Most of us in the tech sector are drawn to the “speed and feeds” – the technical specs that reveal what is better than the last dot release. We want faster processors, more solid state memory capacity and networks with lower latency. Yet, there are often Herculean jumps forward in technology that do more than just add a bit more capacity or speed.
That’s the case with 5G wireless. Both AT&T and Verizon have announced limited trials for the faster cellular data connection, which will likely debut by 2020. It’s important for IT leaders to know about, especially for planning and strategy purposes, but it’s also easy to miss the fact that 5G wireless (according to the technical experts) is more than a speed boost.
To find out how 5G will impact the enterprise, including how employees will tap into the network and work remotely, CIO.com asked leading experts for their take.
1. It’s much more than a speed boost
You may have already seen that 5G will be 10-100x faster than 4G. That could mean real-world speeds of about 4Gbps or more. (There’s a reason it’s called “fiber without the fiber.”)
Most of the speed increases are due to how the carriers will be adding more wireless channels, using millimeter wave technology (which means the signal has to travel shorter distances), installing small cells that dramatically increase the coverage map, and pumping up the wired backhaul locations, according to Hank Kafka, the VP of network architecture at AT&T.
Kafka made the point that IT leaders should view 5G as more than a speed increase. In fact, it is mostly related to making sure the networks can handle a massive increase in the number of devices. The Internet of Things will usher in a new age of connected devices, everything from the security system at the office to the radio in your car already connect. By 2020, the number of added devices will take a dramatic jump as objects that were never on the network – say, clothing, sporting goods equipment, bridges, and even your body – come online.
“As the IoT revolution gets underway, 5G networks will be able to handle the hundreds of millions of devices and sensors that will join the network,” says Roger Entner, the founder of Recon Analytics and an expert on 5G wireless networks.
2. There will be brand new architectures
The speed boosts, low latency, and backwards compatibility with existing networks will provide a good framework for new architectures we have not seen previously, says Akshay Sharma, a research director for carrier infrastructure at Gartner.
“5G wireless will add new architectures like Cloud RAN (radio access network) where localized nano-data centers will occur supporting server-based networking functions like Industrial IoT gateways, video caching and transcoding at the edge for UltraHD video, and newer mesh-like topologies supported with more distributed HetNets (heterogeneous networks),” he says.
[Related: Don’t believe the hype! 5G wireless is still years away]
“5G will lead to a dramatic increase in cell sites (which due to the higher frequency a lot of them will have significantly shorter range) and demand for backhaul,” says Entner. “At this time, we don’t know yet what technology will be used to transmit the data over the air. One camp says we need a new technology another says we are fine with what we have.”
3. The trials are already underway
Apart from the AT&T and Verizon testbeds, many companies have announced trials in the 5G wireless space, including Alcatel Lucent, Ericsson, Fujitsu, NEC, Nokia and Samsung.
Sharma says there are many key players to keep an eye on. Google recently acquired Alpental to help with millimeter wave access for more precise location tracking. Microsoft has started a TV White Spaces trial, which taps into the unlicensed spectrum not used by TV broadcasters. And, Facebook has created the Open Compute Initiative as part of Internet.org to build wireless networks for developing countries and provide access.
4. Wi-Fi won’t be going any anytime soon
Kafka mentioned how it might seem like Wi-Fi technology will not be as important over the next few years as 5G becomes available. That’s a mistake, he says, because both networks will continue to co-exist, and Wi-Fi technology will also evolve rapidly. As Entner points out, the main impetus for 5G is not related to the corporate use of Wi-Fi in a building but to the escalating number of devices that will connect over the next three to four years.
“5G is important as we are beginning to outgrow the current network design top to bottom,” says Entner. “We need faster speeds and more devices on the network than we expected 10 years ago and we need to solve with a new approach rather than duct tape and spit. It will help businesses to connect more wireless devices with faster speeds and lower latencies.”
5. It will come online overseas before the U.S.
Sharma says that NTT Docomo has also announced trials in Japan, and Entner says that South Korea will likely have 5G running in time for the Winter Olympics in 2018. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage for the U.S. because the enterprise will be able to see how those launches transpire, how users respond, monitor which devices become available to support the new standard, and be mindful of any infrastructure glitches.
“I expect you will see 5G first spread in Asia,” says Ted Rapport, an IEEE Fellow and founding director of NYU Wireless. “Look for U.S. trials later this year, both Verizon and AT&T have announced trials, and many of our NYU Wireless Industrial Affiliate companies already have prototype products working at multi-gigabit per second data rates.”