Understanding the basics of 5G technology

Patrick Zhuge

Pangu Australia

Reading Time: 10 minutes

5G, the fifth generation mobile technology is truly upon us. As a business operator how ready are you to have an informed discussion about using 5G technologies for your business? 

This article provides an overview of 5G and everything you need to know as a business operator.

To set the scene 5G is not just a faster mobile network (although it is indeed a lot faster than 4G). It is hailed as a foundational general purpose technology for our future. In the 5G era the mobile conversation is no longer just about plans, handsets, tech funds and data inclusions (although these are still important). The 5G conversation will be weaved deeply into business operations and requires innovative thinking to truly reap the full benefits. 

The race to the future

On January 14th Telstra released a blog on Telstra Exchange. The article claims that Telstra’s 5G mobile network coverage has reached more than 50% of the Aussie population and is the nation’s largest 5G footprint. Telstra emphasised that customers wanted strong coverage as the number one priority.

Just 22 days later on February 5th Optus released an article on their Leaders’ insights. The article claims that Optus’s 5G mobile network achieved the fastest average 5G download speed at 362Mpbs and fastest top speed from a single test at 1,431Mbps. These results came from two independent 5G testings completed by Spirent and Systemic PAB in Sydney and Melbourne. Optus iterated that 5G was all about speed which was what Optus had been working hard to deliver.

Early into the year 2021 we are already seeing the 5G race heating up between the country’s two biggest mobile carriers. It is certainly an important technology frontier but just exactly how important is 5G?  

The next revolution

5G technology bears huge potential for economic growth in Australia. According to the Department of Communications and Arts, 5G is “…a potentially transformative technology that could contribute significantly to Australia’s future innovation, productivity and international competitiveness.” 

The department’s own research forecasted a $1,300 – $2,000 per capita benefit to GDP after the first decade of the 5G roll-out in Australia, and this was only a conservative estimate. The Deloitte Access Economics also projected an additional $65bn worth of GDP would be added to Australia’s economy by 2023 through mobile technology, the equivalent of $2,500 per person.  

The promise of 5G goes much further beyond economic growth. Around the world 5G has been widely regarded as an enabler of the fourth industrial revolution, or Industry 4.0. It offers a platform to connect not just people but millions and millions of machines, setting the foundation for other cutting-edge technologies including artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, industrial Internet of Things, edge computing, deep analytics and more.

5G is in effect the first generation of mobile for machines

The Australian Communications and Media Authority

The true magic of 5G lies in its ability to lift business productivity and transform the way businesses operate. This includes three core capabilities: 

  • faster speed at greater capacity;
  • ultra-reliability and ultra-low latency;
  • the ability to connect massive numbers of devices/machines;

It is super fast

5G is designed to achieve a peak data rate of 10Gbit per second. By comparison Australia’s current 4G network can achieve a data rate of between 2-100Mbits per second. Comparing 10Gbps to 100Mbps you can see 5G is about 100 times faster than 4G.

This is made possible by larger radio spectrum blocks giving more bandwidth. With 4G, mobile operators can utilise about 100MHz of bandwidth on their radio spectrum but with 5G it will be as high as 1GHz of spectrum. So capacity wise this is about 10 times greater than 4G. This boosted capacity will not only achieve faster speed but also allow more people and devices to be connected at the same time without the ‘traffic jam’. Faster speed and boosted capacity are the key to the first core capability of 5G: Extreme Mobile Broadband or eMBB.

To put this into perspective, the results from the speed tests quoted by Optus showed that the current 5G network can already deliver speeds in the realm of hundreds of megabits per second, rivalling some of the NBN fixed connection speeds. But this is not even close to the promise of 5G’s astonishing 10Gbps speed. A higher throughput means faster streaming and downloads, a proliferation of ultra high definition video, enhanced remote collaboration between people and sites and so much more. If the current 4G network is one super highway then 5G will be a massive upgrade with a lot more lanes and all sorts of vehicles travelling on it.

It just works

Then comes the ultra-reliability and ultra-low latency. While these are two sets of technical requirements, they are both vital ingredients to mission critical use cases such as remote-controlled robots and autonomous vehicles.

