With 2020 in our rear-view mirror, we look ahead to 2021 in hopes that the new normal is a road far less uncharted than our last 12 months. In fact, we hope that the unknowns ahead will be positive in nature both for our families and work life. For most of us, advancements in cell phones, the internet, and technology remained positive and, in general, continued to surge. Thus, the new “buzz word” for 2020 in the cellular and Internet of Things (IoT) world was 5G. This evolution from 4G LTE shouldn’t be a surprise, given that we have been in the world of cellular evolution since the first-generation analog cell phone technology arrived in the mid-’80s. About every 10 years, another generation or “G” of cellular technology emerges. People have come to expect it. What isn’t known or expected is what that new technology brings and what it means to both the industry and the population.
Of course, many of the benefits of new technology can only be realized once paired with new applications and Applications. Thus, you may look at 5G connectivity and say, “it’s faster, so what?” But it’s much more than that; in fact, consumer handset data speed is only the tip of the iceberg. What lies below is an amazing array of complex network elements designed to produce connectivity as no one has ever seen before.
URLLC and mMTC
Two additional groundbreaking technology advancements have emerged from 5G connectivity that will complement the speed and provide the ability to launch applications and Applications that were not previously possible. These are Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC) and massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC). In fact, going back to May 2019, Forbes magazine published a 5G article titled, “Why 5G isn’t just faster 4G.” In it, Simon Rockman, former contributor of Forbes Consumer Tech, discusses these three primary factors that will push 5G beyond anything we have seen. To fully grasp these concepts, there needs to be a basic understanding of what’s going on in the background. It gets technical; however, the real-world examples are not.
Yes, 5G connectivity is faster. It’s much faster. It is called eMBB (enhanced Mobile Broadband or extreme Mobile Broadband). This is the result of very advanced engineering revolving around three intertwined components: antennas, base station radios, and software.
By incorporating a vast number of grouped antennas within a device (and the corresponding base station), one can create multiple data stream paths that are then combined to form super-highways of information. This is referred to as massive MIMO (Multiple In, Multiple Out) and sets the stage for very high throughput. Before the MIMO technology, if a device received more than one signal from a tower, it was considered interference, would have the opposite effect (referred to as multipath propagation), and would severely decrease data throughput. By incorporating advanced antenna technology and highly computational signal processing, what was once considered “radio noise” is now used as an accelerator to give us 5G speeds.
These massive MIMO antenna groups are coupled with advanced radio technologies such as spectrum sharing, unlicensed Wi-Fi assist, and specialized channel coding software to give eMBB what users need to satisfy the demands of streaming HD/4K video, mobile Virtual Reality (VR) headsets, and high volume IoT data streams for industry verticals such as telemedicine. Interestingly enough, the components that contribute to the potential 50-100X speeds of 4G LTE also have a heavy effect on something else: latency.
To visualize what latency is, we need to understand how it relates to speed. If we think of speed as to how fast a car travels, latency is the “0-60”. It represents how long it takes for bits and bytes to arrive or the delay. Reducing the delay (lowering latency) allows new applications and technologies to emerge that were never before possible. For instance, an autonomous car can sense its environment and operate without human involvement. For that car to safely travel on the street alongside other vehicles, pedestrians, and traffic lights, there exists the need to interact with the environment around it. This requires them to be connected in some way, such as with a cellular network.
Until 5G connectivity came along with its extremely low latency, there was just too much delay in the cellular networks for those vehicles to react fast enough to create a safe environment. Any delay in this interaction can cause devastating effects. With 5G, low latency plays a major role in the ability for vehicles to quickly communicate to anything around it and safely provide the appropriate response. This is referred to as “Vehicle to Everything” (V2X) communications and will play a huge part in not only self-driving cars but transport trucks, rail/ship/air transport, or any machine that operates within the environment of others.
The University of Bristol organized a great demonstration of the low latency properties of 5G. Titled “Orchestrating the Orchestra,” Violinist Anneka Sutcliffe plays in Bristol, Professor Mischa Dohler at a piano in The Guildhall, London, and vocalist Noa Dohler and Violinist Rita Fernandes at Digital Catapult in Euston London performed from their remote locations over a 5G network. Synchronizing musicians over a mobile cellular link are exceptionally demanding, as the human ear is very good at picking up even the slightest delay. And yet, when they rehearsed the piece, the two violins sounded as one. The audience’s experience was the same as if the musicians were performing in the same venue.
The last, but certainly not least, of the three groundbreaking 5G advancements is the focus on the massive scale at which machines are being connected to the Internet. The capability for a 5G network to connect to millions of IoT devices within a small, focused area is called massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC). The 5G specification calls out an mMTC requirement of 1 million connections per square km. This capability far exceeds the capacity of 4G and will allow the operation, monitoring, and control of many types of small sensor devices in large quantities.
A great example is the auto industry connecting their assembly robots and the many sensors they contain to a central “Condition Monitoring” software within the plant. Condition monitoring refers to the supervision of those robots and the condition of their inner workings (the state of the factory) to prevent unplanned defects. Recording condition characteristics along the production process enable continuous quality control of the products. Hundreds of wireless sensor nodes (e., g. cameras, sound detection, proximity sensors, temperature sensors) embedded in these machines are connected wirelessly through a 5G network. Without this wireless network, these machines would be subject to a wired network connection and restricted where they can be placed on the factory floor. This means the production setup can easily be changed and units moved around daily to maximize factory efficiency.
In summary, the obvious win for 5G connectivity and easiest to showcase is the incredible download speeds. But as we delve deeper, we see that there is so much more to this evolution. In fact, industry players that leverage the 5G wireless networks are just now realizing the vast, wide (and some yet undiscovered) opportunities that abound when you combine speed, reliability, and scale to a degree never seen before.