The Benefits of 5G—Hurry Up and Wait
To start our latest appraisal of 5G, we revisit a quote from former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler, who told the National Press Club in June 2016, “If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way.” While this statement is no doubt true, it implies that the benefits of 5G won’t be felt for some time to come. Regarding the prognostic outcomes of this new technology, as was the case with 4G, users must “hurry up and wait.”
5G promises to revolutionize wireless communications by its exclusive use of Internet Protocol (IP) to virtualize networks. But, as Wheeler later pointed out, “5G is not transformational, per se”; 5G applications are. While this may seem pedantic hair-splitting, recall how 4G transformed “use cases”:
breadth of applications (think Google Play and App Store)
degree of mobility (think Uber and Lyft)
data intensity (think video streaming)
responsiveness (speed and latency)
application significance (horizontal and vertical)
Many envisioned 5G benefits are still in whiteboard stages. In a rare moment of candor from an MNO, Verizon’s technology development and planning VP Bill Stone cautioned in April 2019, “There is a potential to overhype and under-deliver on the 5G promise.”
Also in April 2019, T-Mobile U.S. CTO Neville Ray added, “Millimeter-wave (MMW) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity but doesn’t travel far from the cell site and doesn’t penetrate materials at all. It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban areas.”
Faithful IAG readers know our take on 5G MMW; it aligns with that of T-Mobile’s Ray. Most consumers will only see ancillary benefits from 5G. Enterprises and industry look to be the real winners of the 5G revolution.
O2UKBusiness and 5G
For an MNO’s take on 5G, look at the U.K.’s O2 and their conveniently-titled vid “5 Benefits of 5G”:
5G Network Slicing
Network slicing is perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of 5G evolution. This architecture allows carriers to deliver portions of their network for specific customer applications, including machine-to-machine (M2M), Industrial IoT (IIoT), autonomous vehicle (AV) technology and “smart” utility grids.
By combining 5G network topology (virtual end-to-end networks) with optimized resources, network slicing allows a carrier to deliver customized solutions for a user’s specific requirements. Partitioning network functions allows for more efficient use of network resources such as bandwidth, speed and power.
According to Ericsson exec Peter Linder, the main difference between 4G and 5G network slicing is that “4G (doesn’t) distinguish between what device is at the other end.” With 5G, the end device matters; applications thus are tailored to serve the network’s optimal needs. Linder cites the example of M2M low power applications that won’t drain device batteries.
5G network slicing is also “dynamic.” Nokia engineers describe a use case in a sports arena where downlink network traffic escalates before game time as fans download player and game information for the event. Once the game starts, however, network traffic becomes mostly uplink as fans upload content such as photos and videos to social media.
This flexibility requires software-defined networking (SDN), orchestration, network functions virtualization (NFV) and analytics. Network design, customization and deployment on the fly, all operating on a common network architecture, is intrinsic to 5G.
5G Healthcare Benefits
One 5G application particularly subject to hype is healthcare. In 2017, Ericsson CTO Ulf Ewaldson proclaimed that thanks to 5G, for the first time a network will be faster than one’s mind—as if he could physically discern the 10 ms latency routinely found on DOCSIS 3.1. This “Internet of skills” has been demonstrated through the use of a VR headset and a specially-designed glove to perform actual surgery from another location.
Haptic feedback motors and robotics are integral to 5G surgical procedures. They impart an actual tactile sensation to a remotely-located surgeon when he or she “touches” the patient. Very low latency, of course, is required. This “touchy-feely” Internet is touted as a way for talented medicos to practice their skills on patients at sites far removed from the surgeon’s physical location. The same is forecast for dental procedures.
Advanced imaging diagnostic equipment can also benefit from 5G, as it ladens networks with traffic congestion that slows data speeds. IoT medical technologies with their whiz-bang gadgets need the network capacity 5G promises. But, in truth, fiber already delivers the bandwidth these technologies need.
