Unlike 4G, which is about mobile broadband, the impending 5G network will target a diverse set of applications. It must not only deliver applications for an Enhanced Mobile Broadband experience but also in Critical Communications and Massive Internet of Things (IoT). These new applications will open up possibilities in Virtual and Augmented Reality, Autonomous Vehicles, Industrial Automation and Smart Cities but they make widely varying demands of network infrastructure. Enhanced Mobile Broadband is about speed and data capacity while Critical Communications requires ultra-high reliability and availability with low latency and IoT needs mass connectivity, at low cost and power but has very little data.
How will 5G adapt to all of these demands? It has to be an Intelligent Orchestration Platform, balancing load and requirements against the available network capabilities to create the perception of infinite capacity. Exactly the performance you need anytime, anywhere. 5G networks therefore incorporate a number of transformational elements to help make this happen:
More Licensed Spectrum
Unlike previous generations, 5G will provide three spectrum bands rather than one. It will operate in the 700Mhz, 3.4GHz and 26GHz bands, giving the possibility to trade off data rate and range or, cell size. The 700Mhz band has very good propagation properties and its large cell size will provide national coverage but is limited to 10Mbps/cell while 3.4GHz will provide both small and medium cell sizes with up to 1Gbps/cell. The very highest band, at 26GHz, has very poor propagation properties and so is limited to cell sizes of just a hundred metres or so but is able to deliver 10Gbps/cell. 5G then will be able to select the most appropriate frequency bands based on application, which gives more flexibility and the ability to create Ultra Dense Networks.
Scalable Network Architectures
5G will borrow heavily from the Cloud Computing revolution, virtualising all its network functionality. What this means is that traditional hardware elements are now implemented in software running on standard data centre servers. It will deliver a level of scalability and flexibility that has been impossible in the past. Now if demand means we need extra network resources we just spin them up rather than having to add dedicated hardware. Software Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Slicing means that we can now partition the network into virtual sub-networks to provide exactly what’s needed for a particular application or user. It is dynamic, virtual, distributed and radio agnostic and is the key to balancing network load.
Integrating Unlicensed Spectrum
Unlicensed Spectrum sits in two bands around 2.4GHz and 5GHz. As the name suggests you do not need a spectrum license to operate in these bands and that’s why they are used for WiFi. 5G plans to use this spectrum in two ways 1) License Assisted Access and 2) WiFi Aggregation. In the first case if a WiFi hotspot is not available the spectrum is effectively wasted. 5G will be able to make use of that spectrum to augment what it has available in the cellular bands. In the second case a WiFi hotspot is available so 5G will be able to split the data between WiFi and cellular networks and it is then stitched back together again in the handset.
These are some of the new technical elements that will enable 5G networks to create a network of all networks and deliver connectivity anytime, anywhere. In future we won’t care how we’re connected just that we are, the 5G network will ensure we all get the user experience we want, it promises to change everything.