calls for utilization of another technology, called beamforming. Beamforming is an antenna technology that creates beams of data to specific users instead of broadcasting in all directions. Beamforming allows for mitigation of the cross-signal interference caused by massive MIMO 2.

Figure 2. How the three bands of 5G (NR) overlap with those of 4G (LTE), according to the GSMA

How the three bands of 5G (NR) overlap with those of 4G (LTE), according to the GSMA

When referring to 5G technology and its current deployment, it is this specification of bandwidth and node configurations in conjunction with massive MIMO and beamforming that are being referenced. Note that this specification seems to mostly create faster data transmission rates, and that these rates are achieved through clever antenna manipulation and massive amounts of new infrastructure to compensate for the smaller coverage area of nodes in the network. That being said, there are other technologies and protocols that can enhance 5G networks.