Building a smarter net for 5G: a progress report

Måns Nilsson

Cisco Systems predicts that over 50 billion devices will soon be connected. Together, these 50 billion gadgets form the Internet of Things (IoT). And IoT is playing a key role in data transmission’s next big breakthrough: 5G.


Thomas Björklund is Head of Technology Strategy and Architecture at Tele2 and 5G technical manager.

Up until now, mobile networks have been the sole concern of the telecommunications and IT industries. But the upcoming fifth generation of the net isn’t just version 2.0 of 4G. The complexity of the planned 5G system is creating opportunities that a string of other industries – including automotive and manufacturing, healthcare, transport and energy – have woken up to, with many players wanting to become involved and to steer development.

“4G was the evolution of 3G: better, but not revolutionary,” says Thomas Björklund, who is Head of Technology Strategy and Architecture at Tele2 and 5G technical manager.”5G, on the other hand, is all about what will drive future use and finding new application areas for mobile networks. User benefits are now much more of a central focus.”

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5G: The telecommunication industry’s requirements

Björklund’s duties include sitting on the board of the Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance, the global interest group for telecommunication companies.
“Tele2’s role in the development of 5G within the context of the NGMN is to work on the requirements for 5G by cooperating with colleagues within the industry to formulate technical requirements, cost requirements, and what we want to get out of 5G,” says Björklund. “So, it’s our hopes for how 5G will work, and we’ll then have to see what’s possible to achieve and in what time frames. Most things are possible, but we need to prioritise.”
One of the hopes with 5G is that it will open up new business opportunities, potentially, for all industries, and that it will provide the end customers – ordinary people – with a significantly better experience. User behaviour is developing at a furious pace, increasing the requirements for capacity and data transmission. 5G is the key to meeting these demands for efficiency, new possibilities, and reduced costs.
Reducing these developments down to a simple “5G is about this and this” statement is just not possible. NGMN’s 5G white paper (you can download it here) contains the working group’s conclusions and a string of use cases, providing a broad overview of the opportunities and challenges, and the telecommunication industry’s expectations.

The Tactile Internet, possible with 5G

One of the focus areas is IoT and Machine to Machine (M2M) connectivity. This technology doesn’t work optimally with 4G (“dismally”, to quote Thomas Björklund). A new and better-adapted net is a precondition if the M2M and IoT forecast of 50 billion connected devices coming soon, is to become a reality.
“M2M is an important part of the discussions around 5G,” says Björklund “Cloud transition and time to market will go much, much faster than today. These are things that are actually going to change the world.”
By way of example, he nominates the Tactile Internet – remotely controlled operations within industry, mining, healthcare, and so on. The technology has been talked about for a long time, but due to the limitations of 4G, the Tactile Internet has up until now been a theoretical idea rather than a practical possibility. With 5G, on the other hand, it becomes completely possible.

”The net will understand how much is needed, and when.”

A radical difference between 4G och 5G is that 5G requires a significantly smarter net, one that understands when a certain application demands extreme latency or bandwidth, while another application doesn’t have this need.
“Everyone needs their own unique part of the net, a net that needs to be able to analyse traffic and discern what kind of application is being used in a given moment,” says Björklund. “This is what ‘network slicing’ is all about: the web understanding how much capacity is needed and when, and which applications can still work perfectly well on 2G, 3G och 4G.”

More data – lots more

It’s not entirely surprising then that 5G means that Tele2 and all other players in the telecommunications industry need to be able to deliver more data – a lot more. However, it’s currently unclear whether the current need can be expanded or whether a whole new net needs to be built. According to Björklund, there will be further development of 4G’s radius, but 5G is based more on service platforms and the cloud.
A year ago, Joachim Horn, Tele2’s then Group CTIO told Better Business that we could expect the roll-out of the new technology within five to six years.
“We think that 2020 is realistic, but the most important thing is that we industry players don’t rush ourselves into launching something prematurely,” Horn said. “I also don’t think that we’re going to see a Big-Bang effect with 5G. Instead, the transition from 4G will happen gradually.”
Thomas Björklund says that that prediction remains true, although perhaps with a slight backward adjustment in terms of the timing.
“We now expect to see the first versions beginning to be used during 2020, but the wide scale roll-out probably won’t happen until 2022,” he says. ”Tele2 is planning to be among the first ones to apply the new technology, but obviously business considerations will dictate the final decision. The schedule can change and it’s still to early to promise anything.”

Facts: Just how quick is 5G?

Speeds of 1000 Tbps have been reached in the test environments, and, according to researchers, these should be possible achievable in the long term.

“That’s a bit of a geek fact that’s probably difficult for most people to relate to. But there are already concrete examples of how we believe 5G will improve more day-to-day events,” says Björklund. He points to:

  • Streaming services such as Netflix: about 10 times quicker on 5G compared to 4G
  • Latency (response time or delay): About 10 times shorter
  • Edge (the technology for transmission in difficult areas, such as sparsely populated regions): about 100 times faster
  • Mobility (the speed at which one can move without losing contact with the net): about 1.5 times better, which means that it can be maintained even on fast trains
  • Connection density (the number of connected devices that can share an area): at least 100 times more devices.
  • Battery time (5G net won’t suck all the battery power from devices): ”This is important and we have discussed it a lot,” says Björklund. “We have generally said that battery time will be around 10 times better than today for every device.”