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From 1G to 5G: How innovations in cellular have shaped our lives

25 Sep 2020

Article by: Gigamon CTO Shehzad Merchant.

Each generation of cellular networks has fundamentally changed our world. 1G brought us the brick phone utilising analogue technology in the ‘80s. For the first time, phones became truly mobile, albeit being bulky and expensive, and limited to voice features.

In the ‘90s, 2G brought us digital handsets with SMS and text messaging, which made communication on-the-go possible. Phone sizes and prices shrank, and adoption grew, although mostly for business and professional use.

In the early 2000s, 3G brought us online with mobile broadband integrating voice, video and data. 3G made it popular for not just adults but also teens, to use cell phones, driving mass adoption.

The decade from 2010 to 2020 has been characterised by the use of 4G, which significantly increased the speed and capacity of cellular networks. It gave rise to an entirely new generation of applications, which fundamentally changed how we do business and communicate.

The rise of ride-sharing services, live-streaming video, and a host of other applications were all possible due to 4G. Entire industries such as the gig economy were created as a result of 4G. During the pandemic this year, 4G has made remote learning and telemedicine a reality.

As we look to the present decade from 2020 onwards, 5G will be at the forefront. The race for 5G is not about merely deploying new infrastructure, but getting the first-mover advantage in who can build and take the leadership role in the host of new applications and services that 5G will enable.

It is this race that has captured the minds of all – from nation-states to entrepreneurs.

5G brings with it significant changes. It provides improvements in many ways – up to 10x faster than 4G, up to 10 times lower latency than 4G, up to 100 times more devices than 4G, and up to 90% lower energy consumption compared to 4G.

Here are the new technologies that will be required to work in tandem with 5G for rollout to be successful:

Millimetre-wave 

This is an entirely new band of spectrum being opened up for 5G – from 6GHz all the way up to 300GHz. It is a higher frequency spectrum that can drive higher capacity as well as higher bandwidth. 

Initially, only specific bands within this spectrum will be utilised, in conjunction with lower and mid-frequency bands from 600MHz to 3GHz.

Massive MIMO

MIMO stands for multiple input, multiple output and refers to the antenna technology that is utilised to drive better coverage. 

The higher frequency bands provide an advantage in that they require smaller antennas. This makes it feasible to pack more antennas on a base station, which in turn drives much higher capacity. 5G will be able to pack around 256 antennas per base station, significantly higher than the dozen or so with 4G.

Small cells and beamforming

Higher frequencies lead to higher propagation loss. With the higher density of MIMO antennas, there can also be increased signal interference. And so the goal in 5G is to develop many smaller cells that would then be served by the high-density MIMO antennas. 

The smaller cell size addresses the issues around propagation loss. At the same time, beamforming technology allows the 5G signals to minimise interference by selectively targetting devices.

Network slicing

5G will support network slicing, which is the ability to carve off portions of the 5G network for specific use cases. For example, carving off a slice for first responders, or carving off slices for ultra-low latency applications such as autonomous driving.

Mobile edge computing

This is the key to reducing end-to-end latency for applications. With mobile edge computing, applications can run in data centres closer to the 5G network, thereby significantly reducing the end-to-end latency of applications.

Control and user plane separation (CUPS)

By separating the user data from the control plane processing, user plane traffic can be switched locally without having to backhaul traffic, thereby lowering latency and increasing throughput.

The journey to 5G will require careful planning both on the network operator side and the companies leveraging and building applications over a 5G infrastructure.

Ensuring visibility into the applications and the underlying network traffic will be vital in determining whether SLAs are being met for critical application needs that depend on aspects such as guaranteed latency, among others. Planning for this upfront will help speed up the journey and reduce delays in deploying both the infrastructure and the applications. 

As with each generation of cellular technology, 5G deployment and adoption will occur over an extended period, perhaps several years. But with it will come an entirely new breed of applications and services that can take advantage of the lower latency, higher speeds and additional 5G capabilities.

Yes, we will be able to download movies much faster - it may take only 5-10 seconds for a full HD movie download. But that is a very limiting way to think about 5G. New applications, like fully autonomous driving, drone-based emergency response, customised multi-dimensional content-rich news delivery, and many more advancements, become possible with 5G.

As these new applications start taking root, many of the traditional paradigms and businesses may begin seeing disruption. Organisations should look to the future in terms of disruption rather than incrementalism when thinking of how to take advantage of these aspects of 5G.