Skip to Content
Jacinto Cordero Judy Wright
April 21, 2020 7 min read
5G has great potential, but it’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Understanding its benefits and limitations will help you determine the best-use cases to prioritize. Let’s get started.

buildingsPresident Trump recently signed the Secure 5G and Beyond Act of 2020 into law to develop a strategy and implementation plan for mobile broadband 5G technologies. The Act’s objectives include enabling working from home to prevent the spread of the COVID-19 virus, to speed recovery after the crisis, and to deploy a communications infrastructure. The latter should help to better address future emergency situations, including a greater use of telemedicine and other emergency communications. 

So what’s 5G? It’s the next generation in wireless connectivity technology. It holds much promise, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. Its widespread deployment will include some challenges, and its use won’t make sense in all cases. As the Act goes into effect, here are five important things to understand. 

5G isn’t just about speed.

The development of 5G mobile technologies — some of which have been retrofitted to augment  current 4G technologies — will enable service providers to deliver gigabit speeds wirelessly. This is thanks to some advanced technologies, such as carrier aggregation (combining multiple frequency bands), MIMO (multiple simultaneously transmitting and receiving antenna arrays), and high-order modulation (to maximize utilization of frequency spectrum resources), among others.

But 5G isn’t only about speed or the bandwidth required to enable it. It’s also about connecting a great number of devices, minimizing latency (data transmission delay), and optimizing battery life. All are required to deploy cutting-edge internet of things (IoT) solutions, often called machine-to-machine (M2M) communications.

This means 5G can support bandwidth-hungry applications such as ultra-high definition video streaming, and it can support telemetry applications based on many small battery-powered sensors. It also can be leveraged for solutions that require real-time actionable intelligence, such as autonomous driving.

5G can support bandwidth-hungry applications such as ultra-high definition video streaming, and it can support telemetry applications based on many small battery-powered sensors.

5G will come in many flavors.

5G technologies can be applied across a wide range of scenarios. A feature called network slicing allows wireless resources to be virtually partitioned to serve different types of applications while maximizing performance and capacity utilization. As a result, 5G services will come in many flavors, and it will be important to choose the one that is most suitable to your business requirements. 

5G services will come in many flavors, and it will be important to choose the one that is most suitable to your business requirements. 

Three main application scenarios can be served by network slices: 

  1. Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) applications such as in-vehicle entertainment, virtual and augmented reality, and video surveillance require high bandwidths, but they’re not latency-sensitive. Factors such as a high image resolution (associated with a high bit rate), short time to load (buffer fill), and avoiding pixilation or freezing take priority over a small delay.
  2. Massive machine-type communications (mMTC) applications like energy metering, vehicle tracking, and data collection from industrial machinery to be used for preventive maintenance. In these cases, high data transmission rates and small delays aren’t the main concern; rather, the ability to integrate many devices is key. 
    For some mMTC applications, such as monitoring medical devices embedded in a patient’s body or collecting data from agricultural fields, optimizing battery life is crucial. This applies to small battery-powered devices whose replacement cycle is planned for 10 years or longer.
  3. Ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (uRLLC) applications are all about minimizing data transmission delays. Autonomous driving, which in its most advanced form involves vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communication, as well as remote drone piloting, are very latency-sensitive; the smallest delay could result in accidents, property damages, or serious injuries.

In addition to these three application scenarios, some applications will require a more customized approach. Online gaming, for example, requires high bandwidth to deliver action-intensive interactive videos and low latency for players to react immediately. Robot-assisted remote surgery requires high-resolution graphics to guide the surgeon and low latency to enable highly precise surgical interventions.

5G will coexist with other communication technologies.

It’s a common misconception that once 5G becomes prevalent that it’ll replace other communication protocols such as ethernet and Wi-Fi. Not true. In fact, 5G will coexist with these protocols in real-life, end-to-end applications. 

It’s a common misconception that once 5G becomes prevalent that it’ll replace other communication protocols such as ethernet and Wi-Fi. Not true.

Ethernet is a wired communications protocol, used to transmit very large volumes of data with interface speeds up to 400Gbps, which will continue to be prevalent in the local area networks (LAN) of companies, government agencies, educational institutions, and inside data centers. Combined with other technologies such as IP, MPLS, and DWDM, ethernet enables transmission of massive amounts of information around the world, including providing the backhaul transport mechanism for 5G connectivity.

