I’ve set myself the challenge in this blog to explain 5G, its technology, and its benefits to the lay person without descending into unexplained jargon or inexplicable acronyms. Let me know if you think I’ve been successful. Let’s go.
5G & Its Older Siblings
2G phones let us send SMS text messages. 3G let us upload pictures. 4G let us watch video. So what’s the big deal with 5G? Actually, there’s not one single feature that will define 5G. There are many. Some applications have been around for a while just waiting for the network technology to catch up before they can become as mainstream as instant messaging, digital photography, and streamed movies. 5G is that network technology.
A few examples: virtual and augmented reality video; high-speed gaming without a console; remotely driving vehicles on public roads; surgeons performing operations with robots in rural clinics from the comfort of the city hospital; intelligent video cameras improving the policing of street crime. 5G is all about speed. It brings massive increases in the speed of your Internet connection and it vastly reduces the response time of whatever it is you are doing. We call these characteristics “bandwidth” and “latency”. One goes up, the other goes down.
5G isn’t an upgrade of one single technology. We can break it down into four main components and all four of these need to be upgraded. These components are: (1) your phone, (2) the antenna it talks to, (3) the fibre-optic cable in the ground, (4) and the core network that manages everything.
So, let’s start with the first component. Your phone. Yes, you will need a new phone. That phone must contain a new radio chip that communicates 5G signals over 5G radio frequencies. But other than that there will likely be no difference to your existing smartphone. Same screen, same apps. It may feel a bit quicker when you swipe between apps and websites because the response time over the 5G network is improved but you’re not going to notice an immediate difference to your mobile phone service compared to your 4G phone. Look at it like this: you can already watch live video on your 4G phone in great HD quality today and any doctor would tell you your eye would not see any increase in picture quality on that small screen if it was sent as Ultra-HD 4k video over 5G.
Up Close & Personal
But over time, you will see new virtual and augmented reality apps that take advantage of the 5G network. For example, you could be sitting in Wembley stadium watching a football match and using the Sports Channel AR app on your 5G phone to see player details superimposed over the live broadcast. Or you could even insert yourself into the football or basketball action on screen to make a cute video for Instagram.
Don’t laugh about that – one of the first 5G applications in Korea is the ability for Generation Z to create videos of themselves dancing or otherwise interacting with their favourite K-Pop stars. But do you believe that the video you’re watching on the phone will be perfectly in sync with the live game in front of you given that satellite TV introduces delays of several seconds? If the video is sent 5G all the way from the TV camera to your screen then any delay should be measured in milliseconds. So, yes, you can believe it.
The second component is the 5G antenna that your new 5G phone connects to. We call this the Radio Access Network (RAN) and it uses radio waves to talk to your phone. These 5G antennas are quite different to the mobile antennas that you see on top of buildings today. The 5G antenna will be a rectangle about 70 cm by 40 cm. Inside is a grid of tiny antennas that we call “Massive MIMO”. There will be either 32 or 64 transmitters and 32 or 64 receivers inside that single antenna unit which gives it the name “Multiple In Multiple Out” or “MIMO”, and it is massive. 5G is being licensed by governments in higher radio frequencies than 2G, 3G, or 4G mobile networks. The higher the radio frequency, the smaller the individual antenna, which means we can pack more of them into a single antenna unit. 5G is most commonly being licensed in what’s called the c-band frequency but it’s also being licensed in a much higher mm-wave frequency, and these Massive-MIMO antennas will have hundreds of transmitters and receivers in a single unit. The more transmitters and receivers working simultaneously, the faster your Internet connection.
With so many antennas packed into a small space, we can use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to direct the radio waves to your specific location in a process called “beamforming”. Think of beamforming as a searchlight picking out exactly where you are. No longer will you have to wave your phone in the air to get a stronger signal. This AI will also manage the power of the radio beam so it just reaches your phone but goes no further to save electricity.
3. Fibre Optic
The third component is the physical network that links the antennas and transports data all around the country. You may hear it called “backhaul” or “transmission”, but here we’re going to call it the Transport Network. In the same way the Radio Access Network uses different radio frequencies to transmit data through the air, the Transport Network uses different light frequencies to transmit data over fibre-optic cable. There is no point using Massive-MIMO antennas in the Radio Access Network if you do not also increase capacity in the Transport Network behind it. We do this by increasing the number of light wavelengths we get down a single fibre-optic cable.
The latest 5G Transport Network will fit 120 different wavelengths down a single fibre, which is a huge amount of capacity. Optical signals travel faster than electrical signals but to route your data around the country these optical signals have historically been converted to electrical signals to work out where they needed to go. No longer. The latest routing technology works directly with the light signals so no conversion to electrical signals is needed meaning your data will race through the network at the speed of light. Buffering of Ultra-HD 4k video will never be experienced again.
4. The Core
Finally, we get to the fourth component: the Core Network where radio and light waves become recognisable as your data. The core network understands two sorts of information: Control Plane information that determines what’s going on in the network and User Plane information that’s yours. Don’t worry about the Control Plane. The User Plane is where the data becomes things you know about: web sites, streamed video, VoIP calls, instant messaging, or emails. The name “Core Network” is misleading. It doesn’t mean it sits at the centre of the physical network. In fact, the 5G Core Network is a hierarchy of physical data centres that we’re now calling the Telco Cloud. This Cloudified Core Network comprises racks and racks of computers and storage built in air-conditioned units everywhere from huge out-of-town facilities to the smallest telephone exchange at the “edge” of the network. It’s here, at the edge, that your User Plane functions like streamed video will sit ensuring the best possible response time for whatever it is you’re doing online. The cloudification of the core network for 5G will bring with it concepts like Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) and Network Slicing that will enable things like the live football augmented reality app and the remote driving of vehicles that we mentioned earlier.
And there we have it. You now know everything there is to know about 5G: Massive-MIMO, RAN, Transport, MEC, and the Cloudification of the Core Network. The exam will be next week.