From Smart Phones to … Social Everything

Take a moment to look back at the changes in your life in the past couple of decades. They began when we started making personal calls from anywhere. Some time later, we further simplified our lives by replacing our CDs, tickets, cameras, and calculators with one single device in our pockets. Today, the “phone” component of the “smartphone” is only one of its many uses, and is in fact receding in
importance. The speed and depth at which our lives have become immersed in digitalization in such a short time – and that continue to accelerate – are closely tied to the evolution of telecommunications. In the 1990s, 2G (GSM) gave us voice service and text messages. In the first decade of the new millennium, 3G systems (UMTS/CDMA) and the first mobile broadband appeared, opening access to the Internet. Now, in the middle of the 2010s, 4G (LTE) is taken for granted as users freely make use of fast data transmission rates and video streaming. User demands, hunger for ever more bandwidth, and society’s dependence on 99.999% availability of digital services are on the rise. Interest from commercial and government spheres in improving orchestration within entities and across the boundaries of individual businesses, processes, and stakeholders is equally keen. The quest for convenience and productivity is powered by ever more extensive digitalization, in turn requiring more and more objects to be interconnected within a tightly woven and comprehensive network: the Internet of Things. Although isolated and separate use cases can be realized on current networks such as 4G, no one technology is capable of handling such tremendous volume and diversity. Evolution is not a choice – it is a necessity. The communications community (network operators and suppliers, for the most part), supported by government bodies such as the EU Commission, is already at work on 5G, the next step in the progression. 

What is 5G, Anyway?

Many standardization institutes, telco operators, and vendors expect 5G to meet certain minimum requirements:

  • “Faster”: 10- to 100-fold acceleration of data transmission rates (up to 10 gigabits per second)
  • “Real time”: reduction of latency by factors between 5 and 10 (< 1 ms)
  • “Internet of Things”: 10 to 100 times as many connected devices as when using 4G
  • “Capacity boost”: 1000 times more mobile data volume
  • “Internet of Things”: battery life extended by a factor of 10 (at low power)

These high demands are, of course, a reflection of what 5G is technically capable of achieving and the extent to which it outperforms 3G and 4G systems, but there is even more behind this technology. The design of 5G will not be limited simply to providing connectivity; it will be business driven and called upon to meet various technical and business requirements so that it can provide “network as a service” to all customers, whether industries or private individuals. Types and number of services, especially in mobile broadband, are increasing rapidly. Their demands on networks entail various combinations of high data transmission rates, low latency, and similar factors. The design philosophy behind “one network for all” of 4G and its cousins struggles to handle this kind of load. In pursuit of the vision of transformation into “one network for one service”, 5G will be designed with special emphasis on these features:

  • Flexibility in the allocation of resources, functions, even topology
  • Backward compatibility to systems such as 4G, WiFi, etc.
  • Scalability for the support of enormous interconnectivity of machines
  • Integrated systems of “secure connectivity between applications over secure networks” for privacy, authentication, etc.
  • Interoperability for various operators – (third-party) vendors, etc.

General opinion at this time is that the commercial launch of 5G will take place in 2020 or thereabouts and its widespread deployment will be realized over the following 10 years. Several network operators, however, have plans to implement a 5G pre-release before 2020 for the support of special events such as the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games or in a bid to secure technological leadership. The further discussion in this article will focus on model use cases rather than on an in-depth examination of technical options. A number of different scenarios, the business potential, and technical requirements will be considered as a means of demonstrating the capabilities inherent in 5G and the challenges that will be facing telco operators in particular.

