Availability of 5G networks is expected to climb quickly throughout 2020 and beyond.

5G networks already operate in cities across the globe including London, New York and Seoul, and although availability is low right now, adoption is expected to climb quickly throughout 2020 and beyond.

The parameters for what would come to constitute a 5G network were defined in 2015 by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU)’s IMT‑2020 standard.

According to the standard, 5G’s primary advantages over 4G are vastly higher speed (with a peak data rate of 20Gbps compared to 1Gbps) and lower latency (at 4ms on mobile broadband networks).

One way that carriers anticipate being able to achieve these advances is by making use of higher frequency millimetre waves (mmWaves) between 30GHz and 300GHz, although mid‑ and even lower‑band frequencies will still have a role to play in 5G communications.

IoT implementation

The networks will support up to one million devices per square km, 10 times the number currently able to connect on 4G networks. This will be critical for the proliferation of IoT-enabled devices, which include not just phones, but cars, wearable devices and smart appliances, drastically increasing the required number of connections.

The expansion of multi-user, multiple‑input, multiple-output (MU‑MIMO) technology will be essential to the support of this higher number of connections and will require basestations with many more antennae.

5G challenges

The difficulties posed in implementing 5G networks are unfortunately baked into its design. The mmWaves which are set to provide extremely high data rates are also subject to harsher propagation characteristics than their lower frequency counterparts.

In particular, high frequency waves are much more susceptible to disruption by physical objects in the environment, such as trees or walls. They also travel a shorter distance due to their shorter wavelength. This means the infrastructure requirement for 5G cells will be much higher, necessitating more antennas with shorter distances between them.

Thus far, South Korea has led on 5G implementation, with SK Telecom launching commercial services in December 2018 and the world’s first consumer 5G network in April of this year. Interestingly, Verizon derided SK’s launch as a “PR stunt,” noting that the network was only made available to a handful of selected celebrities. The US company launched its first consumer 5G network some hours after SK’s launch.

In the UK, 5G networks can be accessed in major cities such as Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool through EE, O2, Three and Vodafone networks. Recent testing by Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) in London showed promising download speeds of 350Mbps on EE’s network, however the latency measured was closer to 4G standards at 35-50ms.

GWS’s CEO, Paul Carter, says “For the time-being, 5G will involve a ‘mesh’ of both next-generation and existing networks all working together to deliver consistent coverage to customers.” Operators plan to roll out 5G in more towns and cities throughout the UK in 2020, although it’s unlikely it will reach the ubiquity of 4G just yet. As Carter says: “Ultimately, it’s the consistency and reliability that is most important.”

Case study: Air pollution monitoring with 5G

Announced in 2018, Megasense is described as a collaborative digital model for the tracking of air quality, that relies on 5G to communicate huge amounts of sensing data. The project is a collaboration between CMCC, Nokia Shanghai and the University of Helsinki, and uses SMEAR (stations for measuring earth surface – atmosphere relations), which record data on the interactions between small particles, air chemistry, soil and greenhouse gases.

Data is then transmitted across a 5G network, taking advantage of the technology’s high throughput and capacity, along with its positional accuracy. Aggregated, the information can then be used to visualise the city, displaying on a map which areas are the greenest and which are the most polluted.

Sasu Tarkoma, professor of computer science, at University of Helsinki says: “We have a dense mesh of sensors throughout the city, and then we have this near-real-time and very fine grained view of the air quality.”

The Megasense project operates on a massive machine type communications (mMTC) 5G network, one of the three categories identified by the ITU, in addition to enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) and ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (uRLLC). mMTC networks prioritise high device densities, enabling this kind of large-scale air quality monitoring.

Ulrich Dropmann, head of standardisation at Nokia, says: “5G is the fabric for [the project]. If you want to have a mass of IoT sensors distributed all over the city, that’s where 5G is the answer. If you want to have reliable connectivity virtually over the network with network slicing, that’s where 5G is the answer. If you have more critical, high data rate transmission needed to the high quality sensor, that’s where 5G is the answer.”