Barely has the ink dried on the 4G roll-out plan than network operators and handset manufacturers are planning the next generation of mobile network system. If the ambitious — and some would say overly-ambitious — dreams are realized, then 5G will open the door to the sorts of services and products that futurologists have talked about for generations.
5G may even shift the structure of the Internet itself, a change that could have a very profound impact on Internet freedoms and on the business models of over-the top (OTT) players such as Google.
European politicians and operators also hope that by investing heavily in 5G they will be able to steal back the lead that Europe had with 3G, but lost when the world shifted to 4G; iOS and Android came onto the market; and the momentum in mobile innovation shifted to Silicon Valley.
The UK in particular is keen to exploit 5G advances, setting up a multimillion-pound government-funded 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey. “One of the things that the UK is betting on … is they are looking for why don’t we have Google, why don’t we have one of these big players? Why does it not happen here?” says Alan Brown, Professor of Entrepreneurship and Innovation in the Surrey Business School.
What is 5G?
There is no agreed standard for 5G. A 2014 report by Swedish telecoms equipment manufacturer Ericsson defined it as: “It is the next chapter of telecom networks designed to meet a more advanced and more complex set of performance requirements. But 5G represents a new way of thinking. It encompasses innovative network design for deploying machine-type communication. And 5G networks will be able to efficiently support applications with widely varying operational parameters, providing greater flexibility to deploy services.” Here is some of what is envisaged:
Higher data rate
Speeds of up to 10GBits/sec delivered to the cell will mean users experiencing gigabit speeds.
5G proponents are talking about cutting latency from around 80-100ms of today’s mobile networks to latencies sub-5ms, even 1ms
A European Union discussion document called for savings of 90% per service. Nokia has talked of 10-year battery life for machine-to-machine sensors.
The system needs to be able to handle 10,000x more traffic than today.
Chinese equipment maker Huawei has called for the network to support up to 100 billion connected devices.
Korea’s SK Telecom has called for more than 99% network availability and reliability as well as self-healing/reconfiguration.
So what would a world connected with 5G look like? At its heart 5G is designed to be the one fast, very fast, ultra reliable, network to bind them all. Currently your mobile device’s communications are split between Wi-Fi, typically found inside buildings, and the cellular network outside. Switching between them is far from seamless.
By contrast 5G would be a single overarching technology that would use whatever spectrum and network was available. And while today’s cellular networks are characterized by a single “macro” cell covering areas of many thousands of square meters, or in rural areas, square kilometers, with every device in the cell talking to the cell tower, 5G envisages a so-called heterogeneous network, or HetNet, comprising an overarching macro cell, and within it scores of smaller cells.
Devices would communicate with the closest cell while backhaul, the handling of the communications from cell to cell, would take place over fiber optic connections. Those small cells could be as small as 150 meters, says Professor Rahim Tafazolli, who leads the UK’s 5G Innovation Centre at the University of Surrey.
This radically different structure is what permits 5G to deliver the breakneck speeds proponents tout. The current plan envisages speeds to the cell of 10Gbit/sec, says Dr. Wen Tong, Vice President of Wireless Research and CTO of Wireless of Huawei Technologies. He talks about users having a “gigabit experience.”
So what kind of service is going to require that kind of data throughput?
Forrester analyst Dan Bieler is skeptical. “I think the amount of business case scenarios that require, or would warrant, 5G collectivity are fairly limited,” he says. “I could imagine it for certain content delivery. Maybe video, especially in high-density areas like stadium environments where currently 3G pretty much nothing works, and even 4G is reaching its limits there.”
A view echoed by Kester Mann of analysts CCS Insight. “We have argued that the business case for 4G is unproven. This [5G] is the momentum in the industry that has to keep going with the next new thing. I am not sure it is proven at all.”
However Tafazolli says too much media speculation has concentrated on raw speed, rather than the dramatic shift in capacity such speed delivers.
“If you can deliver a file in one second that today takes 100 seconds, that means you can deliver 100 times as many files. That is what matters.”
How Will Business Use 5G?
Tafazolli points to numerous uses that will benefit businesses and consumer. Take the case of autonomous cars. “You need ultra-reliable networks, low-latency, and they must work everywhere,” said Sebastian Zimmermann, BMW’s head of automotive connectivity and security at a recent 5G conference. The demands made on the network by autonomous cars are considerable.
A connected car can generate a gigabyte of data a second and the latencies of current networks are far too great to allow real-time control systems or collision avoidance, according to a report by German software company SAP. Furthermore, autonomous cars need to talk to each other and to the transport infrastructure for control reasons; current technologies struggle to provide that kind of communication.
