Few technologies have been subject to as much hyperbole as 5G during a near-decade of development. However, even a conservative view is that next-generation networks are set to revolutionise the way we live, work and play.
Every generational shift in mobile technology has delivered performance enhancements and 5G is no different in that it offers superior speed and capacity than 4G.
What is truly revolutionary about 5G is that networks have been completely rearchitected to support a new range of applications – including the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT).
All four major UK mobile operators have now launched commercial 5G networks, offering 5G mobile data services to consumers and businesses. Although these networks use new 5G radio technologies, they are still powered by the same underlying infrastructure and core layers (the part of the network that processes data) as 4G. This is known as ‘Non-Standalone’ (NSA) 5G.
The arrival of a new standard later this year will enable the rollout of ‘Standalone’ (SA) 5G that paves the way for a new wave of business applications that are dependent on greater capacity and ultra-low latency.
To prepare for the arrival of SA 5G, mobile operators have virtualised the core layer of their networks using cloud technologies. Virtualisation allows network functions to be moved away from a centralised data centre and closer to the edge, significantly reducing the time it takes to transmit data across a network.
Simultaneously, the deployment of high-level spectrum and the densification of networks with micro infrastructure such as small cells will greatly increase capacity. These characteristics will deliver the reliability and capabilities required for mobile networks to support mission critical applications for the first time.
Essentially SA 5G will be able to provide the latency and speed of a wired connection with the added flexibility of wireless. 5G will deliver gigabit speeds, reliability of up to 99.9999%, millisecond latency, and the capacity to support one million devices per square kilometre. Network slicing also makes it possible to guarantee a certain level of throughput for certain applications.
A whole host of industries will be transformed through technologies like the IIoT, Virtual Reality (VR), and new productivity tools. The arrival of 5G connectivity is predicted to increase annual UK business revenues by up to £15.7 billion by 2025, according to a report by Barclays. By 2035, it is thought that 5G networks will have contributed $3.6 trillion (£3.1 trillion) to the global economy.
Most businesses that adopt 5G will use public networks to power their applications. However larger businesses and enterprise will look toward private 5G deployments that allow for a greater degree of control. Although it is already possible to build a private LTE network using unlicensed frequencies such as 5GHz, adoption has been limited.
The capabilities of 5G will make private wireless networks a more effective and achievable connectivity solution as businesses continue with their digitisation strategies.
Private 5G networks can be optimised to the specific needs of a user, application or location, and allow the owner to determine the coverage area, construction speed, and maintenance schedule. Such optimisation ability is complemented by the use of dedicated spectrum, which can either be licensed or unlicensed.
A business can either purchase its own infrastructure and work with an operator partner, or it can build and maintain its own network with dedicated spectrum. Major network equipment providers such as Ericsson, Huawei and Nokia all have product roadmaps in place to meet this demand.
Governments also recognise the potential of private 5G. Many regulators are adopting a more flexible approach to licensing and are reserving shared spectrum that can be used on a local basis for individual deployments.
Deloitte expects more than 100 firms will have tested private 5G deployments by the end of 2020 and anticipates that hundreds of millions will be invested in the coming years. By 2024, the value of this will have reached tens of billions of pounds each year.
The IIoT will account for a significant proportion of these investments given 5G’s ability to enable potentially millions of devices to speak to one another in real time. Logistics, utilities and manufacturing have all been touted as areas for growth with smart ports being one of the most developed early use cases for 5G.
The most notable trials of private networks are taking place in Germany, where auto manufacturers are teaming with equipment vendors and other members of the supply chain to test 5G in factories, assembly plants and test centres.
Cloud adoption is essential if the full potential of private cellular networks is to be realised. The greater capacity of 5G will mean thousands of devices will speak to one another and generate millions of data points that must be processed in real-time.
Organisations that choose to operate their own hardware in a private 5G deployment will be able to process some of this data on-site, but nearly all will rely on public cloud platforms like Microsoft Azure.
The public cloud not only provides the compute and storage required to manage huge quantities of information. The cloud also gives organisations access to new innovations such as dedicated IoT services, and edge computing that processes data as close to the point of collection as possible. This speed is essential not just for IoT, but also for other latency-sensitive applications like robotics and VR.
When it comes to digitisation and the IoT, enterprises have had to choose between power and capacity of Ethernet, the reliability and flexibility of Wi-Fi, or the convenience of cellular. The combination of cloud technology and private 5G infrastructure combines the best of all worlds into a single standard that eliminates the need for compromise.
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Private 5G allows businesses to control the construction, scale, and characteristics of connectivity of cellular networks, paving the way for massive IoT deployments. The cloud will be an essential tool in delivering this digital reality.