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Catching the 5G Wave

Is 2020 the year that “true” 5G is available for enterprises?  As we wrote in our Network World article last year (“Like 4G before it, 5G is being hyped”), when it finally happens, 5G will truly be revolutionary.  In this article we’ll describe what 5G is and how it technically differs from today’s 4G technology.  We’ll look at what 5G means for the enterprise, touch on what you can buy today and assess 5G’s future potential, explore some of the concerns CIOs have with 5G, and lay out what you need to do in 2020.

5G is the newest wireless technology that promises speeds ten to hundreds of times faster than what most users receive today with 4G LTE.  Today’s 4G networks can deliver speeds of 10 – 50 Mbps, and theoretically reach a download speed of 150 Mbps.  5G networks, on the other hand, promise a speed of 1 Gbps and could theoretically hit a peak download speed of 10 Gbps, and possibly higher. 

4G ushered in the ability for wireless users to download movies and gigabyte-sized files in minutes.  It enabled the seamless streaming of music and video conferences and users were able to make high definition voice calls using Voice over LTE.  5G will take all of this up another step … one very big step.

5G is not a tweak to existing wireless technology or the re-branding of a faster version of 4G.  5G requires the service providers to buy and use more, and different, wireless spectrum.  It also requires a lot more infrastructure – more cell sites, antennas, base stations, and fiber backhaul.  5G also requires a fundamental redesign of the service providers’ edge and core networks, with edge servers close to or at the cell site location to minimize latency for real-time applications.

How 5G Uses Wireless Spectrum

5G is based on the 5G NR (New Radio) standard which has been adopted by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), an international standards organization responsible for the development of GSM and related 2G and 2.5G, 3G UMTS and 4G LTE standards.  5G NR networks operate on different frequencies described by the 3GPP in two Frequency Ranges (FR) or bands defined as FR1 (410 MHz – 7 GHz) and FR2 (24 – 52 GHz) at the low and high-ends of the spectrum.  These allow operation on a wide variety of frequencies, including the frequencies vacated by decommissioning previous wireless spectrum from commercial and government communications services. 

In practice, these two ranges are further categorized as low (below 1 GHz), mid (1 GHz – 6 GHz) and high-band (24 GHz and above) spectrum.  The high-band is also referred to as millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum.  Based on early implementations and announcements by wireless carriers, deployments will be in the low-band and mid-band spectrum space.  There is on-going research using the mmWave frequencies given the connectivity challenges and trade-offs for this spectrum.

While 5G deployments that use mmWave frequencies allow for much faster data speeds, there are challenges that must be resolved.   Typical challenges are signal quality – due to lack of the mmWave’s signal to penetrate buildings – rain fade, atmospheric gases, distance, multi-path interference, and foliage.  Established techniques that can mitigate these effects include Massive MIMO (i.e., 100’s of transmit and receive antennas to support dozens of end-user devices), beam-forming and beam-tracking antenna technology as well as adaptive modulation, coding and power control. 

The typical challenge with mmWave frequencies occurs with moving users.  For example, the signal may be dramatically impaired when a mobile user turns a corner due to buildings or other structures blocking the beam.   For a fixed site, such as an office building or stadium, the end-user is fixed in relation to the antenna beam, so the radio signal and antennas can be optimized to maintain a strong mmWave connection.

5G Infrastructure and Resources

As service providers are investing to secure their rights to the wireless spectrum, they are also aggressively building out their wireless access networks.  Companies such as Ericsson, Nokia, Samsung Electronics, Cisco, Juniper, and Qualcomm are key providers of 5G wireless equipment and chip sets. 

Outside of the US, one of the favored potential 5G equipment providers is Huawei (pronounced “wah-way”), a Chinese communications equipment company.  However, as recently as last month, the German government had not approved Huawei as their future 5G equipment provider, and Australia and Japan have banned Huawei.  Under Chinese law, Huawei and other Chinese companies are required to comply with the 2017 National Intelligence Law, meaning companies could be forced to hand over network data whether they want to or not.   

The US government worries that Huawei, at the direction of the Chinese government, could carry out surveillance or launch a cyberattack using its 5G equipment, so US service providers are prohibited from using Huawei equipment.  The US government recently announced that Dell, Microsoft, and AT&T are being encouraged to develop a 5G solution that is more software-based and would potentially eliminate the need to use Huawei’s equipment.

5G is also going to require the network service providers to push more of their processing to the edge of the network.  Service providers are already preparing the core of their networks to handle the anticipated growth by deploying software defined networking and utilizing network function virtualization.  They are also developing the means to dynamically allocate required bandwidth and processing resources and will allow them to offer low latency and high availability service levels.

What 5G Means for the Enterprise

If you want to take advantage of the faster speeds and improved network functionality, you’re going to need a new device.  Since 5G is based on a new and different standard, current smartphones, wireless interface cards, and IoT sensors won’t connect to a 5G network.  The new 5G devices will be backward compatible and will work on legacy 4G networks.  In fact, given the massive undertaking to build out 5G networks, the devices will likely spend more time connected to 4G networks than 5G, particularly outside of cities.