5G-Enabled Use Cases

Diversity is a Challenge

In our modern world, mobile access to the Internet has become essential for doing business – within and between industries and not only with the traditional (customer) base. One gradual process involves the growing number of machines with connections to networks so that they can perform their envisioned tasks more efficiently. The Internet of Things (IoT) is one of the most powerful drivers behind the development and dissemination of a new generation of communication technologies. Any number of use cases that justify a next generation mobile communications system can be determined even now. They are sure to multiply, and the accompanying scenarios will make more diversified demands on the system if connectivity and coverage are to be provided for all of these machines and sensors. The various key factors driving the 5G implementation have been the subject of debate in the telecom industry as it strives to cope with the issues arising from this ongoing phase of transformation. The broad concept of the IoT – autonomous and ubiquitous communication between devices that does not require direct human supervision – is regarded as a source of huge potential. It is characterized by explosive expansion with respect to the number of connected devices, high demands on reliability and availability, and an enormous range in bandwidth needs – from low to extremely fast data transmission rates – according to the specific application scenario. Some of the use cases can nominally be handled by legacy networks as far as data transmission rates, mobility, and similar factors are concerned. Nominally in this context means coverage of the specific use case, which does not necessarily hold true when separate use cases are combined into a more complex application scenario. In contrast, other use cases involve extraordinary requirements that exceed the capabilities of existing networks and cannot be realized without raising the bar.

5G Promise I: Ultra-Low Latency

Use Case “Autonomous Cars”

Autonomous car applications enable vehicles to communicate with the outside world, connecting them to a network that includes a traffic management system. One of the benefits of these applications is the reduction of the potential for human error while traveling at higher speeds. Lags in the provision of information plus command response times that are close to zero are determinant factors for safe operation. Under optimal conditions, 4G requires around 20 milliseconds for a car to communicate with another car that has initiated emergency braking. This latency must be reduced to just a few milliseconds if a reasonable level of security buffer is to be assured. In addition to the resolution of this latency issue, the highest possible degree of reliability is indispensable for these applications to become viable for the performance of autonomous vehicle tasks. Such demands in turn can be met only by full-road network coverage, mechanisms that minimize the impact of malfunctions in network components, and the assurance that the required capacities will be provided regardless of the loads placed on the networks by other applications. Current 4G networks do not come even close to satisfying these requirements. As development moves through the stages of assisted, automated, and autonomous driving, the key end user benefits are convenience (and ultimately more effective use of our time), safety, and the satisfaction of engaging in more environmentally friendly action. We foresee tremendous business potential being generated by the widely anticipated benefits arising from the even broader scale of smart traffic and smart cities where autonomous driving is only one of the many solutions in play, leading to greater safety, better utilization of traffic infrastructure capacities (i.e., mega city streets and parking areas), and reduced pollution.

Use Case “Virtual Reality Gaming”

Tactile interaction based on the processing of multi-sensor and gesture-tracking input will generate an astonishingly fast user experience. Observers predict this will be the main driver for future mobile multimedia applications such as augmented and virtual reality gaming, fulfilling an ambitious maximum lag of five to ten milliseconds or even lower latency levels. Augmented reality superimposes information such as walking directions, product prices, or the names of acquaintances over our view of the real world, projecting data onto surfaces such as a car windshield. Virtual reality, on the other hand, creates an entirely artificial view. Neither of these applications can function, however, unless they can access new data almost instantaneously. Meeting the dual requirement of low latency coupled with high bandwidth will be a challenge for 4G networks, especially when the pertinent applications find widespread use in millions of homes, shops, and offices. Since the visualization and information capabilities of VR appeal equally to marketers and consumers, we expect a high acceptance rate and demand curve for these services.

5G Promise II: Extremely Fast Data Transmission Rates

Use Case “Telepresence in Health Care”

While this use case initially comes from the health care sector, it has inherent potential for expansion to applications involving wearable technologies. One such example concerns a robot surgical system. This device generally consists of one or more arms (controlled by the surgeon), a master controller (console), and a sensory system sending feedback to the user. An operation can be performed by a robot that is remotely controlled by a surgeon at another location, for instance. In this way, the expertise of specialist surgeons can be made available to patients anywhere in the world without the latter having to travel beyond their local hospital. An application of this type requires incredibly low latency and minimum data transmission rates of one Gbit/s. The demands on availability and reliability are obvious.

