With every generation of mobile networks—from 1G to 4G—came a significant improvement over the preceding system. Unlike these transitions, there won’t be one massive step that moves us into the impending 5G standard. Many incremental steps, or building blocks, comprise this transition. By working together to address the various elements that make up 5G, engineers and telecom professionals will create a connected network with unprecedented speed and performance for 2019 and beyond.
More than 30 years ago, 1G delivered analog voice, but it was limited due to the phones’ primitive ability to change frequencies between cellular towers. Phones had to work harder to keep connected when moving between service towers, shifting from the frequency of one to another using microprocessors without dropping the call.1
2G instantly rendered the processes of 1G obsolete by introducing digital voice. Time-division multiple-access (TDMA) RF technology in the 1990s allowed mobile phones to maintain connections to numerous frequencies simultaneously, eliminating the need to reconnect from one signal at a time to hold a call. Network capacity also significantly grew, so many users could be connected with little issue.2
By 2003, mobile web became feasible due to the widened bandwidth of 3G that allowed for mobile data. While bandwidth during the 3G era wasn’t optimal for demanding loads such as video, the breadth of possibilities for the platform was widening.3
4G ushered in the era of true mobile internet, breaking the speed barrier into megabytes per second. 4G also gave way to a new IP-based, consolidated network. For carriers, embracing 4G meant further digitizing voice by moving calls to VoIP. In the beginning, typical 4G speeds began at around 4 Mb/s, with the latest LTE-A speeds reaching 200 or even 300 Mb/s.4,5 Mobile bandwidth that can support all standard internet practices is now commonplace, with 5G set to open the floodgates to myriad new applications—incrementally.
The FCC established a 5G standard in June 2018, marking a significant step in the adoption process. It later announced and held two auctions for high-band frequency spectrum in the fall of 2018 in order to facilitate the deployment of 5G technology.6 To design engineers, this means that the proliferation of 5G IoT devices is around the corner, and the miniaturization of millimeter-wave (mmWave) components is beginning to become more urgent.
Although many of today’s IoT devices don’t require significantly wider bands to operate, 5G networks will need to support massive numbers of connections, which will open up possibilities for a swath of new applications for which these devices can serve. These include autonomous-vehicle and connected-car technology, smart city sensors for transport and security, as well as medical devices and AR/VR applications.
How Do We Achieve 5G? Why Aren’t We There Yet?
Although the 5G groundwork has begun to be laid down in multiple major U.S. cities, this is but step one of a long process. In reality, the 5G rollout is still in its infancy, but major mobile carriers would say it differently. The first flagship 5G networks might technically be live, but they only exist in select American cities and are hotspot-based, serving like a public Wi-Fi connection.7 Today’s handset companies are just now beginning to announce 5G-enabled phones with first releases of these phones in the second half of 2019. Most of these phones will support <6-GHz technology. The first prototypes of mmWave technology incorporated are currently being shown at technology seminars.
Millimeter waves exist at the top of the radio spectrum and have been untapped until now, leaving much opportunity for gigabit internet speeds to roam without bottlenecking.8 Since high-band signals by nature can’t travel as far as slower-speed connections, small-cell technology has become a necessity for 5G. Small-cell base stations are miniaturized towers that can be placed throughout metropolitan areas so that high-band signals don’t drop. These will become imperative for dense 5G networks with millions of devices, including connected cars, IoT sensor networks, and more.
Moreover, massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) technology will ensure that plenty of 5G signal frequencies propagate for users so that they’re seamlessly connected at all times. Beamforming will become more commonplace in 5G networks as well, isolating the locations of devices and providing a direct line of signal service rather than broadcasting to an inefficient, broad radius. Beamforming can also involve full duplex, which is the simultaneous sending and receiving of data between devices.
5G offers networking companies an opportunity to continuously test new technologies that will enable ultra-low-latency networks, providing users with an enhanced experience while maintaining low costs. But due to the breadth of these technologies, rollout is naturally going to be gradual.
Some current obstacles challenging design engineers, in terms of tech trends and specific obstacles, include the following.
Rapid Rise of IoT Adoption
According to Gartner, by 2020, IoT technology will be in 95% of electronics for new product designs. The rise in IoT adoption is considered a challenge for network providers to truly achieve 5G. As more users go online, 4G networks will reach a limit of what they can provide for the best possible user experience. Millions of IoT connections inevitably entering any network will not only be stretching their bandwidth capabilities, but will also be testing the sheer number of devices that are able to be connected at a given time.
For example, as smart-city sensors begin to proliferate, they will be flooding networks with location-specific data on transport and other environmental measurements such as temperature, humidity, and more. As these sensors reach every street corner and autonomous vehicles begin to fill streets, IoT bandwidth in its current form will be antiquated—especially since millions of mobile phones will remain active in these networks.
Computing and Bringing AI to the Edge
5G will need to be able to understand what data/input is critical/not critical for decision-making at the edge. Edge computing, a natural extension of cloud computing (and what some are calling “fog”), will be taking the computing load off of small IoT devices within 5G networks.
Artificial intelligence and deep learning are critical to performing these processes between devices. They will bring routing, storage, computing, and server functions to the network edge in order to run mission-critical applications for both enterprises or individuals. Engineers and networking professionals will be hard at work achieving ultra-low latency for data-intensive technologies that can’t afford to have a delay, including autonomous vehicles and medical devices.
By implementing 5G and enabling edge computing for connected cars, increased safety and optimized traffic flow will be possible. Augmented-reality-enabled windshields could give drivers real-time prompts or directions with 5G edge connectivity. 5G-enabled medical devices will be able to deliver prompt warnings for any illnesses or emergencies, so that patients can act on diagnoses as quickly as possible.
The building blocks that will gradually build out our future 5G networks will provide us with procedural innovation in numerous industries. The good news is that this will ease the general public into some truly groundbreaking technology. The bad news is that it will not happen quickly.
OEMs of components, antennas, and sensors, as well as chipmakers and network carriers, bear the responsibility of coming together for this greater purpose. Once this unity is achieved across all of 5G’s challenges, connectivity will enable amazing unforeseen advances in AR, VR, autonomous vehicles, and even simple innovations such as download speeds 1,000X faster than 4G LTE. But first and foremost, design engineers must continually and procedurally innovate at the RF and component level.
Rich Fry is Director of ICT Sales at TDK Corporation of America.