5G Promise Transforms Mobility

    This year's Mobile World Congress (MWC) gave a glimpse into the future of 5G enabled devices.

    The mobile industry gathered for its annual jamboree in Barcelona during February, where the world's smartphone makers looked to carve themselves a larger slice of a market worth hundreds of billions of dollars and find new customers for their wares.

    New handsets from the likes of Apple, Samsung, Huawei, Sony and others always make the headlines at MWC. But the real business is usually done lower down the technology stack, particularly when it comes to app developers, software platform specialists, telcos and mobile operators keen to capitalise on the innovation enabled by latest advances in network infrastructure.

    Faster than fibre

    A bigger focus for this year’s show was fifth generation (5G) wireless networks, the latest iteration in cellular bandwidth following on from 3G, 4G and, just to confuse matters, what some have dubbed 4.5G.

    Those 5G networks will deliver apps and services to smartphones and other mobile devices at much faster data rates than were previously available, enabling new levels of mobility.

    Download speeds up to around 1Gbit/s will be possible, though the average will be closer to 100Mbit/s; still up to three times faster than data rates offered by most fibre optic residential broadband connections now. In fact, 5G will be more than enough to handle the most bandwidth-hungry applications currently in use, which for the moment means full screen HD video streaming.

    Beyond smartphones

    It is not just about 5G-enabled smartphones though – manufacturers also intend to integrate 5G connectivity into a whole range of other devices as they seek to deliver that high speed, always-on experience for business and consumer customers.

    Intel is partnering Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft to embed 5G SIM cards into what should ultimately emerge as next-generation tablets, laptops, hybrid “two-in-ones” and other forms of portable computers. And though it hasn’t been talked about, one of the more intriguing possibilities here is 5G-enabled virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) headsets – something akin to Samsung Gear, HTC Vive, Facebook Oculus Go and Microsoft HoloLens, for example.

    Armed with 5G connectivity, these headsets could enable many innovative applications based on their ability to immerse the wearer in 3D worlds and navigate applications and services with gesture-based controls – not only in gaming but conferencing and collaboration, training, education, retail, tourism and construction.

    Better coverage, availability and reliability

    Nor are high data rates that support those new applications the only area of progress for cellular networks – 5G will also offer parallel improvements in network coverage, availability and reliability. Precise standards and specifications have been conspicuous by their absence to date, but certain metrics have been broadly agreed.

    Better, more reliable signal availability to eliminate “dead spots” and reduce jitter and latency are assured, as is the ability to support a much larger number of connections on a single access point – partly in preparation for the billions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices expected to come online in the next five years.

    The IoT remains at an early stage of its evolution, but is steadily expanding to incorporate a wide range of devices and use cases – everything from cameras, white goods, HVAC controls, wearable healthcare monitors and utility meters in the home to weather sensors, motion detectors, temperature gauges, GPS trackers and Bluetooth beacons in urban, industrial and transport environments.

    Most of those gadgets will be small, low-power devices that don’t use too much bandwidth. But they will transmit small amounts of data at regular intervals, which collectively could easily flood backbone 3G/4G networks, especially in urban areas where they are more likely to operate in higher concentrations.

    Of course, at the current time there are no 5G networks commercially available anywhere on the planet. Most mobile operators are still engaged in trials and proof of concepts with network infrastructure suppliers and handset makers, and those in Asia (China and South Korea) and the US are further down the road than their counterparts in Europe.

    In the UK, Vodafone is working with Ericsson whilst EE is partnering Huawei to test 5G infrastructure, but neither expect to get those networks up and running before 2020 at the earliest. But as always in the IT industry, it tends to be the technology just around the corner that generates more excitement and given the nature of the opportunity you can forgive hardware and software companies for jumping the gun.

    You might also like to read Gartner’s latest report: 'Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2018'