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5G: where promise meets reality

Network 5G

Posted on September 10, 2018

5 min read

with Channa Seneviratne, Executive Director, Network and Infrastructure Engineering – Telstra

More than 600 delegates from the 3GPP (3rd Generation Partnership Project) – the body that will set global standards to enable 5G – are meeting on the Gold Coast this week.

5G will underpin the adoption of a whole raft of world changing new technologies including the Internet of Things and driverless cars, so it is not hyperbole to say the 3GPP meeting will be future shaping. With so much at stake we thought it was important to explain what 5G is, and why it matters.

We have been asked many times – “Will 5G change the world?”. The short answer is absolutely yes. The slightly longer answer is this blog.

The best way to understand 5G is to realise it is more than just a faster, more efficient technology for mobile phones. What sets 5G apart from every earlier “G” is its ability to carry signals significantly faster. Latency – the time gap between a request for data being sent and the data being received – on 5G is reduced dramatically.

To put that into context, on an older 3G phone, latency was around 100 milliseconds – that is one tenth of a second. 10 years of steady development and investment meant 4G latency was down to around 30 milliseconds. With 5G though, typical latency will be as little as 4 milliseconds and with smart network engineering may go as low as 1 millisecond – one thousandth of a second – for ultra-critical Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

Why does that matter? Because while 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G were primarily about connecting voice and then data, 5G will be about connecting everything: what is referred to as Internet of Things. We may not notice one tenth of a second delay when we are waiting for a webpage to load but that type of lag will not work in the emerging body of applications that will require virtually instant response times.

Doctors performing surgery remotely using tactile internet tools need instant responsiveness far beyond what today’s 4G technology can provide. Autonomous cars need to be able to react instantly to obstacles and traffic directions to be able to safely navigate through busy traffic. Sensor-laden factories, smart electricity grids and other infrastructure need to be able to make adjustments instantly if they are to deliver the promised efficiencies and cost savings.

A world gearing up for 5G

We are already seeing industry gearing up to seize opportunities from 5G. Some forecasts indicate 5G will enable US$12 trillion in economic output globally, support 22 million jobs and drive US$200 billion annually by 2035. We believe we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution where the physical world is infused with digitally enabled mass automation. Because it is not just 5G on its own – 5G is arriving at a same time as other technology innovations in software defined networks, big data analytics, machine learning and IoT. It is the combination of these things that will be so transformative.

We are already seeing consumers eagerly anticipating lightning fast 5G connectivity, and the many things that it will enable in their lives. And Telstra has been at the forefront of the 5G charge with a string of world and Australian 5G firsts culminating in our recent launch of 5G network readiness in selected metropolitan and regional areas.

While there is a lot of excitement around 5G, we still often get asked by analysts, investors and even other telcos why Telstra is so committed to leading on 5G? Many people still want to know what the use case or application is that justifies the investment necessary to deploy 5G? These are the same questions that were asked ahead of the previous generations of wireless technology. Before 2G it was hard to conceive of the mobile phone becoming a mass market device owned by billions of people. Before 3G, it was questionable that enough people would want to access the internet on their phones. And before 4G, it was a brave call to suggest enough people wanted access to HD video at all times.

But in every one of these occasions the demand not only materialised it did so with remarkable speed and on a remarkable scale. Indeed, each new technology has been embraced more quickly than the last. 4G took just five years to reach 2.5 billion people, compared to eight years for 3G. And the customers of first-mover telco’s such as Telstra, enjoyed the earliest and greatest benefits of new technology.

From Telstra’s perspective, the baseline business case is simple. We are facing rapidly growing volumes of data and we need more efficient ways of meeting our customers’ demands. What that means is that we need to transform our network economics, and the 10X greater capacity of 5G at lower cost per bit will help do that for us.

On top of that we see incredibly exciting opportunities to open up new applications and services delivered over mobile using 5G – everything from IoT on a massive scale, to 4K and 8K video, to mission critical services, to remote robotics will be brought to a whole new level by 5G.