MRIs, for example, generate huge files of data—up to 1 GB per patient per study. Without sufficient bandwidth, the transmission of these images takes significant time or may not transmit successfully. These bottlenecks slow treatment and limit the number of patients a doctor can see. Instead of waiting until off-hours when network traffic subsides, with 5G specialists can transmit files as soon as they’re generated. The same is possible with fiber.
AT&T is hawking the so-called “telemedicine” virtues of 5G, disregarding the reality that fiber backhaul is a necessary part of a 5G network. AT&T also conveniently overlooks the fact that home-bound patients utilizing telemedicine need devices—and networks—that are 5G compatible.
5G and Autonomous Vehicle (AV) Technology
AV technology perhaps (ahem) drives the most hype among 5G applications. Companies around the world are (um) racing to put AVs on the road. But there’s more to AV than 5G. Robots, drones and AVs need a sense of place.
As Duke University professor of mechanical, computer and electrical engineering Mary Cummings says, “People (don’t) understand how reliant autonomous cars are on the fidelity of maps. If the map is wrong, then the car is going to do something wrong.”
In fact, today’s AV vehicles “cheat” by using fantastically detailed maps or “world models” instead of recognizing their surroundings and executing snap decisions “on the fly.” While Tesla CEO Elon Musk boldly claimed in January 2019, “We already have full self-driving capability on highways,” Dr. Cummings disputes his claim.
“For now, no auto or tech company has created a fully or semi-autonomous driving system that can operate on the highway without any human supervision, including (Google’s) Waymo,” Dr. Cummings said. She added, “He’s wrong, but it’s his job to sell cars.”
Not only does 5G AV technology need to be further fleshed out, other technologies such as “sensor fusion” need to be fully developed. “Frankly both the sensing and compute capabilities that (Tesla’s vehicles) have today are not capable of providing full self-driving under all conditions, which is what Musk said they could do,” says Sam Abuelsamid, a Navigant senior mobility analyst.
Again, here is another “hurry up and wait” 5G application; discussion has yet to turn to the deployment of “fully” autonomous driving technology. And, given the almost uncountable number of MMW-compatible radio nodes with the data capacity and throughput needed to make the technology work needed for America’s Interstate highway system alone, don’t hold your breath on having a “fully” AV in your driveway any time soon.
5G and Agriculture
A promising application for 5G IoT concerns agriculture and farming. With sensors providing real-time data to automate, track and monitor processes, “smart” farming thanks to 5G could result in greater yields and more efficient delivery of crops and livestock to markets.
5G-enabled sensors will allow for the extremely precise measurement of nutrition, fertilization and moisture levels to improve livestock management and crop analysis. This monitoring will indicate ideal times for livestock processing and crop harvest. Combined with the use of real-time and predicted weather and climate patterns, 5G will leverage optimal agriculture and husbandry yields.
However, the “digital divide” between urban and rural populations threatens to reduce the efficacy of 5G’s effect on agricultural production. As FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel states, 5G “will leave rural America behind (because) 5G service is unlikely outside of the most populated urban areas.” Currently, nearly 80% of the United Kingdom’s “rural areas” are beyond the reach of even 4G.
Given the added expense of rolling out 5G networks in less-populated areas, 5G’s benefits for agriculture could very well be an opportunity lost.
We mentioned that 5G looks to benefit enterprises and industry more than the individual consumer. However, if 5G’s promise to support “up to” one million devices per km2 comes true, then 5G will be of great benefit to those who live in densely populated urban areas where sub-6 GHz band waves using 4G are already massively congested.
5G will be a solution for growing wireless demand as more and more people turn to mobile devices as their primary means of receiving web-based services. But in the U.S., listen to the words of Nilay Patel, co-founder of The Verge, who writes:
“(5G is) being foisted on us by huge telecom companies that know internet access is fundamentally a commodity and want something new to sell at high prices instead of competing to improve service and lower prices on the networks they have.
“After all, the United States “won” the “race” for LTE, but it bears repeating: our LTE networks are among the slowest in the world, and our prices among the highest. What did winning that race accomplish for the millions of people across the country that still can’t get a reliable LTE signal?”