5G cellular technology, which has been promised to provide a connective fabric that will cover the globe in a seamless digital experience, is starting to take shape. But the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 that has forced hundreds of millions of people to work and socialize remotely has made it clear that the connective fabric is still missing a few stitches.
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Once implemented, the long-anticipated 5G experience will be dazzling: smart factories, telemedicine, and augmented reality will be commonplace. Users will have ubiquitous, high-speed connectivity everywhere, whether moving or at rest. “When you have to re-create all of these experiences—from education to health care to transportation to work—you suddenly realize what you’re missing,” said John Roese, president and CTO of products and operations at Dell Technologies. He was speaking at EmTech Next, MIT Technology Review’s three-day virtual event examining technology, leadership, and change, in June. What’s missing, he indicated, is the IT infrastructure that makes it all possible. “5G has been in development for quite some time with a belief that certain capabilities would be necessary. But it wasn’t always clear to people what those capabilities were, and why we needed them. I think in the last 90 days, people have started to realize that there are deficiencies and that technologies like 5G can help solve them.”
Assuming that 5G more or less follows the same 10-year development-to-deployment cycle as the preceding iterations of cellular technology, we are early in the decade. Most services on the market today deliver only mobile broadband. It’s a great start, for sure, but only a whisper of what’s ahead. The true impact of three key 5G features—enhanced mobile broadband, lightning-fast, ultra-reliable communications, and machine-to-machine communication, which provides connections to large numbers of devices with minimal human involvement—is unlikely to be felt until vendors start to bake them into global deployments, a few years ahead at least.
That means while demand for 5G is surging, access to it lags. Yes, mobile phone users can now tap into scattered deployments of 5G in many US cities. And there are narrow deployments of 5G being used to solve specialized tasks, such as supply chain problems and geofencing, which can be used to keep autonomous vehicles corralled in specific geographic areas. But “we’re probably three years away” from worldwide adoption of 5G, said Roese.
The need for 5G has been amplified in recent months, during the pandemic. “Never has the importance of connectivity been more apparent than now,” Andrea Goldsmith, the recently appointed dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science at Princeton University, told EmTech Next attendees. “The fact that our networks actually were able to support us going online and everything we do, from our education to our workplace to our socialization. And yet, it’s also really revealed the digital divide and the fact that there’s many people that don’t have that kind of connectivity. And that puts them at a severe disadvantage.”
So, what will this 5G connective fabric look like when it’s all stitched up? A loose-fitting garment.
Because 5G technology can now be cloud orchestrated—that is, use software-defined principles to manage the interconnections and interactions among workloads on public and private cloud infrastructure—the behavior of the 5G network can be changed to accommodate specific applications for specific uses. Roese shared a dramatic example of this by describing a telehealth scenario in which suspected stroke victims could be diagnosed and receive initial treatment while en route to the hospital. This would be accomplished by using the continuous collection and streaming of patient data. “In order to do that, a whole bunch of conditions had to be true,” said Roese. “You had to push the code out to an edge, so it can operate in real time. You had to execute a network slice to guarantee the bandwidth and give this a priority service.” If such allocation were done manually, it might take three hours or more to reconfigure the network.
One thing that makes mobile triage possible is strength at the edge of the cellular network. That is also crucial for innovation—as well as for the average 5G user. “What that means is you’re walking around in a city and if you constantly get 100-to-200 megabits per second, the peak rates might be five-to-10 gigabits per second,” Durga Malladi, senior vice president of engineering at Qualcomm, told EmTech Next attendees. “But if you’re guaranteed 100-to-200 megabits per second, and on an average, maybe a gigabit per second, that transforms the way that you end up using your devices and enables new kinds of devices.”
There are other opportunities for seamless coverage emerging as 5G and Wi-Fi converge. This is particularly true since the 2019 introduction of Wi-Fi 6, the latest standard for the wireless networking technology. Consider this example given at EmTech Next by John Apostolopoulos, vice president and CTO in Cisco’s Enterprise Networking Business: A business executive starts a typical day at home checking email or news headlines on a mobile device, which connects to a Wi-Fi network. As she drives to work, the device switches to cellular 5G. At work, it goes back to Wi-Fi, and at lunch, 5G again. “So, what happens is that these devices, since they have both Wi-Fi and 5G, can determine which is the best network to use at any point in time. And they choose that based on optimizing application performance as well as minimizing cost,” Apostolopoulos said.
Other promises of 5G may take longer to fulfill. For the connective 5G fabric to be seamless, it will need to accommodate increasingly high-speed data, very low latency, and the hundreds of millions of low-energy devices that connect to the internet of things. That will happen, but it won’t be easy. “We need a much more heterogeneous network that can support applications that today’s—even the design of 5G network—isn’t able to do,” said Goldsmith. “I would argue that we haven’t got any of those nailed in the current generation of 5G.”