Use Case “Virtual Reality Office”

Today’s mobile communication systems provide a reasonable mobile broadband experience – provided there is no data traffic congestion. One example of such a scenario is the Virtual Reality Office explored during the 5G project METIS in the EU FP7 program. Colleagues working at different locations are able to collaborate remotely and work interactively by exchanging high-resolution 3-D images requiring gigabytes and gigabytes of data. Video chats are an integral part of such an application scenario. Supporting this type of use case and creating a satisfactory end-user experience call for data transmission rates of at least one to five Gbit/s during busy periods. Moreover, network capacity must be able to accommodate connectivity and devices for the number of employees at any one location.

5G Promise III: Innumerable Connections

The majority of use cases, whether in the consumer or industry segment, have generally focused on the requirements for latency and data throughput that future mobile communication technologies will need to meet. Yet there are also visions of new use cases based on innovative types of M2M (machine-tomachine) and person-to-machine communication (hyperconnectivity and the Internet of Things) with real-time constraints featuring new functions for traffic safety, traffic efficiency, or mission-critical control (especially in industrial uses). Such advanced applications, however, encompass a tremendous range of requirements in comparison with today’s communications systems that go far beyond higher data throughput and lower latency. They open the door to convergence of many aspects such as complementary fixed network integration, IT platforms, and device ecosystems so that network reliability, redundancy, and the capacity to serve many more devices simultaneously can be assured.

The “Smart City” concept illustrates this requirement perfectly. Its realization is dependent on unprecedented communication and interaction among an infinite variety of devices, platforms, and regulations. Street lighting, video surveillance, public information displays, traffic control, access control, access charges, traffic information, and parking meters are only a few of the many aspects that must be included, not to mention all of the people traveling on the various transportation networks. Systems already in use today like Singapore’s ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) concentrate primarily on a single aspect of congestion management to the exclusion of all others, and even though this example is being extended by the addition of parking systems, it is still far removed from being able to handle the requirements of smart multi-purpose management of a city’s infrastructure and its users. Daily operations in a modern seaport are nearly as complex. Every 24 hours, tens of thousands of containers, dozens of ships, hundreds of trains, thousands of trucks, and tens of thousands of people must be coordinated. Connectivity will contribute to increasing capacity of the infrastructure and to reducing idle times and pollution.


5G will have a significant impact on consumers and industries from the year 2020 on. It will support enhanced mobile broadband with ultra-reliable and low-latency communication and connect 50 billion devices via the IoT. Some of the envisioned functions are clearly beyond the capabilities of today’s mobile networks. The challenge for the architectural design of the network is not limited to the diversity of demand and use cases; the architecture will directly determine the probability of some use cases ever seeing the light of day. A clear objective for network operators must be to ensure the supply of higher bandwidth to their customers. Yet these are relatively minor challenges in comparison with the smart city use case that will require the alignment of many disparate parties and divergent interests, while some of the positive effects (i.e., reduction of pollution) must be resolutely pushed from the political side. While the initial implementation of 5G end-2-end architecture will not be available until 2017 and full commercial launch is not expected until 2020, all stakeholders must begin working now to determine what commercial and technological strategy they will pursue with 5G in the next five to ten years, taking these steps:

  • Conduct of detailed market research, definition of use cases and commercial requirements
  • Creation of a commercial or business model, including partnering on a local and global scale
  • Understanding of 5G architecture enablers, e.g. network slicing, virtualization
  • Preparation for integration or migration that is not limited to the technological point of view, but encompasses as well the perspectives of organization, processes, etc.
  • Preparation of cost framework analyses, e.g. top-down or bottom-up approaches
  • Development of a reasonable financial model that can simulate various scenarios


Clemens Aumann and Claus Essmann are Associate Partner at Detecon

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