5G, Simplified!

Rajesh Dangi / October, 2021

Greater bandwidth, faster connectivity or download speeds, and ultra-low latency are the promises of 5G, the revolutionary fifth generation of cellular network that is 100 times faster than the current 4G network serving us today. According to GSMA, 113 mobile operators have already launched a 5G network in 48 countries and are predicted to have more than 1.7 billion subscribers worldwide by 2025.

5G is paving ways for opportunities and transforming industries and dramatically enhancing day-to-day user experience going beyond what a traditional telecom network would do, broadening the spectrum of features and services for enabling us to deliver ground-breaking solutions that will transform the way we consume our digital services, applications, and augmentation of internet of things, etc. This will no doubt help in extending our digital presence to newer frontiers and extensive possibilities between man to man, man to machine, and machine to machine interactions.

The Generation Gap, so to say!

Looking back at the timeline of these Generations of cellular networks and the respective technological advances,

  • The first generation,1G was an analog cellular network launched sometime between 1979-80 and used 800MHz or 1900MHz offered wireless mobile speed of just 2.4kbps
  • Further, in 1991, 2G using CDMA GSM, and TDMA technologies raised the bar with 50Kbps speed for the digital cellular network, this was I believe was the trigger for voice and data convergence over the air and paved the way for mobile computing baby steps. The growth of 1G and 2G was initially driven by the market for mobile phone handsets yet 2G offered data communication, but at very low speeds.
  • From 1998 onwards, 3G operated on 2100MHz and offered speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second with EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS and there we stated seeing few mobile applications running on the cell phones, suitable for a variety of new use cases both on smartphones and for the emerging Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem.
  • 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE came in 2009 and LTE was the major leap forward, 500 times faster than 3G, it operates on 600MHz to 2.5GHz now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds on the move. It is worth mentioning MIMO, a technique for sending and receiving more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio channel by exploiting multipath propagation and is the key innovation for augmenting capability to serve densely populated end-user devices subscribing to the 4G network, a very promising and successful regime till now
  • 4G LTE technology enabled the 4G networks with downlink peak rates of 300 Mbit/s and uplink peak rates of 75 Mbit/s with QoS provisions permitting a transfer latency of less than 5 ms in the radio access networkfor fast-moving mobiles and supports multi-cast and broadcast streams as well. When one mobile operator in India launched services with LTE but got impacted since voice calls were not given priority on the network ( apparently they used data channels to carry voice) and observed severe call drop as soon as they launched LTE. They used VoLTE, Voice over LTE based on the IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) architectural framework, with specific profiles for control and media planes of voice service and supports up to three times more voice and data capacity than older 3G UMTSand mitigated the call drop issue.

5G consumes most of the elements from 4G network technologies and operates up to 28Ghz supporting as low as 10kbps for a low data rate sensor to multi-Gbps peak rate with over 10 Tbps capacity serving over million nodes per square km with ultra-low latency of just one millisecond. Thus, it is safer to assume the 4G to 5G transition will certainly be a drastic transformation as compared to the earlier 3G to 4G one.

  • 5G NR, New Radio access technology (RAT) developed by 3GPP as a global standard for the air interface of 5G networks and utilizes modulation, waveforms, and access technologies that enable the 5G system to support the needs of high data rate services, and small data rates with long battery life devices one the same network
  • 5G New Core (5GC) is a service-based architecture in which different network functions (providers) offer services to other Network function consumers through dedicated or shared interfaces. This network structure is a cloud-native, programmable, modular architecture designed to create multiple virtual networks/slices running over the same physical or virtual resources yet logically isolated and designed to respond to the different network requirements of the different use cases. The technology behind this architecture is network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). The interfaces between NFs will be based on application programming interfaces (APIs) using the standard HTTP protocol.
  • 5G MEC - Multi-access edge computing (MEC) provides cloud-computing capabilities running at the edge of the network (gNB), providing the advantage of the low latency and high bandwidth to enrich the edge user experience for edge computing workloads fostering the creation of innovative services and use cases such as video analytics, location services, augmented reality, data caching and optimized content distribution.

5G Goals, Design & Architectural Considerations

5G is designed to support a wider range of highly demanding applications which are complex and thus there is no one-size-fits-all approach; these range of applications require data to travel distances, in large volumes, or in combination thus the architecture must support low, mid, and high-band spectrum with logical slicing from licensed, shared, and private sources using multiple technologies to deliver the full 5G promise.

Based on the application or the deployment dictates the way 5G would couple different use cases using different wireless frequencies ranging from a low or mid-band of 1Ghz to 6Ghz till high band 20Ghz (mm-wave) or above etc, some of these wireless spectra will be dedicated/licensed for exclusive use and other will be shared spectrum for shared usage, etc. Depending on the application there are 5G technologies used for below mentioned three broad-based user areas or categories.

  • eMBB, The Enhanced Mobile Broadband would be helpful while using spectral efficiency for faster connections, higher throughput, and more serving capacity for mobile devices in dense urban areas, crowded events, or stadiums in the cities. It will transform the user experience, revolutionize the gaming industry with AR/VR cloud gaming and drive 4K video streaming, etc.
  • URLLC , Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications is aimed at mission-critical applications that require uninterrupted and robust data networks/paths for seamless data transfers with reliability and low-latency.
  • mMTC, Massive Machine-Type Communications would cover the largest of the 5G tenants, machines that comprise billions of IoT devices, drones, connected cars, embedded smart devices, industrial controls, and sensors, etc connecting back and forth between the edge devices, gateways, and cloud-native applications without interruptions.