Reliability is all about mitigating potential network failures so that the network always works. 5G is designed to achieve as high as 99.999% reliability, in other words it should just work. Latency is the time for the round trip between a device sending a data request to when the data is returned to the device. 5G aims to achieve a theoretical minimum latency of only 1 millisecond (one thousandth of a second). In comparison current 4G networks recorded lowest latency of 36 milliseconds according to a 2020 finding by Opensignal. This is usually referred to as Ultra Reliable Ultra Low Latency Communications or URLLC.

Why is URLLC so important? Well it will significantly improve experiences such as real time video calling or connected augmented/virtual reality, both are important use cases in the 5G era. It will also make possible for scenarios where a lag simply cannot be tolerated. Think about autonomous driving or remote-controlled robots performing a high precision surgery, a lag at even the millisecond level could have disastrous impacts but with a latency as low as 1 millisecond these use cases are no longer beyond our reach.

It connects everything

Finally 5G can connect massive numbers of devices and machines. 5G is designed to be able to connect one million devices per square kilometre whereas 4G can handle several thousand. So in a 5G era virtually everything that can be connected will be, from home appliances to sensors and monitors, to connected industrial machines to autonomous cars and drones. This is referred to as Massive Machine Type Communications or mMTC.

With the help of mMTC, Internet of Things will truly flourish where every machine can be connected and remotely operated. Sensors can be deployed at a massive scale to gather data about everything that matters. Deep analytics of such data will generate insights to continuously improve how things are operated.

Sci-Fi becoming reality

Each one of these characteristics represents a step change from 4G but combined they unlock a myriad of new use cases and truly enable a string of cutting-edge technologies, propelling our world into the next phase of industrial revolution. In a 5G era what would seem like science fiction today will become everyday life for all.

Source: Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (Submission 330)

Let’s imagine for a moment the possibilities in a 5G era. Doctors thousands of kilometres away can remotely conduct a high precision surgery with the help of robots operating with ultra-low latency and cameras feeding ultra high definition video in real-time. Autonomous vehicles will be roaming around our streets delivering passengers and goods via the most efficient route while achieving fuel economy thanks to ultra-low latency and the ability to connect to thousands of devices along the way. Cities, mines, ports, farms and factories can all be remotely monitored and operated thanks to massive industrial Internet of Things coupled with deep analytics of the data collected to improve operations, safety and yield.

5G is going to change everything, every industry, every business, and every consumer experience.

Nokia

It is no surprise that the world is excited about the 5G future and is rushing to get on the front foot. Australia is on the move too, starting with providing access to the most critical resource: radio spectrum.

Not all 5G is created equal

On November 4th, 2020 the Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher released an announcement claiming that 2021 would be the ‘Year of 5G’ as two auctions would be held to allocate 5G spectrum. Spectrum in the 26GHz band would be allocated in April whereas in the second half of the year spectrum in the 850/900MHz band would be allocated.

Note that these two types of radio spectrum reside in very different frequency bands yet they are both important for building the 5G network. The question is: why not just stick to one optimal spectrum band? Well the physics of how radio waves work presents a contradiction between two vital ingredients of a great mobile experience: coverage and speed.

The nature of the radio wave is that signals can travel longer distances (more coverage) at low frequencies (lower bands) but carry less data. Inversely they can carry large amounts of data at high frequencies (higher bands) but only over shorter distances (less coverage). So to achieve its promise in full, 5G mobile networks will need to utilise three different bands.

Radio frequency spectrum is a continuous range of radio waves transmitting messages or data. It is divided into different bands so that it can be licenced and governed, and put to commercial use.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority

The pioneering 5G

First there is the low band spectrum of below 1GHz frequencies, especially in the 700MHz, 850MHz and 900MHz range. These are currently already being used for 3G and 4G services for voice, mobile broadband and Internet of Things applications. These bands are ideal for wide-area coverage as well as penetrating into buildings and indoor areas.