For network operators, which have faced pressure on their bottom lines due to declining revenue from voice and texts, and have found the huge growth in data problematic, new revenue streams such as automotive networking are attractive enticements to move to 5G. A report [PDF] by the Groupe Speciale Mobile Association (GSMA) says operator revenue from the growing number of cars using mobile-enabled Internet connectivity will triple by 2018 compared with 2012 and reach $53.62 billion.
The report forecasts that revenues associated with connected cars will reach $32.84 billion in 2018, up from $12.47 billion, while hardware sales will reach $9.25 billion, up from $1.61 billion, and revenues from the delivery of telematics services will grow from $2.41 billion to $6.03 billion.
An Insurance Policy of One
But it isn’t just planes, trains and automobiles that could be impacted by 5G. Surrey Business School professor Brown says the UK’s 5G center is looking at how 5G might impact a broad range of sectors.
Monitoring through connected devices can finally become a reality for business thanks to 5G’s HetNet structure, its dramatically increased reliability and lower power needs, as well as vastly improved capacity, says Brown. In sum, 5G will be the network technology that can deliver the Internet of Things.
Linking connected devices will not just change industries such as manufacturing; it could also dramatically change the way insurance is issued, for example, says Brown. Insurance companies currently provide telemetry-based car insurance on a pay-as-you-drive model. According to Brown that might be extended to personal healthcare.
“When you can start to have massive amounts of personal data, when you can start to have essentially an audience of one and a product that is focused on the individual because of their habits, the way in which they work, the way in which they play, their health habits, the way in which they consume goods, then that gets very interesting,” he says. “They [insurance companies] are asking us to look at some of those areas and to think about the disruptions that that might cause in their industries.”
But Brown says coupled with the access to that kind of data come very serious implications on data management and ownership. Who gets to control the data that these devices generate?
“Do I randomly want Google using it, or a healthcare organization, or an insurance company using it to charge me triple when I ask for a pizza when I have already had pizza twice this week? When I go to a bar and the system logs that I have already had five pints this week. Do I want that kind of data being shared? And who owns that kind of relationship?
“There are several projects we are involved in where we are looking at how that data is collected, and attitudes of people towards the collection, and we are looking at how that data then gets used both technologically by what’s possible, but also ethically and morally.”
The Empire Strikes Back
What is Information-Centric Networking?
It is testimony to the foresight of the architects of the Internet that what was planned in the 1960s as a way of connecting up a relatively small number of mainly academic and research computers ended up as the global digital backbone.
However, IP was designed as a communication protocol, a way of exchanging information between two machines on a one-to-one basis. The Internet has become more of a way of disseminating information, one-to-many, and needs a structure to match. That structure, proponents say, is Information-Centric Networking (ICN).
In an ICN world each piece of data is tagged with a unique identifier. Multiple copies of that data would exist distributed across the Internet. When a request for information is put in, instead of routing the request to a single server, it goes to the closest repository.
The advantage, say proponents, is that since demands can be met much closer to the originating request it will reduce latency as well as cutting back on network traffic. Furthermore because each packet of data carries meta-data about the content, it increases security. Rather than securing the pipes, it is the data that is secured.
However, according to Nicolas Demassieux, Senior Vice President Research, Orange Labs, the idea of replacing the entire IP-based internet is a non-starter. “We certainly believe it will not replace IP,” he says. “With an overlay mechanism we can have co-existence of both with the benefit of both within the 5G horizon. That is the vision we have.”
ICN is not without controversy. Because each data packet contains information about the data, critics say it may make it easier to control the flow of information, calling into question principles of net neutrality. “Because it is explicit about what is the information content then the network operator can massage this data in different ways; for the good and the not good,” says Dr. Wen Tong, Vice President of Wireless Research and CTO of Wireless of Huawei Technologies. “That is an issue.”
There are also concerns about how rights can be managed in an ICN world. With multiple copies of data distributed across the network, can geofencing of data be effectively managed? Finally there are issues to do with privacy. By making information identifiable at the network level, ICN could impinge on freedom of speech, allowing network controllers to filter out “undesirable” content.
Proponents suggest that far from impinging on free speech, ICN makes it harder to control the flow of data. If authoritarian regimes want to block a particular service today, that usually means taking out a single server. Since ICN architecture is peer-to-peer, unless a government controls every router on the network information can route around obstacles.
One of the most profound, if least talked about, potential impacts of 5G technology is the mooted suggestion that it will bring in a new kind of Internet architecture, called Information-Centric Networking (ICN) or what is sometimes referred to as Content-Centric Networking (see box on page XX). Some operators see this architecture as a way of leveling the playing field with Over The Top (OTT) players such as Google. Over the Top refers to video, television and other services provided over the Internet rather than via a service provider’s own network.
