5G is going to change the world! But what does that mean for engineers?
By Alexandre Colonna, founder of Maoré Mobile, the fourth telecom operator in Mayotte, and Léon, an engineer working for a major French telecom group.
Everyone’s talking about 5G. Considered as a “key technology” of the future, according to the CEO of the famous US telecom specialist, Qualcomm, “5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the automobile, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies”. 5G is designed to enable millions of connected devices to communicate with each other, and the most visionary commentators already imagine it enabling robots to prepare their morning coffee or perform surgery unassisted. Whether this view of the future is a dream or speculation, read on to discover the incredible potential of 5G.
From GSM to 4G – the history of mobile telephone technologies
We’ve all seen the effects of GSM being replaced by EDGE, followed by GPRS and then 3G and 4G. But who’s behind the creation of these ever-faster and ever-more powerful networks? The first telecom operators each started out by separately putting their engineers to work on these technologies, but they soon realised it was much better for them to work together on defining standards to make the different systems compatible with one another. Starting from GSM, more than 30 years ago now, the planet’s telecom giants – at first European, then Asian and American – have come together to draw up the specifications for each new mobile technology.
As each new version has come out, the available speeds and the frequencies used have increased, which has accelerated data sharing and resulted in mobile masts popping up all over the place. Both personal and professional mobile usage has exploded, with some seven billion mobile phones in use in the world today, seven times more than the number of PCs. Although not all mobile phones can currently use 4G, the 4G network already offers impressive gigabit speeds. So why bother switching to 5G?
What will 5G change?
5G offers ten-times faster broadband while reducing energy consumption (“mobile networks are energy-wasting machines”, says Léon). And 5G can be integrated into existing networks while including new native services enabling machines to communicate with one another and offering new, cheaper usages. As Léon puts it, “5G is like a letter to Santa”.
But 5G is far from fulfilling all of those criteria for the moment. “Currently, 5G resembles more of a 4G upgrade. Engineers are drawing on technological advances to create a more efficient and powerful technology. 5G is notably based on optimising the use of the mobile frequency band to improve efficiency”.
“The standard has been defined for this first phase and the first phones should be available on the market within two years”, reckons Léon. But once the existing (4G) technology has been optimised the question still remains as to how to integrate the new technologies. This time, the telecom giants and OEMs will need to team up with other companies (which will now be full stakeholders in the process) in various sectors such as the automotive, smart home and healthcare industries.
“The technical specifications of 5G are still being finalised, and for the time being, OEMs can take certain liberties when implementing the standard”, explains Alexandre. But if we want 5G to really work and to enable some 50 to 100 billion connected devices to communicate with one another as planned by 2030, then the various players are going to have to come to an agreement.
An extraordinary field of possibilities for engineers
For Léon, the second phase constitutes the real difference between 5G and previous telecommunication standards. “To meet 5G specifications, engineers have to develop “mobile edge computing”, which means integrating computational power as close as possible to mobile equipment in order to enable the development of new services, and particularly the Internet of things. And to be as close as possible to users, 5G will also need telecommunication functions to be virtualised”.
Due to the use of “millimetre wave spectrum” (the 26 GHz band), the range of 5G waves will be lower than for 4G – which will mean that carriers will have to deploy a lot more cellular radios – but the bandwidth will be much higher. With speeds of around 100 gigabits per second (compared with 1 gigabit per second for 4G), latency problems will be completely ironed out. “The 5G network will make connected devices much more effective”, explains Alexandre. “Take connected cars for example – with a response time of around a millisecond, the risk of an accident occurring would be significantly reduced. The same goes for connected medical equipment – we might even see medicine becoming completely digitalised!”
Alexandre ends by saying: “With 5G, we can imagine Internet as we know it completely changing. Households will no longer need a specific box to connect up to the Internet. Instead, a 5G modem could be directly integrated into laptops, mobile phones and any other connected devices”. Engineers across the world will be able to use this technology to create objects and services that are unimaginable today. But this will only be possible if all of the players involved reach an agreement on a common standard and are committed to working in everyone’s best interests.
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