5G and You
The elements of the next fixed wireless technology
Fixed wireless is abuzz with the potentials of 5G technology, which will increase network capacity thousandfold and increase speeds by a factor of ten when compared to current 4G networks. This is especially good news, as current 4G networks are quickly reaching capacity at a time when applications – such as VR, IoT and autonomous driving – are starting to reach the public stage.
However, there’s a catch. The standards for 5G have yet to be set. Current gear that is being marketed as “5G” is simply a best bet as to what these standards are going to be. This means that we are still a few years away from seeing “official 5G,” as dictated by the 3GPP, but there are five emerging technologies that are likely going to influence the development of 5G.
These 5 emerging technologies are Millimeter Waves, Small Cells, Massive MIMO, Beamforming, and Full Duplex.
Current wireless spectrum (typically 3 GHz – 6 GHz) is becoming crowded as more wireless devices come online everyday. As the spectrum becomes more crowded, leading to increased interference, services start to slow down and there’s a higher chance for connections to drop.
In an effort to combat the overcrowding of spectrum, researchers are starting to experiment with shorter millimeter waves (ranging from 30 GHz – 300 GHz). Progress is being made, however this spectrum range has never been used for these applications before. Also, due to the higher frequency of this spectrum, these wavelengths are unable to penetrate walls and have a tendency to be absorbed by trees and rain. To counter this problem researchers have started looking at deploying small cells closer to individuals and abandoning the traditional cell tower model.
To fully utilize millimeter waves, researchers have started deploying small cells. Small cells are miniature base stations that can often be operated with less than a watt of power, and placed within close proximity of one another with minimal interference. In order to prevent a millimeter wave signal from being dropped due to an obstruction, operators could place several small cells in an area and form a dense network that could seamlessly send and receive data from any nearby small cell.
When used in conjunction with millimeter wave technologies these small cells can act as relay points allowing signals to shoot around obstructions while maintaining user connections. In addition these small cells would be equipped with multiple antennas to take advantage of massive MIMO.
An emerging technology that is going to be utilized by the next-generation of small cells is called massive MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output). Current commercial base stations contain around a dozen or so ports for data transfer, but massive MIMO base stations can support around 100 ports per unit. This would massively increase network capacity – up to a factor of 22, according to some experts.
However, today’s signals tend to be broadcast in all directions at once, causing severe interference when using massive MIMO technology. In order to combat this interference experts have started looking at beamforming, which we will cover in the next section.
In simple terms, beamforming is similar to having traffic signals for cellular systems, to prevent data streams from colliding and interfering with one another.
Beamforming technology allows base stations to focus streams of data to specific users, allowing for better outgoing and incoming data streams while minimizing interference. It can do this by tracking the individual signals as they bounce around, then use “signal-processing algorithms” to triangulate and plot the best transmission back through the air to each user device – essentially forming a “beam” of data that flows directly from the base station to the user end.
Many base stations today can’t send and receive data simultaneously over the same frequency due to the interference this causes. Instead, these base stations need to take turns transmitting and receiving data. Alternatively, some base stations are able to transmit data through one frequency and receive it through another, but this isn’t common.
Full Duplex technology would allow base stations the ability to transmit and receive data through the same frequency – potentially doubling the capacity of wireless networks at their physical layer. As mentioned earlier, this is important as 5G networks are going to require increased data capacity with emerging applications. This technology has only recently become available due to silicon transistors which minimize the signal’s interference with itself and the kinks have yet to be figured out, but researchers have high hopes for the future of full duplex technology.
When can we expect 5G?
A definitive date has yet to be set. Some estimate we’re only a year or two away from the first 5G networks, but more conservative speculations put that number at around five years.
However, by taking these five technologies, and others, engineers hope to be able to build the 5G network of the future. Everyday we see new stories about the potential for these networks, with ultra-low latency and record-breaking data speeds. Once the details for the tech’s standards get hammered out by the 3GPP, there’s no saying what applications will emerge. For now we can speculate and watch as the developments continue and new technology is utilized to its potential.