When it comes to 5G, things have been happening in reverse. Rather than the technology preceding the hype, the hype is preceding the technology, with governments and industry producing promises before the technical community have even decided what 5G is.
Despite government pumping money into 5G research, 3GPP, the standards body responsible for 5G, has yet to release the specifications. Release 15, the global 5G standard, is in development, with existing timelines indicating that large-scale trials and deployments could be happening in 2019. It’s on the way, but it’s not here yet.
Release 15 will serve as the reality check after years of (over)enthusiastic speculation and uncertainty. What we do know is that the fifth ‘generation’ will follow the trajectory of its predecessors, moving towards ever higher bandwidth and ever lower latency. This will facilitate customers’ high data activity, such as streaming multiple HD videos, and emerging technologies such as mobile VR, AI and Smart City applications. It should also allow for the high bandwidth applications of the future that remain unknown – could we be moving through holographic worlds in the years to come? We need to be ready, just in case.
Despite the lack of clarity on the exact specifications at this stage, we do know that delivering 5G will be reliant on having a nation-wide fibre backbone and the available spectrum on which to operate. This will pose some serious questions about existing internet infrastructure and the predicted ‘explosion’ of masts required to support 5G. High bandwidth applications (like mobile VR) need the higher frequencies of spectrum to transfer large amounts of data, but these can only travel short distances. This equates into more, potentially higher, telecom masts, which could be a challenge in rural areas. Worryingly, if service providers decide the returns aren’t high enough to warrant building masts in remote areas of the UK, residents will go without. This will widen the already alarming digital divide and the associated social exclusion will only become more profound as technology dominates more aspects of our lives.
Using 5G wisely
However, not all future use cases need devices to send large amounts of data and have the same requirements. For example, IoT sensor networks need to send small amounts of data over potentially larger distances, requiring use of lower frequencies. The ever-growing number of devices that need to be connected, the need for frequencies across the radio spectrum to support all the 5G applications, and the necessity to protect the existing incumbent users, push us to think differently about how this is accessed.
A dynamic, shared approach to spectrum could tackle this complicated proposition, making available lower frequencies when possible and higher frequencies when necessary. Efficient use of spectrum will prove fundamental in creating a 5G network that meets the needs of all involved. This is especially pertinent because spectrum is a finite source – we can’t afford to have one service provider leaving their exclusive slice of spectrum vacant simply because they can’t make money using it. Organisations with different business models can step into this fold and make use of the available spectrum to help stem the holes that already exist across our country – and the world – in terms of internet connectivity.
Sharing spectrum is empowering, as we can see in the work of the Citizens Broadband Radio System (CBRS) in the US. This allows companies or people to purchase the appropriate kit to connect themselves without needing to invest in spectrum, accessing a service at 3.5GHz that is suitable for 4G. Ofcom is already exploring a similar model to support 5G, although this would operate at a higher frequency (3.8-4.2 GHz).
The road towards 5G will involve something of a juggling act as we try to locate a means of delivering the infrastructure and meeting a variety of needs and demands. Ultimately, sharing spectrum will be a cornerstone of the new ‘generation’, as 5G must play nicely with the existing spectrum users if we want to ensure that finite spectrum is used effectively, efficiently and sustainably.
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