The Evolution of 5G

Technology always evolves and I’ve been reading about where scientists envision the evolution of 5G. The first generation of 5G, which will be rolled out over the next 3-5 years, is mostly aimed at increasing the throughput of cellular networks. According to Cisco, North American cellular data volumes are growing at a torrid 36% per year, and even faster than that in some urban markets where the volumes of data are doubling every two years. The main goal of first-generation 5G is to increase network capacity to handle that growth.

However, if 5G is deployed only for that purpose we won’t see the giant increases in speed that the public thinks is coming with 5G. Cisco is predicting that the average North American cellular speed in 2026 will be around 70 Mbps – a far cry from the gigabit speed predictions you can find splattered all over the press.

There is already academic and lab work looking into what is being labeled as 6G. That will use terabit spectrum and promises to potentially be able to deliver wireless speeds up to as much as 1 terabit per second. I’ve already seen a few articles touting this as a giant breakthrough, but the articles didn’t mention that the effective distance for this spectrum can be measured in a few feet – this will be an indoor technology and will not be the next cellular replacement for 5G.

This means that to some degree, 5G is the end of the line in terms of cellular delivery. This is likely why the cellular carriers are gobbling up as much spectrum as they can. That spectrum isn’t all needed today but will be needed by the end of the decade. The cellular carriers will use every spectrum block now to preserve the licenses, but the heavy lifting for most of the spectrum being purchased today will come into play a decade or more from now – the carriers are playing the long game so that they aren’t irrelevant in the not-too-distant future

This doesn’t mean that 5G is a dead-end, and the technology will continue to evolve. Here are a few of the ideas being explored in labs today that will enhance 5G performance a decade from now:

  • Large Massive Network MIMO. This means expanding the density and capacity of cellular antennas to simultaneously be able to handle multiple spectrum bands. We need much better antennas if we are to get vastly greater data volumes into and out of cellular devices. For now, data speeds on cellphones are being limited by the capacity of the antennas.
  • Ultra Dense Networks (UDN). This envisions the end of cell sites in the way we think about them today. This would come first in urban networks where there will be a hyper-dense deployment of small cell devices that would likely also incorporate small cells, WiFi routers, femtocells, and M2M gateways. In such an environment, cellphones can interact with the cloud rather than with a traditional cell site. This eliminates the traditional cellular standard of one cell site controlling a transaction. In a UDN network, a cellular device could connect anywhere.
  • Device-to-Device (D2D) Connectivity. The smart 5G network in the future will let nearby devices communicate with each other without having to pass traffic back and forth to a data hub. This would move some cellular transactions to the edge, and would significantly reduce logjams at data centers and on middle-mile fiber routes.
  • A Machine-to-Machine (M2M) Layer. A huge portion of future web traffic will be communications between devices and the cloud. This research envisions a separate cellular network for such traffic that maximizes M2M communications separately from traffic used by people.
  • Use of AI. Smart networks will be able to shift and react to changing demands and will be able to shuffle and share network resources as needed. For example, if there is a street fair in a neighborhood that is usually vehicle traffic, the network would smartly reconfigure to recognize the changing demand for connectivity.
  • Better Batteries. None of the improvements come along until there are better ‘lifetime’ batteries that can allow devices to use more antennas and process more data.

Wireless marketing folks will be challenged to find ways to describe these future improvements in the 5G network. If the term 6G becomes associated with terabit spectrum, marketers are going to find something other than a ‘G’ term to over-hype the new technologies.