Wi-Fi uses an unlicensed spectrum. This means you don’t have to pay to use the frequency. 5G technologies that leverage the unlicensed spectrum exist, and private use is allowed. However, most large-scale deployments of 5G will be undertaken by service providers using a licensed spectrum (for which they pay a lot of money). As a result, in most real-life scenarios, you’ll have to pay a fee to use 5G services. Wi-Fi, including the newest 802.11ax (Wi-Fi-6) standard, remains more ubiquitous and economical for many enterprise-wide cases.

Additionally, other relatively newer and lesser known protocols will coexist with 5G. This is the case with dedicated short-range communication (DSRC) protocols for the next generation of mobility, and many protocols now used in IoT applications, including Bluetooth/BLE, NFC, RFID, Zigbee, SigFox, LoRaWAN, among others. These protocols might be used as an alternative, or a complement, to 5G depending on the scenario, for instance providing connectivity between a 5G gateway and other endpoints.

The best-use cases for 5G are those that require mobility over large areas (e.g. vehicle tracking), including nationwide or global mobility (e.g. logistics), as well as those where fixed or wireless connectivity isn’t available nor feasible using other alternatives. It’s likely 5G will play a minor role inside locations with dense Wi-Fi coverage and a dedicated, high-bandwidth internet connection.

The best-use cases for 5G are those that require mobility over large areas

5G achieves wide coverage with small cells.

Commercial 5G offerings continue to become available worldwide, and business applications that require great mobility are among the most suitable candidates to fully realize the benefits of 5G technologies. However, such widespread coverage must overcome many challenges.

Business applications that require great mobility are among the most suitable candidates to fully realize the benefits of 5G technologies.

Massive 5G deployments will require using very high frequency bands, which are the only ones available for licensing in large-frequency blocks by regulators. And the higher the frequency, the smaller the coverage footprint. Higher frequencies also are more susceptible to blocking or attenuation caused by terrain, foliage, and construction materials. This means the traditional approach to deploying cellular networks based on external macro cells is no longer enough. 

Guaranteeing continued coverage and signal penetration inside buildings (as well as adequate capacity), will require a heterogeneous approach to infrastructure deployment. Such an approach will leverage both macro cells and a multitude of small cells, or microcells,  deployed in densely populated urban areas and inside buildings (5G small cells could potentially coexist with Wi-Fi access points).

This is important to know, especially if you’re involved in urban planning, since we can expect to find 5G microcells or picocells, each with a small area of coverage, deployed anywhere throughout cities, towns, villages, and counties. They will most likely blend into the surroundings, hidden in light poles, bus stops, and in electric vehicle charging stations as they become more widely available.

Wider coverage will still be available for rural areas, most likely utilizing 5G at lower frequencies, though the amount of usable bandwidth at such frequencies is less and so there could be limitations in terms of speed and capacity. In some instances, 5G deployments in rural areas might be limited, at least in the near term, and connectivity may fall back to legacy 4G (LTE-M or NB-IoT) or even 3G technologies.

5G solutions will require centralized and edge processing.

It’s common to visualize 5G applications as a hub-and-spoke model, with a multitude of devices connected to a centralized location, sending data to that location to be aggregated, stored, and processed, or receiving content generated there. This is the model followed today by 5G solutions purely used for connectivity and cloud-based IoT platform providers that hold virtual mobile network operation (MVNO) agreements with many global mobile service providers.

But this approach will change in the years to come as more processing capability is pushed to the network edges. Content will be cached and distributed at locations closer to the end user, much like we currently see with cloud services powered by content delivery networks (CDN) to improve the end-user experience. In the same way, data collected will be processed, to some extent, closer to IoT devices in order to minimize the response time needed for real-time automated actions.

In conclusion

5G technology can help the public and private sectors better prepare for and adapt to future emergencies. It can also provide many opportunities to develop solutions around cost optimization, value creation, or enhanced public service and customer experience. Understanding the benefits and limitations of 5G can help organizations determine the best-use cases to prioritize and, as adoption increases, to fully reap its rewards. 

Looking for expert advice?

Subscribe now