Consumers also benefit

The benefits are not only for big business. Consumers and small businesses will also enjoy a host of new opportunities fuelled by 5G. Some of the most exciting use cases for consumers are in the entertainment space. On-demand streaming video is transforming the way we consume content, but it is still largely limited to a single location with access to a fixed high-speed broadband connection. The greater capacity and speed of 5G will break this link and enable people to enjoy untethered the best in online entertainment, from 4K and 8K TV, to virtual and augmented reality, whenever they want. Just imagine watching a football game wearing a VR headset at home but enjoying a fully immersive experience as if you were sitting at the stadium.

The attributes of 5G will shine in eSports, where high capacity and speeds are necessary but where low latency is critical. eSports is the fastest growing spectator sport in the world, with millions of fans regularly tuning in online to watch pro gamers compete for glory. Enabling eSports to go mobile will fuel the next phase of this growth. Of course if you would rather participate than watch pro gamers, 5G connectivity will also breathe new life to networked gaming as well as the new world of cloud gaming.

Telstra preparing to lead

As part of laying the groundwork for 5G we are very proud to support 3GPP and help host them while they are in Australia. 3GPP is the mobile communications industry organisation that develops and manages the end-to-end technical specifications for all mobile technologies globally, from 2G to 3G, 4G (LTE) and now 5G. The group includes members from across the world who drive the mobile technology industry: equipment vendors, chipset and device manufacturers, network operators, universities and researchers.

In terms of our technical work, we opened our 5G Innovation Centre on the Gold Coast in February and it has since been at the centre of a series of world and Australian firsts, including: the world’s first precinct of 5G-enabled Wi-Fi hotspots; Australia’s first 5G connected car; and the world’s first end-to-end 5G non-standalone data call on a commercial mobile network.

We are also already rolling out 5G technology on our network with 15 sites already live in Brisbane, the Gold Coast and in Toowoomba, the first regional community in Australia to be 5G ready. We are well on the way to having 200 5G-enabled sites live around Australia by the end of this calendar year.

While commercial devices for 5G are not yet available, our 5G readiness program means we can trial and test these as soon as the manufacturers make them available. We also continue to prepare for significant new opportunities in relation to the Internet of Things, including launching services in mining, logistics, agritech, smart metering and other sectors. Customers already deploying devices like sensors, trackers, alarms to manage or monitor their machines, vehicles, livestock and other assets on 4G will see a step change in these types of uses as 5G expands, and many more as well.

Reality meets promise

When we think about 5G use cases in the future a set of technologies come straight to mind: autonomous vehicles; virtual and augmented reality; smarter smartphones; artificial intelligence and machine learning; smart cities, smart factories, smart homes; remote surgery and health care; technology that creates personalised customer experiences that bring simplicity instead of added complexity. Many of these technologies not only exist today, they will soon be mainstream.

All of these technologies rely on the quality of the underlying telecommunication networks. That is why 5G is so important to the technology innovation we are seeing today.

The standards set for 4G when we launched in 2011 were made at a time when much of the innovation we are now seeing and expecting to see over the next few years had not been contemplated. 4G was essentially designed to solve a relatively narrow problem – how to accommodate growing demand for mobile access to the internet and increasing data volumes. 5G will continue to solve for that but also a much bigger and broader opportunity – how do we make the most of a world where everything that can be connected will be connected.

Building the future

What is really exciting about planning and building a 5G-enabled network is that the full range of opportunities it will create will not be clear when the 5G capability is turned on. They will evolve with the market, with innovators and entrepreneurs, with customer needs and with technology advances. So we know where we have come from, we know where we are now, but we don’t know exactly what 5G technology will enable in the future – and that is really exciting. Because with 5G what we can imagine it will do is likely nothing compared with what it will actually end up doing. 5G, like the future, is inventing itself and the only certainty is that it will be an experience like nothing before.