The good news for enterprises is that 5G will do so much more than just allow faster downloads on a smartphone.  Because of the higher speeds and promised lower latency and improved availability, companies can replace fixed line access circuits used in their data networks with 5G wireless connections.  Standing up a new site will become a lot quicker if 5G is available in an area where a company needs it.

Many believe that 5G will allow for the mass deployment of the Internet of Things (IoT).  Service providers are expecting that IoT could add as many as 80 billion new connections to their networks by 2025.  These IoT devices will include autonomous vehicles, water meters, public lighting, environmental monitoring, future railway communications, robots, drones, security cameras, and pretty much anything else that can have an IP address. 

There is much research and testing of 5G taking place by standards bodies, telecom equipment manufacturers, universities, and mobile carriers.  In addition, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and the 3GPP have developed several use cases for the application of 5G services that include:

  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) – eMBB appears to be the use case that is initially being marketed and deployed by mobile carriers.  Some examples of eMBB include smart phones, fixed locations such as home and businesses, ubiquitous and high-speed broadband in stadiums or other venues, support for UHD (4K and above) broadcast and virtual/augmented reality services.
  • Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC) – Examples of mMTC use cases include smart buildings, environmental monitoring, public lighting control, fleet management and smart meters.
  • Ultrareliable and Low-Latency Communications (URLLC) or Critical Communications – URLLC use cases include autonomous vehicle and railway control, traffic control, monitoring and safety, e-health including remote surgery and warehouse/factory robotic controls.  Latencies at or below 5 milliseconds are needed and would require edge servers co-located at the cell base stations.
  • Vehicle-to-Everything (V2X) – V2X is defined as the transfer of vehicle information from a vehicle to any entity that may affect the vehicle.  It is a vehicle communication system that includes V2I (vehicle-to-infrastructure), V2N (vehicle-to-network), V2V (vehicle-to-vehicle), V2P (vehicle-to-pedestrian), V2D (vehicle-to-device) and V2G (vehicle-to-grid).  The primary benefits of V2X are road safety, traffic efficiency and energy savings.

Devices, Plans, and Pricing

There are only a limited number of 5G smartphones available for purchase today and most have a price tag exceeding $1,000.  Samsung and LG sell 5G smartphones, but Apple has opted to wait and is expected to include the required 5G technology in its iPhone 12.  Chinese equipment companies Huawei and ZTE offer 5G compatible smartphones, but you’re not going to be able to buy them if you live in the US because of the current privacy and security concerns the US has with China.

You should also expect new rate plans and pricing structures to be introduced by the service providers.  As noted, 5G is about data, lower latency (if needed), and the ability to connect more devices and allocate the network functionality to support the user or application requirement.  We expect the rate plans and other pricing to evolve as user demand and requirements evolve.

Skeptics and Controversy

5G does have its sceptics and controversy.  A recent Wall Street Journal survey of CIOs revealed that most felt the technology was over-hyped and many don’t believe there’s an imminent advantage to using 5G.  There is also a worry that using equipment from foreign providers such as Huawei and ZTE could open the enterprise to spying and other security breaches. 

On the one hand CIOs want to know how quickly 5G will be rolled out and how densely coverage will be once deployed.  On the other hand, some are concerned that 5G wireless service, with the requirement to have 10 times more antennas, will be transmitting radio wave signals and cause a health risk to users and the environment.

What to do in 2020

One of your first 5G “to do” items is to ask your wireless service provider to show you where they’ve already deployed 5G, where they plan to deploy it over the next six to twelve months, and to share their 5G service roadmap.  Be aware that some providers tout they have 5G deployed, but it is actually 4G LTE Advanced and marketed as “5G E”.  Most service providers appear to be blanketing densely populated urban areas first to get the most bang for their investment buck, and then deploy to less populated areas later. 

Second, ask about the devices they’re going to support, the new machine-to-machine and IoT service offerings, and the rate plans and pricing.  Get your hands on a new 5G smartphone and wireless interface card.  Test out the new 5G service, compare it to what you currently get with 4G, and evaluate the signal strength and how it compares to your fixed line data service.  Determine if the new speed and service functions make a difference to how you work today and how you could work in the future.

Finally, start planning for a move to 5G.  Know that when the service is available, your users are going to want it and the devices they have today aren’t going to work.  Also know that your demand and requirements are going to change and you’re likely going to want more data and to take advantage of those promised latency and availability service levels.  If you haven’t competitively procured your wireless services in some time, now would be a good time to be thinking about testing the market for what will almost certainly be a game changing technology in the years ahead.

For further information, please contact David Lee, Joe Schmidt or the LB3 lawyer or TC2 consultant with whom you regularly work.

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