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At the edge with 5G

Mar 28, 2018 By Gary Maidment

The industry is abuzz with 5G – and for good reason. “Everyone will benefit from this hyper-connected, hyper-responsive world,” says GSMA CTO Alex Sinclair, sharing his thoughts on the benefits that 5G will bring to consumers, operators and society. Alongside the technology, one factor sits at the heart of a mature 5G ecosystem: partnerships.


Zero latency and gigabit speeds

A few key 5G performance parameters to get excited about are per device data rates of 20 Gbps and download speeds of up to 10 Gbps ─ that’s 1,000 times faster than 4G. Consumers will be able to download around four HD movies onto their device of choice in the same time it’s taken you to read this sentence. But 5G is more than a next-gen conduit for eye-blinkingly fast movie downloads, as the GSMA shows with the eight criteria it’s defined for the wireless mobile technology:

  • •   1 to 10 Gbps connections to end points in the field (not just a theoretical maximum)
  • •   1 ms E2E round trip delay (latency)
  • •   1,000 x bandwidth per unit area
  • •   10 to 100 times the number of connected devices
  • •   99.999 percent availability
  • •   100 percent coverage
  • •   Up to 10 years of battery life for low-power, machine-type devices
  • •   90 per cent reduction in network energy usage

Sinclair hones in on energy as a key area that needs to be addressed, “We’re certainly looking for innovation in energy consumption, because about 40 percent of network operating costs is pure energy….It’s good for the planet. So let’s be cost efficient and save the planet.”

Categories of 5G services

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has classified 5G mobile network services into three categories: Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), Ultra-reliable and Low-latency Communications (uRLLC), and Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC).

eMBB tackles the high-bandwidth services that will make your digital life better. For example, in the next 10 years, we’re likely to see homes and offices increasingly dispense with PCs and laptops, and instead switch to a variety of cloud-connected screens and display interfaces for human-machine interaction activated by touch or voice. 5G will greatly increase access to the cloud-based services in this type of “everything is a screen” scenario.

Sinclair also mentions that 5G will enable, “Responsive virtual and augmented reality experiences when you need them. You’ll be able to get information at the right place in the right time, maybe overlaid on what you see in the real world.” In the context of both VR and AR, and up-and-coming applications like 6DoF (six degrees of freedom), 5G will deliver massive improvements in data performance and stability for VR and AR, and meet extremely demanding requirements for data transfer, storage, and computing.

uRLLC aims to meet expectations in digital industry and focuses on services that need low latency such as connected robots used in factories and assisted and automated driving, both of which require sub-1 ms latency variously for factors such as responsiveness, safety, and connecting with other devices and environmental furniture. mMTC will enable a developed digital society in a broader context, focusing on IoT-based services that have high requirements on connection density such as smart city applications, smart healthcare, and connected agriculture. Two examples are smart meters in the case of mMTC and remote surgery for critical machine-type communications such as remote surgery.

In the broader societal context, “You’ll benefit indirectly from infrastructure working better from less congestion, buses running on time, public transport,” says Sinclair, “Then ultimately better healthcare, better environment. So in terms of societal benefits [of 5G], they’re pretty profound.”

Technology enablers of 5G

5G networks and services will be software-based, designed around programmability and virtualization. Software Defined Networking (SDN) will centralize network intelligence by decoupling the data and control layers, while Network Functions Virtualization will create a virtualization layer between hardware and software.

Both SDN and NFV will act as enablers of both network migration to cloud and also network slicing, which allows multiple networks to run on the same physical infrastructure – a clear revenue opportunity for operators. “Business customers are going to benefit greatly from network slicing because when you have a soft virtualized network, you can pretty much tailor it to individual customer needs,” Sinclair says. “We can have multiple slices for the same company, some for critical traffic – factory automation for example needs very responsive times for robots on the factory floor.”

Equally, slices can be provided for IoT applications, “If you go to the other end of the extreme, you can have massive networks, millions of tiny little sensors, very energy-efficient, producing very little data, but they can be managed effectively as well through a completely different network slice,” he says. “So you can have multiple slices for multiple customers, some of them geo-fenced, others not.”

For operators, the more services they offer on different slices, the bigger the potential rewards. And the advantage of 5G’s scalability, flexibility, and cloud infrastructure means that they can roll out services fast.

Mobile Edge Computing

A third key technology in 5G architecture, and one which Sinclair is excited about, is Mobile Edge Computing (MEC). He gives an example, “If you’re doing simultaneous real time translation in the cloud, you need to be able to control latency and jitter. If you can’t do that, when you speak, it’s going to take a while before it comes out, so that’s where you need to push something closer to the edge.” MEC integrates the computing, storage, and networking resources into base stations, so that compute-intensive and latency-sensitive applications like VR and AR, says Sinclair, can be hosted at the edge of the network closer to the user.

He goes on to clarify MEC structure, “Now, some people think the edge means literally sitting in a cell tower. That’s probably a little bit delusional. But to have data centers closer than the traditional players – you know, the Amazons, the Googles – that will inevitably be the case. They’re obviously moving this direction as well and I think there will be some fantastic partnership models between existing cloud providers, maybe new cloud providers, but also local clouds facilitated by operators.”

Big on partnerships

Continuing on this theme, Sinclair believes that partnerships are a big driver of the 5G ecosystem, “A lot of the traditional barriers have already fallen and that will continue to be the case…operators will have to partner with each other to come up with very innovative ways to share infrastructure. That will also, I think, be extended to public-private partnerships. A simple example is street furniture, lamps, cabinets, that can all be used by operators, made available by governments to provide better curbside services to their citizens.” Connected street lights, for example, can incorporate surveillance, charging ports for electric vehicles, rentable ad space for businesses, and motion detection for on-demand lighting, which can cut energy use by up to 80 percent.

The role of vendors like Huawei, Sinclair says, “is to do what you do best. You are the people that invested billions of dollars up front in innovation so that we can get cutting edge technology when we need it, and we really appreciate that.”

Huawei began researching 5G in 2009 and has so far invested US$600 million in 5G R&D, establishing 11 5G research centers around the world and partnering with over 30 telcos on 5G, including China’s big three, Vodafone, SoftBank, T-Mobile, BT, and Telefonica. In 2017, Huawei was the first company to launch pre-commercial 5G networks with its partners and in 2018, it will complete interoperability testing and support the first round of commercial 5G network launches.

On the eve of Mobile World Congress 2018 in February, Huawei unveiled Balong 5G01, the first commercial 5G chipset supporting the 3GPP standard, and the first commercial 3GPP-based 5G device empowered by the chipset, giving us a glimpse at the astonishing possibilities technological development will bring in the future.

5G networks and devices are the two basic requirements for 5G commercialization. When it comes to devices, chips are central to the industry's development and maturity. Balong 5G01 makes Huawei the first company with capabilities in 5G chipsets, devices, and networks, and thus the first that’s able to offer an end-to-end 5G solution.

It also means that 5G has arrived and that individuals, businesses, and society are poised to benefit profoundly.