The Potential and Challenge of 5G: What 2019-2020 Will Bring

September 18, 2019

Demystifying 5G: Promises and Challenges

Having recently appeared on the PSDcast to discuss the global deployment of 5G technologies (I invite you to listen), I wanted to further discuss how 5G is the future of telecommunications. With its lightning speed, increased reliability, and low latency, 5G is triggering a monumental shift in cellular communications. It offers data speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second—10-20 times faster than existing 4G/LTE networks—and has tremendous potential for IoT, especially time-sensitive applications such as emergency management, healthcare, and aviation.

Moving cars with motion blur headlights and tail lights through city at night.

But how does 5G differ from existing 4G networks? And what are the challenges operators and device designers face around global deployment?

Will 5G Replace 4G?

While 5G is different from 4G, it will not replace the earlier technology. Instead, it provides enhancements to existing 4G networks. Current 5G channels depend on 4G/LTE infrastructure in an arrangement called non-standalone (NSA) mode. As 5G rolls out over the next few years, 4G will continue to play a role in cellular communications by providing excellent coverage, voice communications, and gigabit LTE services.

With the advent of 5G comes a new frequency band called millimeter wave (mmWave). It’s an ultrahigh frequency that extends from 30–300 GHz and gives operators access to large bandwidth channels. Because 4G and 3G operate on lower bandwidths, the mmWave spectrum is free of interference from other devices, which aids faster communication speeds.  

5G towers are also distinctive. While 4G towers project in all directions and cover wide areas, 5G mmWave signals are directional and unable to reach more than about a mile. As a result, widespread adoption of 5G mmWave will require massive changes to infrastructure. 5G cell “towers” will be smaller and more closely spaced compared with their more visible predecessors. For now, most areas will continue to blend the two generations, offering 5G service using existing 4G towers.

5G Deployment Challenges

Despite the excitement around 5G, several challenges remain before global adoption can take place. Building out 5G infrastructure will be expensive, and initial investments might take time to materialize. Because 5G mmWave signals cannot travel as far as lower-frequency 4G waves, many more cellular communications towers will need to be manufactured and installed. As many as 250,000 to achieve widespread access across the U.S., according to one estimate

On the technical side, 5G’s high-frequency range will require more power to reach the bandwidth and huge mobility of data required. Backhaul is another potential problem. 5G promises enormous data rates between the user, device and cell tower. But many places in the world lack the infrastructure to keep such high-speed networks up and running. Building out intermediate networks to provide that link will be crucial—and will likely take time. 

The Role of 5G in IoT

Cellular technology has seen rapid evolution over the past five years. Until now, manufacturers have applied what is essentially cell phone technology to IoT devices. It functions but is not optimized for size, cost, power, and battery life in IoT use cases. But 5G compatible technologies for IoT are changing that. As the sun begins to set on 2G and 3G networks, new 5G-compatible LP-WAN technologies (Category M-1 and NB-IoT, for example) are ensuring a long life for IoT devices as they are deployed.

5G’s low latency and high speeds make this technology a perfect fit for time-sensitive IoT applications. Autonomous vehicles, drones, first responder devices, and healthcare wearables are a few examples of devices that will benefit from the 5-millisecond speed of 5G. And 5G’s built-in redundancy will ensure the network remains up and running, even during emergencies such as natural disasters.

The U.S. is leading the rollout of 5G, and the world is watching as major network operators build the needed infrastructure. But 5G will continue to expand around the globe as new suppliers and technology emerge. Established companies and startups will battle for market share as this tremendous opportunity unfolds.