Resolving the 5G paradox

Imagining the unknown seems hard enough, but designing for it is surely impossible. Keith Dyer takes on the industry's 5G doublethink.

5g-snipping-1It has become a cliche to say that for the 5G network developers are designing a network to enable users to do such things that we haven’t
thought of yet. Although we are designing for a future that we cannot imagine yet, we must somehow make a structure that can support the unimaginable. One way of looking at this is to express the view that 5G must not only be the next network, but in some senses be the last G — in that it must be able to meet future use cases out to 2035 — perhaps further.

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To date, this attempt at futureproofing and imagining the unimaginable has been expressed mostly in terms of a set of KPIs that the network must deliver. If we state specifications that are so close to the physical maximum, then surely there cannot be a use case that can go unmet, right? Again, this list of specs has become the stuff of cliche — the sub milisecond latency, the support for ultra-density of devices, support for huge non-uniformity in device types, the massive 10-120Gbps throughput, near-100% ubiquity and availability, 90% increase in energy efficiency.

All this must be delivered through a single network platform, or as near as possible, and so to support these KPIs has risen a supporting cast of technologies. These include a new unified control plane and SDN, network slicing taking advantage of NFV, automation and mass analytics to create a self-aware network, perhaps even a new protocol going beyond IP to something Information-centric or code-based (rather than label-based).

Because what the 5G debate is losing sight of, and it’s a strange paradox when so much prestige, so many research dollars, so much future stock market value is at stake, is this question: what is 5G for?

Of course with human-IoT interaction and the like we will need a new security and trust architecture. These technical building blocks will then be stacked to build something completely different — with cloud-based virtual elements distributed according to need and use case — something that is really a new network architecture.

And as we build this future, here come the technical milestones: new waveforms to enhance or supplant LTE’s OFDM, massive MIMO, MU-MIMO and beam-forming move up in orders of magnitude as 64 and 128 element arrays emerge blinking out of the lab. Increasingly wide bandwidths are supported at the radio to enable massive carrier aggregation and combinations of licensed and unlicensed spectrum. Virtualised instances of network functions, controllers and orchestrators, platforms to enable masively dense small cell deployments, Mobile Edge and cloud computing proofs of concept, are tangible — albeit often virtual — technical milestones we can tick off.

And as the pressure builds, and certain network operators say they now want standards set in early 2018, or even late 2017, so that they can get cracking and build this thing, the sense that we don’t know what it is for yet gets punted further and further back in our minds. See the shining city on the hill, marvel at the newly minted materials and self-cleaning windows, but don’t ask who is going to live there.

Because what the 5G debate is losing sight of, and it’s a strange paradox when so much prestige, so many research dollars, so much future stock market value is at stake, is this question: what is 5G for?

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