The future is 5G
Whilst we are still early in its deployment cycle, 5G’s characteristics and performance capabilities are well defined and its potential to enable new and improved applications is already clear. Beyond those applications which have already emerged, however, it is widely anticipated that 5G will transform many areas of our lives by enabling further levels of innovation across multiple vertical segments, including healthcare, automotive, smart cities and industrial automation. Most analysts and industry commentators are united in their view that 5G will underpin the next wave of growth in global GDP and a recent report, commissioned by the GSMA, a trade association representing the interests of global mobile network operators, concluded that 5G will contribute $2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years (Figure 1), with the biggest beneficiaries being the manufacturing, utilities, and professional and financial services sectors.
5G enables a powerful set of use-case scenarios
5G’s network capabilities were specified to address the requirements of three broad use-case scenarios, as illustrated in the diagram published by the ITU (Figure 2) and summarised on the next page.
Enhanced Mobile Broadband, (eMBB)
With extremely high data-rates, up to 20Gbps, eMBB provides an improved consumer experience and also supports high bandwidth applications such as Augmented Reality (AR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Virtual Reality (VR).
Figure 1: Estimated impact of 5G on the global economy (Source: GSMA)
Figure 2: Broad 5G use cases (Source: ITU)
Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC) mMTC provides wide-area coverage and deep indoor penetration for an extremely large number – up to 1 million per square kilometre - of connected devices. This use-case addresses the requirements of the rapidly growing mobile IoT, by providing Low-Power-Wide-Area, (LPWA) technologies which enable low power consumption, improved coverage and optimised transmission for small and intermittent blocks of data. Ultra-Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC) URLLC supports highly mission-critical applications which are heavily dependent on extremely low end-to-end (E2E) latencies (one millisecond or less), along with high reliability and availability.
In practice, not all applications will need to use all of 5G's capabilities, whilst others may require different combinations, as illustrated in Figure 2, often varying dynamically. A remote IoT sensor, for example, will have a consistent need for low battery usage, low power and low data rate communications, placing it firmly in the mMTC use case. Remote robotic surgery will, as we will see later, require a combination of eMBB and URRL capabilities, as the application must transfer large quantities of sensor data from the robotic device to the surgeon whilst also enabling near real-time responses during the operation.
This changing mix of requirements is handled by 5G’s network slicing functionality which enables the allocated network resources to change dynamically, inline with the application’s needs.
Emerging applications give insight into the power of 5G
As discussed earlier, there are significant expectations on the contribution that 5G will make to future global economic prosperity. Although much of this contribution will come from applications which are yet to emerge, 5G’s potential benefit areas can be classified as described in Table 1 and the remainder of this section considers a sample of current, high profile applications which are already integrating 5G capabilities.
Faster and more reliable connectivity for a wide range of users
Increased consumer value and productivity gains
|New consumer devices and services||Smart devices and services including immersive media and
entertainment, healthcare wearables, and autonomous vehicles
|Variety of consumer and business benefits,
driven by innovation
|Smarter infrastructure and public services||Examples include advanced asset tracking, remote control,
predictive maintenance and sensor-enabled processes across multiple sectors
|Smarter infrastructure and public services||Street lighting, traffic management, energy grids||More efficient and secure service delivery, environmental benefits|
Table 1: Summary of anticipated 5G benefits
The driverless car is a leading example of a current, high-profile technological development, with vehicles such as Google’s Waymo, BMW’s Vision iNext and Tesla’s models frequently featuring in headlines. Although these vehicles are still very much at the development stage, analysts are predicting strong growth in this sector over the next five years, with widespread availability of 5G networks being seen as a fundamental pre-requisite to this growth.
Reliable and safe operation requires that the autonomous vehicle must continuously interact with its environment, communicating with other vehicles, roadside infrastructure, pedestrians, and other entities, such as remote data centres. This interaction will draw heavily on 5G’s capabilities: URLCC enables the vehicle to respond and react in real-time; eMBB supports the transfer of large amounts of data – as much as 2 million Gbps - as the vehicle senses and communicates with its environment; and mMTC enables an extensive network of roadside sensors. The subset of cellular technologies required to support autonomous vehicles has been termed vehicle to everything (V2X) and 3GPP has been building progressive cellular support for V2X into its releases (Figure 3).
Figure 3: Evolution of 3GPP V2X standards (Source: 5GAA, Timeline for deployment of c-V2X – Update)
Remote robotic surgery
Another application capitalising on early 5G deployments is remote robotic surgery. Haptic, as well as visual, feedback is critical in surgery and the surgeon must react to both types of stimuli in under 10 mSecs – a response time which has previously presented a barrier to remote surgery. Because of this, robotic surgical devices have until now had to be directly controlled by a surgeon within the same physical environment as the patient.
Now, however, a collaboration between telecommunications giant Ericsson and King’s College London (KCL) is working on the application of 5G
technology to remote telesurgery. Ericsson has developed specialised haptic gloves, enabling a surgeon to operate on a patient using a robotic device, with no loss of sense of touch. The eMBB capabilities of 5G are used to stream the haptic data from the advanced sensor arrays on the robotic device, along with video from the operating theatre. The URLCC capabilities of 5G are crucial in enabling the data to be streamed from the remote operating theatre to the surgeon within the required 10 mSec delay.
5G networks have already enabled real world operations using remote tele-surgery when, in March 2019, People’s Liberation Army General Hospital (PLAGH) chief physician Ling Zhipei performed brain surgery on a Parkinson’s disease patient in Beijing from the PLAGH Hainan Hospital 3,000km away.
The explosive growth of the IoT shows no signs of abating, with Gartner forecasting 20.8 billion connected “things” by 2020, and IHS Markit predicting
that this number will rise to 125 billion by 2030. IoT applications span most sectors, including the Industry 4.0 factory, smart cities, agricultural monitoring, pipeline monitoring, aircraft maintenance and many more, with the intelligent sensor or 'thing' as the common denominator. A significant proportion of these applications require LPWAN technologies which are characterised by enhanced indoor, outdoor and underground coverage and enable battery-powered devices, which transmit data only occasionally, to achieve battery lives of up to 10 years. Many operators have been developing LPWAN offerings based on either NB-IoT or LTE-M networks, both of which were defined in 3GPP Release 13, with the GSMA reporting 89 NB-IoT networks and 34 LTE-M launches as of October 2019. Recognising this investment, 3GPP has confirmed that both technologies meet the 5G specifcations and will underpin the mMTC capability as the 5G standard continues to evolve, guaranteeing a smooth migration path for existing solutions.
The 5G journey is just beginning
The roll-out of 5G is just over one year old but, even before the first network was deployed, expectations of 5G were exceptionally high, with analysts predicting that it will be the next driver of global economic growth, enabling significant future value creation across multiple sectors. 5G’s real value will be based upon enablement of emerging applications rather than on faster handsets, and this article has considered how 5G’s capabilities are enabling a sample of these current applications. We are clearly only at the beginning of a long road with 5G, but the pace of innovation can only be expected to accelerate as operators embrace the full opportunities offered by investing in fully functional 5G networks.