As we have discussed above the capabilities of 5G technology would offer the potential for multiple use cases, applications covering a larger spectrum of devices, mobile phones, the Internet of things, and industrial gadgets using the logical slicing of the 5G network, each segmentation would enable key service goals for all categories.

  • Broadband-Like Mobile Service is the most noticeable of the initial impacts of the 5G network rollout. All major mobile operators, wireless carriers intend to deploy 5G mobile networks that will deliver broadband-like services, such as high-definition streaming video without dreaded buffering and managing surges via vastly increased network capacity, 5G is also intended to reduce slowdowns even during peak hours to large audiences and in the dense or crowded areas or heavy traffic situations.
  • Machine to Machine & IoT – The Internet of things demands low latency and high network capacity that enables all devices to sense and respond in near real-time, interact with other devices and push/pull the data, etc. With a large-scale capacity of connecting billions of IoT devices via 5G, the IoT domain stands ready to enable applications that would have seemed impossible just a few years ago.
  • Reliable Low latency Connectivity – Due to maximum speed and capacity, use cases heavily dependent on data such as gaming, real-time video analytics, etc. will get the benefit of leveraging 5G. From the evolution of the IoT to revolutionary advances in how AI is used in the real world, many of tomorrow’s most exciting technological advances will depend on 5G connectivity.
  • Connectivity for Edge Computing- With large scale cloud-native workloads and a growing number of mobile users enterprises can take advantage of strategically distributed computational power, allowing more data to be processed and stored in the right place based on the needs of the application and remain connected with the target users via 5G network making it a rich and Intelligent edge computing user experience. As 5G adoption increases and edge computing proves to be useful and relevant, industries will be able to dramatically scale up their use of data and act on insights faster almost instantly via the convergence of 5G’s ultra-low latency, IoT, and AI technologies enablement.
  • Large-scale AI/ML adoption – AI/ML computations on large-scale data will be accelerated with fast, efficient connectivity and low latency response times on federated microservices. For example, AI-driven smart city applications can correlate traffic data almost instantly and automatically implement new traffic regulation patterns via smart signals, detect and respond to anomalies via smart security and machine vision making public places safer via recognition of potential security breaches or bad actors / unintended visitors, etc. The ability to run AI inference at the edge will also play a key role in ingesting data from devices to the central cloud to train or refine AI models and draw real-time insights and like using real-world data on road conditions collected by connected vehicles can provide useful feedback improve the roads or suggest diversions in case of flooding etc
  • Immersive Gaming and Virtual Reality – AR/VR, online education, or gaming will certainly get benefited due to the ability to render High-definition live streaming thanks to ultra-low latency, faster feedback, and response times to provide a realistic experience. Rather 5G gaming won’t be tied down to devices with high computing power since processing, storage, and retrieval can be done in the cloud instantaneously, while the game is being played on and controlled by a mobile device. These applications are likely to explode in number and sophistication as 5G networks and devices become mainstream.

Since 5G was designed on the first design principle yet leveraging existing technological progressions used for 4G, it is a great example of the ground-up design using network functions aligned to Service-Based Architecture (SBA). The 5G core network needs to be open and modern to be able to support demanding and dynamic performance requirements. The mmWAVE, eMBB, mMTC, and URLLC technologies are all different use cases that can't be satisfied by a single monolithic stack/architecture.

The fundamental ask was that the 5G Core needs to be programmable, agile, and scalable. The key services like user plane and control plane need to be scale independently along with optimized traffic handling using cloud-native virtualization or microservices systems, the software-driven network approach must be composed of loosely coupled network functions that can be integrated and managed independently but efficiently via distributed computing and storage design principles with a need to support edge computing.

The key components that build the 5G architecture are,

  • User Equipment (UE) like 5G smartphones or 5G cellular devices connect over the 5G RAN to the 5G Core and respective Data Networks (DN), like the Internet.
  • The Authentication Server Function (AUSF) allows the AMF to authenticate the UE and access services of the 5G core.
  • The Access and Mobility Management Function (AMF) acts as a single-entry point for the UE connection selecting the respective Session Management Function (SMF) for managing the user session.
  • functions like the Session Management Function (SMF), the Policy Control Function (PCF), the Application Function (AF), and the Unified Data Management (UDM) function provide the policy control framework, applying policy decisions and accessing subscription information, to govern the network behavior.
  • The User Plane Function (UPF) transports the IP data traffic (user plane) between the User Equipment (UE) and the external networks or predefined routes.
  • Most important is the deployment of these components as a distributed microservices over public, private, and edge clouds is seamless and scalable by design.

In summary, 5G will evolve over time with more and more emerging technologies, and 5G ready devices will soon follow to leverage the 5G network with products with “5G-ready” tags, which means that these products/devices have the processing power and Gigabit Ethernet ports needed to support the higher bandwidth 5G modems and 5G extenders, etc, directly integrated and have a faster multi-core processor, 2.5 or even 10 Gigabit Ethernet interfaces and Wi-Fi 6/6E radios.

The service providers may no longer sell data as 2Gb or 3Gb per day packages since it will get exhausted in a couple of minutes on the user device, 5G will create the need to innovate the products and service and also how to bundle them in the newer context of consumption for each channel of delivery, from mobile users to machines. These products/service changes may shake the cost of few 5G services up and down but are required to handle the additional coverage, speed, and lower latency than 5G networks will offer and much larger data volumes to handle by the ecosystem players like CSPs, ISPs and handset OEMs.

The 5G is the revolution that will build synergies, consortiums and has the power to drive digital transformations at the grassroots level for masses, especially in India, for sure!