Currently when a user requests a piece of data on the Internet, that request uses Internet Protocol (IP) to connect with the server that stores the data. With ICN, data is no longer stored on a single server — copies are stored in multiple servers, distributed across the Internet. The ICN architecture routes a request for a piece of data to the nearest repository. While the ICN structures are still the subject of debate, plans envisage the packets of data including meta-information about the data itself, which may include information about the content type, the content owner and other information.
Nicolas Demassieux, Senior Vice President Research, Orange Labs, said Orange has been working on ICN for several years. “We believe there might be a dimension of content-centric networking within the 5G horizon,” he says. However he stressed that such an arrangement would sit on top of the existing technology rather than replacing it.
In an earlier interview, Pierre Louette, Orange’s Senior Executive Vice President, complained about the imbalance between the amount of data networks were carrying, and payment. “Today on many occasions the European subnetwork receives up to 10 times the data it sends,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “The European operators, or international operators that aggregate that kind of traffic, are in a completely asymmetric relationship; they receive way more than they send. We receive this huge flow of data and we are supposed to construct our networks according to the data we receive. At the same time we do not get more money from this data than we were getting in the past,” he said.
“There are two principles on which the Internet developed: zero-price rule, and non-discrimination rule. These are the two underlying principles being questioned today. Can we completely build the future of the Internet without revisiting those two principles?”
ICN may be the way to revist them.
“I Do Not Know In Which Way The Net Neutrality Should Play
The problem, says Huawei’s Tong, is that “the way OTT [Over The Top] players run their business [they] are decoupled from the network. The money-making source for them is decoupled from the network provision.” Because of the explicit way in which content is labeled in an ICN network, providers know exactly who is providing the data. A 2014 paper [PDF] presented at the University of Zurich suggested that one advantage of ICN for carriers is the possibility that they could extract fees from OTT providers for carrying their content, as well as charge end users for access.
Demassieux dismissed the suggestion. “With current IP technology we might charge by who is sending and who is receiving. The new technology will not change the discussion in terms of who is paying for what.”
That may be but network neutrality is based on the principle that networks are agnostic with regard to the traffic they carry. ICN and other advanced technologies such as software-defined networking call into doubt that principle. When the nature of the content and the publisher are made explicit, it becomes relatively simple for network operators to manage that data however they choose.
A 2014 paper [PDF] looking at Named Data Networking, a similar proposal to ICN, suggested that the technology meant the ability to control and shape data flows was much greater. “Administrators may choose to discriminate based on data types (indicated within clear-text data names) or based upon data’s namespace of publication,” the paper said. “While similar possibilities exist in IP, they are at higher layers.”
Mari-Noëlle Jégo-Laveissière, Senior Executive, Innovation, Marketing and Technologies for Orange, acknowledged that the new technology might make it easier to control data flows, but maintains that this should not be a problem. “Net neutrality was there to make sure that very small players on the Internet were not badly treated by big operators,” she says. “Now you have 15 Internet players having 50% of the total worldwide business playing with hundreds of small operators. I do not know in which way the net neutrality should play. The OTT [players] have managed to get most of the value out of the network today.”
What is certain is that if operators such as France’s Orange are going to build 5G networks, then they will have to have the business models in place to pay for the considerable investment required. Huawei’s Tong suggested that the rollout costs would be in the same order of magnitude as are currently being spent on 4G. A spokesman for the UK’s O2 network said the company was investing £1.5 million a day on 4G.
Will massive investment in 5G help Europe to regain a lead in mobile? Huawei’s Tong is not so sure. The problem, he says, is that the existing infrastructure is not up to scratch. The so-called “last mile,” the connection to the home, in Europe lags far behind in terms of fiber connections.
So where will the impetus come from? Countries where the the infrastructure will support it, where there are super-fast fiber connections. “When I go to some areas like Japan or Korea, it is already there today. And of course in China.”
Despite grand ambitions and high hopes in Europe and in Asia it is somewhat misleading to talk about 5G as if it were an agreed thing. So far there is no standard and no agreed protocols. The frequencies to deliver speeds of 10 GBit/sec over the air haven’t been allocated and key technologies to deliver the kind of performances that are being bandied around exist only in laboratories, and sometimes not even there.
Instead there are only agreed objectives and desires as to what the next generation of mobile communications should look like.
The industry had better get cracking if 5G is to hit its roll-out target of 2020. “That is very, very ambitious in my view,” says Forrester analyst Bieler. “There are massive issues still that need to be resolved.”