Understanding 5G: Telecom industry poised to overhaul wireless systems

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Fifth-generation mobile networks could change the way businesses share data and make transactions while handling a host of other activities, all at blazing speed.

Welcome to the world of 5G, a complete overhaul of wireless technology and infrastructure that’s emerging among the world's telecommunications providers, or “telcos.”

“One key goal of 5G is to dramatically improve quality of service, and extend that quality over a broader geographic area, in order for the wireless industry to remain competitive against the onset of gigabit fiber service coupled with Wi-Fi,” ZDNet.com reported.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project, originally organized for the 3G roll-out in 1998, is now developing industry standards and a planned roll-out for 5G technology, outlined in an organizing document of specifications called Release 15 or REL-15.

“Following the publication of Release 15, operators and vendors can now move ahead more quickly with advanced testing using equipment they know is standards-compliant,” reported 5G.co.uk, a site dedicated to the 5G development. AT&T, for example, said that it plans to test commercial 5G in 12 cities this year.

According to ZDNet.com, the changes that businesses and users can expect include faster data connections to minimize lag time for cloud applications, the spread of edge computing, machine-to-machine communication upgrades and faster video delivery services for media such as Netflix, Amazon and Hulu.

However, the real need for faster, better service as provided by 5G is not entirely people driven.

“It's not only going to be we humans that are going to be consuming services," remarked Nick Cadwgan, Nokia's director of IP mobile networking, speaking with ZDNet. "There's going to be an awful lot of software consuming services. If you look at this whole thing about massive machine-type communications [mMTC], in the past it's been primarily the human either talking to a human or, when we have the Internet, the human requesting services and experiences from software. Moving forward, we are going to have software as the requester, and that software is going to be talking to software. So the whole dynamic of what services we're going to have to deliver through our networks, is going to change."

During the implementation of 4G, telcos wished they had different grades of infrastructure to support different classes of service. This is addressed with 5G technology, which allows for three service grades that may be tuned to the special requirements of their customers' business models (as summarized below from ZDNet, which gives an in-depth explanation of the different tiers of services and their infrastructure).

1) Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) to service more densely populated metropolitan centers with downlink speeds approaching 1Gbps (gigabits per second);

2) Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) to enable the machine-to-machine (M2M) and Internet of Things (IoT) applications “that a new wave of wireless customers may come to expect from their network, without imposing burdens on the other classes of service”; and

3) Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC) to address critical needs communications and edge-to-edge computing where bandwidth is not quite as important as speed, such as is needed for autonomous vehicles, where reaction time to a possible accident can mean life or death.

To achieve 5G technology, there will be a huge increase in the wireless infrastructure, and to afford it (since consumers traditionally push back on increased cell phone service fees), telcos will likely need to create additional revenue generating services such as edge computing and mobile apps hosting, “placing them in direct competition with public cloud providers,” predicts ZDNet.

So when will you be able to take advantage of the faster, more widely available wireless services promised by 5G? While telcoms are testing in some US cities today, you may have to wait until 2023 until it is widely available, when TechRepublic predicts 100 million people (or about a third) in the US will be connected to the service.