Operators need to find the right use cases to make a return on their investment in 5G. Daniel Robinson explores some of the options for making the next generation mobile network economically viable.
The first specifications for 5G networks were signed off at the end of 2017, paving the way for future network deployments that will use the next generation wireless technology. However, it is already apparent that 5G services will require a substantial overhaul of network infrastructure, meaning that mobile operators are looking for a sound business case before committing themselves to upgrading.
End user expectations are that 5G will deliver higher download speeds than existing mobile networks, and this is reflected in the specifications of at least 20Gbps capacity for a single mobile cell. But the diverse range of applications that 5G networks are anticipated to support have also driven requirements to support at least 1 million connected devices per square kilometre, and an end-to-end latency of just 4ms, or just 1ms for ultra-reliable low latency communications.
These are tough requirements, and will call not only for network operators to be able to carry larger volumes of data, but to manage their infrastructure dynamically to adapt to changing demands on the network. This will require greater use of technologies such as software defined networking (SDN) and network function virtualisation (NFV), rather than legacy fixed-function equipment. Implementing 5G is also likely to call for techniques such as network slicing, whereby the radio connection to each device is optimised for its particular use case.
All of this will be costly and time consuming, which is why operators need to identify those use cases that look to be the most economically viable in order to achieve a return on their investment.
Some of the possible use cases that have already been identified for 5G networks include;
- High speed mobile broadband
- Fixed wireless
- Machine to machine communication (IoT)
- Smart vehicles
- Remote control
- Virtual reality / augmented reality
High-speed mobile broadband is perhaps the most obvious use case for 5G networks. Consumers are already used to streaming or downloading audio and video over existing networks, and the bandwidth of 5G will allow a device to receive 4K or even 8K video streams.
While this is expected to be a widespread use of 5G, it will take some time for consumer uptake of 5G services to hit a critical mass, as has happened with previous transitions. One of the factors affecting this is the continued evolution of 4G through upgrades such as LTE Advanced Pro, which looks set to offer sufficiently high download speeds that consumers may not be tempted to switch to 5G services for some time.
It will take some time for consumer uptake of 5G services to hit a critical mass, as has happened with previous transitions. One of the factors affecting this is the continued evolution of 4G through upgrades such as LTE Advanced Pro, which looks set to offer sufficiently high download speeds that consumers may not be tempted to switch to 5G services for some time.
This has not deterred some technology companies, notably Intel, which at the recent Mobile World Congress demonstrated a concept mobile PC equipped with its XMM 8060 5G modem. It expects the first 5G-connected PCs to come to market in the second half of 2019. Backing from vendors such as this will be vital in driving demand for 5G mobile broadband.
Another use case which the high data rate of 5G is expected to enable is Fixed Wireless Access (FWA). This would serve as an alternative to a wired broadband connection for both homes and businesses. A trial deployment has already been demonstrated in London by Arqiva and Samsung Electronics during the latter half of 2017.
According to Arquiva, the market potential for 5G FWA is as a fast-to-market and cost-effective alternative to fibre. However, Arqiva’s trial used 28GHz millimetre wave (mmWave) signals, which have a range of just a few hundred metres up to a couple of kilometres. This will limit its ability to operate in rural areas that are currently poorly served by wired broadband, leaving an opportunity for other operators using a different part of the wireless spectrum.
Internet of Things
Perhaps the largest scale opportunity for 5G is in machine-to-machine communications, using the wireless network to collect data from remote sensors or to control devices. This covers scenarios such as the industrial internet of things (IoT), where telemetry can be gathered in order to perform analytics for predictive maintenance; or smart cities, where sensors monitor infrastructure such as street lighting or the state of air quality around the urban environment.
This kind of use case is well suited for 5G, as a requirement to support a very large number of connected devices is written into the specifications. While such sensors and other devices may not individually call for a huge amount of bandwidth, these are likely to represent a continual and ongoing source of data traffic for which mobile operators will be able to derive revenue, and we can expect to see potentially billions of connected devices, according to some estimates.
A related use case is that of smart vehicles and transport, whereby sensors embedded in roads, railways and vehicles communicate with each other using a 5G network. This is intended to allow allowing buses and public transportation to run more efficiently, while also providing data from sensors to better manage traffic flow in urban areas.
Vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications will call for much lower latency than is currently provided by mobile networks. This is especially the case with driverless cars or other smart vehicles that may implement real-time safety systems that exchange data with other vehicles and roadside infrastructure.
With 5G networks projected to have much improved latency and reliability than existing mobile networks, this capability opens up the door to applications that would not have been possible before, such as remote control of critical machinery or devices. This could include heavy or dangerous industrial machinery, where the operator can be safely situated some distance away, or even in a geographically remote site.
One industry that could see a number of applications of 5G is healthcare. Connected medical devices will be able to monitor the health status of patients remotely, using the ability of 5G networks to handle a large number of devices in any given area. Like IoT, this use case could see the widespread deployment of a large number of devices that will be constantly feeding data traffic across the network, calling for a high level of reliability and low power consumption.
A more ambitious use case that has been mooted is remote surgery, whereby a surgeon could operate a robotic surgical system to perform a procedure on a patient without having to be physically present. This would call for the ability of the 5G network to reliably deliver ultra-low latency for control of the surgical hardware, plus high bandwidth for visual feedback to the surgeon. It has been estimated that the potential for such mission-critical applications may be very large if it is possible to meet the performance criteria demanded by potential users.
Another widely touted application for 5G is in virtual reality or augmented reality. For example, sporting events could provide viewers with an immersive close-to-the-action experience, which would be delivered using the high bandwidth capabilities of 5G networks to devices such as smartphones.
The market potential for this use case is expected to be high, and should see increased revenues for both rights holders and the mobile carriers themselves.
These are just some of the expected use cases for 5G networks, and it is likely that many more that have not yet been conceived of will emerge as users and operators begin to explore the potential capabilities of the technology.
However, mobile operators need to be confident that the returns on 5G services will justify the large investment needed to implement them. As outlined above, there are many use cases for 5G, some of which are likely to prove more successful than others.
As discussed, high speed mobile broadband is likely to be a strong selling point for 5G networks in future, but with further development of 4G still on the cards, it may not be the best use case to start the ball rolling.
Mobile operators should start by focusing on areas where 5G can offer a key differentiator, such as applications that call for low latency or reliability.
Instead, mobile operators should start by focusing on areas where 5G can offer a key differentiator, such as applications that call for low latency or reliability. If 5G networks can meet these requirements, customers that desire these capabilities are likely to be willing to pay extra in order to get a service level guarantee.