Then there is the mid band spectrum between 1GHz and 6GHz frequencies. This is where the first phase of 5G roll-outs are happening as these bands offer an optimal compromise between coverage, quality, throughput, capacity and latency. Currently the majority of the pioneering 5G services are being deployed in this band across the globe including Australia.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority conducted the 3.6GHz spectrum auction back in November and December 2018 which saw allocations to the three major mobile network operators. Consequently all three players are now deploying their 5G services in this band.

The Great Leap Forward

Lastly there is the high band spectrum in the 26GHz and 28GHz frequencies, commonly referred to as millimetre wave (mmWave). This is where the great leap in speed, capacity and latency truly happens. To achieve super high speed you will need greater bandwidth to begin with. The mmWave bands offer just that: abundant bandwidth. This is why the mobile industry across the globe is chasing spectrum in these bands.

We will see the first allocation in Australia in April in the 26GHz range and most certainly the big three will start deploying pioneering mmWave 5G services soon after but again because signal in this frequency range can only travel a very short distance and struggle to penetrate through objects such as walls or even trees on the street, the initial deployment is expected to focus on localised high value scenarios such as mining sites, ports, CBDs, stadiums and so on, rather than wide-spread roll out.

These different radio spectrum bands exhibit very different characteristics yet they are all within the 5G family. It is important to get to the specifics when discussing about 5G as these different bands have different requirements on the network and end devices.

The road ahead

As exciting as the future sounds, it is important to stay grounded and appreciate the fact that it will take some time for us to get there. The full promise of 5G won’t be realised overnight. Unlike the 4G roll out, 5G will very much be a collaborative effort between the tech vendors and business users. Vendors, including carriers, need concrete business use cases (hence certainty in generating revenue) to incentivise further investment and build out. Businesses need more knowledge and guidance to create those use cases. 

Our future articles will take a closer look on this topic to help you start meaningful discussions internally and with your tech suppliers. 

Stay tuned …

References:

House of Representatives Standing Committee on Communications and the Arts – Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia Report 2020 – The Next Gen Future Link

Department of Agriculture submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 181) Link

Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 232) Link

Telstra submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 296) Link

Vodafone Hutchison Australia (VHA) submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 319) Link

Nokia submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 321) Link

Department of Communications and the Arts submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 330) Link

Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and Communications Alliance submission  to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 335) Link

Optus submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 338) Link

Ericsson submission to the Inquiry into the deployment, adoption and application of 5G in Australia (submission 339) Link

Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA) – The 5G Guide Link

Mr Chris Althaus, Chief Executive Officer, AMTA, Committee Hansard, Canberra, 6 December 2019 Link

Mrs Michelle Phillips, Head of Government and Industry Relations, Australia and New Zealand, Ericsson, Committee Hansard, Melbourne, 19 February 2020 Link

Mr Bryant, Nokia, Committee Hansard, Sydney, 20 February 2020 Link

Deloitte Access Economics (DAE) – Mobile Nation 2019: The 5G future Link

Bureau of Communications, Arts and Regional Research – Impacts of 5G on productivity and economic growth Link

Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – What is spectrum? Link

Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) – Auction summary – 3.6 GHz band (2018) Link

Paul Fletcher MP – 2021 Will be the “Year of 5G” Link

TechGuide – Telstra has wider 5G coverage but Optus 5G is faster says independent report Link

Optus News – Optus out in front for 5G speed Link

Telstra Exchange – One in two Aussies now covered by Telstra 5G Link

The 5G Economy in a Post-COVID-19 Era – The role of 5G in a post-pandemic world economy (Nov 2020) Prepared for Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. by IHS Markit in partnership with Omdia Link

R-Spectrum – About the Optus Network Link

R-Spectrum – About the Telstra Network Link

R-Spectrum – About the Vodafone Network Link

The big differences between 4G and 5G, Clare Duffy, CNN Business January 17, 2020 Link

Patrick Zhuge

Patrick’s passion is all about helping businesses adopt technology. The key is connecting businesses with the right guidance from the right people for the right technology. This is the core idea of Pangu, a platform that brings everyone together.

Share via Email
Share on Facebook
Share on Linkdin