You would be forgiven for thinking that the dust has only just settled on the emergence of 4G into the mobile world. However, no sooner are we getting used to talking about 4G instead of 3G than the arrival of mobile connectivity’s next generation – 5G.
In short and somewhat oversimplified terms, this is 4G being ramped up to industrial capacity.
“It is very exciting,” Dr Håkan Andersson, Head of 5G Product Strategy at Ericsson, tells me. “What we are seeing now in conjunction with the timing of 5G is interest from a lot of industries who want to use connectivity in their processes. Whether it be manufacturing, transport or mining, industries are all looking into how they can use connectivity to drive efficiency.
“At the same time mobile broadband has a very high penetration and operators are looking for additional revenue streams. 5G, I would say, rather simply, is moving or taking mobile broadband into the industrial sphere.”
Ericsson has been a key driver of 5G deployment across Europe, working closely with the likes of the European Commission to identify and approach its opportunities and challenges. Its expertise will no doubt be invaluable when it comes to developing a unified European approach.
“We still need to understand much much more, as this will be different to mobile broadband,” adds Jonas Näslund, Head of Strategy at Ericsson’s Business Radio division. “We need to understand exactly what the industries need, and so far they have been very eager to explore the benefits and work with us.”
Ericsson has identified five use case areas for 5G. The first is ‘Broadband Experience. Everywhere, Anytime’, aimed at generic mobile users in crowded spaces like public transport and at events where connectivity often suffers. Another use case is media streaming, targeting consumers who demand and pay for TV on the go.
Third is smart vehicles, transport and infrastructure, involving connected vehicles, connected roads and connected public transport stops all communicating with one another. 5G could help permit a situation where an electric bus tells an electric highway that is in need of charging, at the same time feeding a bus stop information of its exact whereabouts to keep passengers up to date.
Filling a gap between the Internet of Things (IoT) and humans is another use case, whether it be connecting smart houses to phones or keeping customers informed of where their deliveries are. In terms of industry, the final use case comes in the critical control of remote devices, from smart grids to heavy machinery.
“This is where the challenge lies, making a network than can handle all of these use cases,” explains Näslund. “For example, we are working with New Boliden, a Swedish mining company, on how we can leverage 5G to allow them to remotely control underground trucks used to transport ore. This would greatly improve productivity and safety.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage 5G represents to businesses is flexibility in terms of scaling, maintenance and tailoring to specific needs.
“The fact 5G can in effect represent a whole network just through software, without the need for hardware systems makes it a flexible choice for these different use cases, and one which is much more cost effective than the old fashioned approach,” Andersson explains.
“However, we are seeing LTE Radio Access Networks, which were part of the technical revolution with 2G and 3G, as being part of a 5G solution. We are not simply throwing LTE away. We are adding new technology that has been ripening after the introduction of LTE. 5G spans so much further than a radio interface, but with this we can make networks purely by software.”
Ericsson is partnering with businesses in a number of industries, from health and automotive to utilities and commodities.
Näslund adds: “We are also improving our IoT capabilities and machine to machine communications with these new 5G-LTE networks. Before, IoT functions may have been carried on a separate network, using new hardware and interfaces. “But then we asked ‘why can we not multiplex these narrowband devices into the LTE with software?’ This was the first step in the new way of thinking and I’m pleased that Ericsson took the lead on this and got the industry to change.”
A 5G network also has the potential to save industries large amounts of energy and money. Ericsson’s target is to increase data traffic by a factor of 1,000 while at the same time reducing energy consumption by 50 percent.
Andresson explains how the company is pushing the concept of a lean carrier. The basic principle is to minimise any transmissions not directly related to the delivery of user data, effectively presenting an on demand service used only when needed. Ericsson Lean Carrier works by reducing the interference caused by reference signalling across the LTE network.
“Another element which helps us to reduce energy consumption is antenna technologies,” Andersson reveals. “With traditional cells you have 120 degree antenna and you transmit the information on that sector regardless of where the user is. With the new technology you can point the energy to exactly where the user is.
“If you take a flashlight that spreads like a floodlight it lights up a lot of area that the person is not standing in. If you focus the flashlight into a narrow beam you can use a lot less energy and still light up the point you need. This is the same with antenna technology.”
5G can also incorporate old legacy networks and systems into sustainable network, thus again reducing energy consumption and potentially saving organisations money.
6G? Timescales of 5G
When trying to map the evolution of 2G through to 5G, it is difficult to pin down when or if one morphed into the next. Andresson estimated that 5G had been in the pipeline since around 2012 or 2013, following Ericsson’s vision for connected devices.
“We set out our vision for 50 billion connected devices and it soon became apparent that 4G alone would not be able to cope with this level of connectivity,” he explains. “Machine-machine connections number at around 300 million, but this will increase massively, more than anything else. But this is more the result of what we are doing and not the starting point for 5G - we have to ask how we build a network that can handle these connected devices.”
“We started with 3G and said this would be the last generation and we were wrong. With 5G we are conscious that we shouldn’t make anything that limits adding any functionality further down the line. A 10 year cycle thought process might not cut it anymore.”
And what about 6G, has this been touted at all? “There was a Justin Bieber advert on SuperBowl that talked about 6G, so who knows, maybe he is the 6G champion,” Näslund says.