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.

Machine Generated Broadband

One of the more interesting predictions in the latest Cisco annual internet forecast is that there will be more machine-to-machine (M2M) connections on the Internet by 2021 than there are people using smartphones, desktops, laptops and tablets.

Today there are a little over 11 billion human-used machines connected to the Internet. That number is growing steadily and Cisco predicts that by 2021 there will be over 13 billion such devices using the Internet. That prediction also assumes that total users on the internet will grow from a worldwide 44% broadband penetration in 2016 to a 58% worldwide penetration of people that have connectivity to the Internet by 2021.

But the use of M2M devices is expected to grow a lot faster. There are fewer than 6 billion such devices in use today and Cisco is projecting that will grow to nearly 14 billion by 2021.

So what is machine-to-machine communication? Broadly speaking it is any technology that allows networked devices to exchange information and perform actions without assistance from humans. This encompasses a huge range of different devices including:

  • Cloud data center. When something is stored in the cloud, most cloud services create duplicate copies of data at multiple data centers to protect against a failure at any given data center. While this does not represent a huge number of devices when measured on the scale of billions, the volume of traffic between data centers is gigantic.
  • Telemetry. Telemetry has been around since before the Internet. Telemetry includes devices that monitor and transmit operational data from field locations of businesses, with the most common examples being devices that monitor the performance of electric networks and water systems. But the devices used for telemetry will grow rapidly as our existing utility grids are upgraded to become smart grids and when telemetry is used by farmers to monitor crops and animals, used to monitor wind and solar farms, and used to monitor wildlife and many other things in the environment.
  • Home Internet of Things. Much of the growth of devices will come from an explosion of devices used for the Internet of Things. In the consumer market that will include all of the smart devices we put into homes such as burglar alarms, cameras, smart door locks and smart appliances of many kinds.
  • Business IoT. There is expected to be an even greater proliferation of IoT devices for businesses. For example, modern factories that include robots are expected to have numerous devices that monitor and direct the performance of machines. Hospitals are expected to replace wires with wireless networked devices used to monitor patients. Retail stores are all investigating devices that track customers through the store to assist in shopping and to offer inducements to purchase.
  • Smart Cars and Trucks. By 2021 it’s expected that most new cars and trucks will routinely communicate with the Internet. This does not necessarily imply self-driving vehicles, but rather that all new vehicles will have M2M capabilities.
  • Smart Cities. A number of large cities are looking to improve living conditions using smart city technologies. This is going to require the deployment of huge numbers of sensors that will be used to improve things like traffic flow, monitoring for crimes and improvement everyday things like garbage collection and snow removal.
  • Wearables. Today there are huge numbers of fitness monitors, but it’s expected that it will become routine for people to wear health monitors of various types that keep track of vital statistics and monitor to catch problems at an early stage.
  • Gray Areas. There are also a lot of machine-to-machine communications that come from computers, laptops and smartphones. I see that my phone uses data even at those times when I’m not using it. Our devices now query the cloud to look for updates, to make back-ups of our data or to take care of other tasks that our apps do in the background without our knowledge or active participation.

Of course, having more machine-to-machine devices doesn’t mean that this traffic will grow to dominate web traffic. Cisco predicts that by 2021 that 83% of the traffic on the web will be video of some sort. While most of that video will be used for entertainment, it will also include huge piles of broadband usage for surveillance cameras and other video sources.

If you are interested in M2M developments I recommend M2M: Machine2Machine Magazine. This magazine contains hundreds of articles on the various fields of M2M communications.

The Ever-Growing Internet

The InternetI spent some time recently looking through several of Cisco’s periodic predictions about the future of the Internet. What is most fascinating is that they are predicting continuing rapid growth for almost every kind of Internet traffic. This is certainly a warning to all network owners – a lot more bandwidth usage will be coming your way.

Cisco predicts that total worldwide Internet usage will grow from 72 Exabytes (an Exabyte being one billion Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 168 Exabytes per month in 2019. That’s an astounding 33% growth per year. They published a short chart of the history of global Internet bandwidth which is eye-popping. Following are some historical and predicted statistics of worldwide bandwidth usage:

  • 1992 100 GB per day
  • 1997 100 GB per hour
  • 2002 100 GB per second
  • 2007 2,000 GB per second
  • 2014 16,144 GB per second
  • 2019 51,794 GB per second

We know that the current bandwidth usage on the Internet has been driven by an explosion of residential video consumption. Cisco predicts that video will keep growing at a rapid pace. They predict that video bandwidth worldwide will grow from 40 Exabytes per month in 2015 to 140 Exabytes per month in 2019, an increase of 37% per year. Those volumes include all kinds of IP video including Netflix type services, IP Video on Demand, video files exchanged through file sharing, video-streamed gaming, and videoconferencing.

Perhaps the fastest growing segment of the Internet is Machine-to-Machine traffic. Cisco predicts M2M traffic will grow from 0.5 Petabytes (a Petabyte is 1 million Gigabytes) per month in 2015 to 4.6 Petabytes per month in 2019, an astounding 210% annual increase. The Internet has always had a core of M2M traffic as the devices that run the web communicate with each other. But all of the billions of devices we are now adding to the web annually also do some coordination. This can vary from the big bandwidth uses like smart cars to a smartphone or PC that is checking to see if it has the latest version of a software update.

Cisco also predicts that Internet speeds will get faster. For example, for North America they predict that from 2014 to 2019 the percentage of homes that can buy data speeds faster than 10 Mbps will grow from 58% to 74%, those that buy speeds greater than 25 Mbps will grow 33% to 45% and those that buy data speeds faster than 100 Mbps will grow from 2% to 8%.

They aren’t quite as rosy for cellular data speeds. They predict that North American speeds will grow from an average of 3 Mbps in 2015 to 6.4 Mbps in 2019. But they show that mobile devices now carry the majority of the data traffic worldwide. In 2014 mobile devices carried 54% of worldwide data traffic and by 2019 they predict that mobile devices will carry about 67% of worldwide traffic. It’s important to remember that outside of the US and Europe that mobile devices are the predominant gateway to broadband usage. Cisco also shows that the vast majority of mobile device traffic use WiFi rather than cellular networks.

Perhaps the statistic that matters most to network engineers is that busy hour traffic (the busiest 60-minute period of the day) is growing about 5% faster per year than the growth of average traffic. ISPs need to buy capacity to handle the busy hour and the demands of video traffic are increasingly coming in the busiest hours.

Cisco shows that the volumes of metro traffic (traffic that stays within a region) already passed long-haul traffic in 2014, and by 2019 they predict that 66% of all web traffic will be metro traffic.