As 5G gains coverage in cities around the world, there are many questions about the fifth generation standard for cellular networks. In this lesson from the Tait Radio Academy, we take a technical look at what to expect from this exciting new standard.
What is 5G?
Although built on LTE, 5G brings in a totally new air interface. 5G New Radio (5G NR) operates in millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies (30-300GHz) and is a radical makeover of the radio access network.
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This allows 5G to support a million connected devices per sq. km (0.386 sq. mi), offer data rates ten times faster than 4G, push massive data volumes, enable mobility up to 500 km/h, with an end-to-end latency of 2 milliseconds or less. Compare this with LMR latencies which average around 200 ms.
What do these insanely good specifications make possible? Some of the prospects mentioned are:
- Self-driving vehicles become realistic because 5G V2X (Vehicle to Everything) enables vehicles to communicate with each other to automatically avoid collisions.
- Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) made real through the wireless connection of billions of low-cost, low-energy sensors and the real-time dynamic control and automation of industrial processes such as oil and mining production, manufacturing systems, energy distribution, and intelligent transport systems.
- Doctors performing remote robotic surgery.
- Artificial Intelligence applications to process video surveillance footage and react in real time.
- Using interactive virtual reality (VR) simulations to train firefighters on how to deal with complex fire incidents.
- Super-accurate and up-to-the second location tracking
- Augmented Reality (AR) goggles for ambulance services staff enabling a continuous overlay of medical and patient status information to be viewed while emergency assistance is delivered.
- Smart cities with massive sensor net connectivity supporting automated services and infrastructure.
The list goes on. But don’t expect miracles with the first appearance of 5G. These are enormously complex and high-risk applications with all the behavioral details, complementary technologies, and economics still to be worked out. 5G is simply part of the enabling infrastructure that makes the imaginable seem achievable within the next decade or so. It is seen as the enabling technology for the next industrial revolution, predicted to emerge from the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
The Pros and Cons
One of the fundamental deliverables of communications infrastructure is coverage. The astounding speed and bandwidth of 5G is founded on its use of millimeter wave radio signals. But these super-high frequencies have a short range, so 5G may only be able to reach a few hundred meters rather than propagating over rural distances.
Also, very high frequencies don’t penetrate obstacles very well, so everything from concrete walls to tree leaves may disrupt signals. To achieve the ‘everywhere – anywhere’ coverage that critical communications expects, lots and lots of small cells, densely clustered, will need to be installed both inside and outside buildings. This is very different from LMR’s use of a much smaller number of tall radio towers outdoors to achieve coverage. So, there is still much investigation and trialing of 5G coverage ahead before we can be confident that 5G is ready for prime time.
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