Although today's 4G networks incorporate the latest technologies and continue to offer faster data access, the road beyond LTE and LTE-A is far from clear. The rapid consumption of wireless data continues to outpace the industry's ability to meet demand.
However, faster data and greater access are only part of the story. These new networks, referred to as fifth-generation or 5G, may transform our lives yet again and unleash enormous economic potential.
Researchers envision not only a 5G network with unprecedented data rates and mobile access but also an opportunity to redefine the network to accommodate a wealth of new and diverse connected devices.
The challenge for researchers is to address issues such as the coverage uniformity across a served region and more energy-efficient networks.
Ultrafast download speeds
5G targets peak data rates per user in the range of 10GB/s (over 1,000 times more than 4G). To provide a frame of reference, a user can download an HD video in 40 minutes using the highest speed networks in good conditions. With 5G, a user can download this same video in a matter of seconds.
Faster data access is certainly exciting, but there are challenges to achieving this. The spectrum that service operators paid governments billions of dollars to acquire has simply run out. Today's networks use spectrum anywhere from 700MHz to almost 3GHz, and a variety of public and private entities already claim this spectrum. This challenge can be met in two ways: we can explore new spectrum, or develop new technologies to send more bits to users in the currently allocated spectrum.
To date, prototyping of 5G systems with real-world signals has been limited, but that is beginning to change. New technology, such as the LabVIEW Communications System Design Suite from National Instruments, offers a platform-based solution that could halve the time taken to develop a validated prototype of a 5G system.
By 2020, industry analysts predict 50 billion devices will be connected to mobile networks worldwide, and these aren't just devices connected to a human hand. Embedded devices sending bits of information to other devices, servers, or the cloud will account for a large percentage of devices.
The explosion of devices connected to the internet has been dubbed the Internet of Things (IoT). These devices may incorporate sensors to measure pressure, temperature, or stress, and perhaps actuators to turn devices on and off, or make adjustments in real-time.
One example is traffic lights that are not just timed but connected and controlled remotely so that traffic congestion sites are immediately known and offloaded. If vehicles were connected directly to a traffic controller, then traffic lights may not even be necessary.
Buildings, bridges, and roads could be monitored continuously for structural health. Corporations and governments could use air pollution monitoring data to regulate emissions and apply corrective action. Patient's vital signs data could be logged and monitored to better understand the cause and effect of certain health conditions. The possibilities are endless.
The 5G systems needed to turn these possibilities into realities are composed of heterogeneous devices encompassing both low and high bandwidth, which presents significant design challenges. To unlock the potential of IoT, 5G must address network response times (latency). Control without deterministic response times limits the utility and adoption of these technologies. It's estimated that latency on current networks is, on average, in the tens of milliseconds range with a very wide standard of deviation.
If researchers succeed in reducing latency and improving determinism, then control applications – that is, connected devices with sensors, actuators, and so on – could be controlled and operated remotely or autonomously in the cloud.
It's coming... and it's transformational
5G will happen and its impact will be transformational, but researchers need the tools and technologies to design and rapidly prototype their concepts faster to expedite the time to market and, ultimately, the time to deployment. New 5G waveforms, network densification, massive MIMO, and mmWave communications may be incrementally deployed along a time curve and as such are not mutually exclusive and may be complementary.
These 5G technologies are moving forward, and the vision of an internet for everyone and everything comes closer to reality every day.
- Rahman Jamal is Global Technology & Marketing Director of National Instruments