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5G Beyond the Hype: A Gentle Introduction to 5G

Marcus Burton Architect, Cloud Technology Published 16 Apr 2021

Introduction

Around every corner of telecom marketing are shimmering glimpses of a future made right by 5G—promises to address density, latency, and speed requirements for devices and applications in public, private, and hybrid use cases brought along by telcos, service providers (SPs), and enterprises. It all sounds great; maybe a little too great. And very dizzying.

I sat down to write up a five-part 5G series where we go in depth to break down 5G’s strengths, weaknesses, and real-world applications. But as I started writing, it occurred to me that 5G is laden with hype, jargon, history, and misconceptions that impede comprehension.

If we have any chance of thinking critically about what 5G is and what it is not, we first need to square up some of the basics and lay a foundation. So, consider this article the warm-up lap before the main event, part one in a five-part series. Some readers do not need the warm-up, and if that’s you, skip it. But if 5G is a foggy mystery to you, let’s prime the pump. In the 5G blogs that follow, we’ll dive deeper in.

5G is a Beast

The best place to start with 5G is to acknowledge its enormity. It is a broad and deep set of market dynamics, technologies, and use cases that collectively make a monster. Figure 1 is my depiction of the 5G topic set in its broad array, and it’s still not exhaustive. We could easily write a full whitepaper on each of these topics alone; well, I couldn’t. But I’m sure someone smart could. This series won’t cover them all. Instead, this series aims to help those of us that are not cellular experts to understand the jargon and contextualize all the multiplicity that makes up 5G, especially in an enterprise context.

5G topic set in its broad array Figure 1

 

Some Architecture Warm-Up

At the highest level, you can break cellular networks down into a few parts: radio, core, transport, and management, as shown in Figure 2.

 radio, core, transport, and management
Figure 2

The radio layer of the network is what makes the wireless stuff happen between a mobile device and the cell tower. This layer is called the radio access network, or RAN. For Wi-Fi folks, the RAN is basically the cellular access point. The cellular RAN is more complex, usually split between several independent “boxes,” but it covers the same fundamental functions as an access point: allowing the client device to connect wirelessly for network access. RAN equipment is installed mostly at the tower or on a building rooftop in a standard cellular network. It includes the antennas, RF cabling, radio transceivers, baseband processors, and other nerdy stuff you might care about if you’re an electrical engineer.  

But, as with all wireless networks, it takes a lot of additional functionality to make RF communications actually work; the core provides this extra backend layer. The core layer is all the network operation stuff that happens beyond the tower in a cellular company’s local or centralized datacenter. The core has a handful of primary functions like authenticating users, managing user sessions, passing data back and forth from the user to the Internet, enforcing service policies, measuring usage, and, very importantly, billing. I want to jab my cellular company a bit about billing, but public relations (PR) advised against it. 

Then of course there’s the transport layer (fronthaul, midhaul, backhaul) that serves as a network interconnection between radio and core components. There are many ways to disaggregate and implement RAN and core services across sites and datacenters, and networks must connect them. And then the management layer is where all this stuff is configured, monitored, supported, and integrated with business systems (like billing!). The entire management layer is known as an operations support system (OSS) and business support system (BSS), or OSS/BSS.   

What’s the Big Deal

So why is 5G such a big deal? Well, it is, and it isn’t. To quote Napoleon Dynamite1, “there’s like a buttload of gangs” hyping 5G, which is part of the reason it’s such a big deal. Everyone knows there’s money on the table, no one wants to miss the spend cycle, the topic trends, and 5G gets pulled into a funnel of circular reinforcement. Is the hype excessive? Absolutely. And I will defend this point throughout this series.

But in fairness, 5G is also huge because it comes at a historical intersection. Over 5 billion people connect to the Internet via cellular today. Most of that connectivity is via 3G or 4G (LTE); consider for a moment that 3G is a pre-iPhone technology while 4G development happened mainly during the early emergence of the iPhone. Since then, software tools, cloud, big data, AI, robotics, IoT, and mobile apps have radically shifted our digital world. In contrast, cellular models have, for the most part, not changed. Major shifts are on the horizon in the 2020s as well. To that end, a major cellular technology refresh stands to catch up to new application and business requirements, which will open up new doors for the future of connectivity. And this means big spend.    

Some Terms and Concepts

To grapple with the realities of 5G technology and its newly opened doors, let’s cover some 5G glossary terms.

5G introduces a load of new technologies in the radio layer, some big, some small. With these new technologies, 5G needed a sweet brand refresh, so the new 5G radio technologies are called new radio (NR). Very clever, right?! NR is basically just RAN for 5G.

One very popular aspect of 5G NR (look, we’re jargoning) is millimeter wave (mmWave), which has a lot of potential to boost speeds. mmWave refers to the physical size of radio waveforms, but we use the term to refer to a range of wireless frequencies that have millimeter wave characteristics. So 5G mmWave just means cellular is using new sets of radio spectrum for wireless communication, which comes with pros and cons (we’ll break this down later in the series). However, keep in mind that NR is much more than just mmWave, and you can still have NR without mmWave.  

5G also has a bunch of acronyms to describe its broad groupings of use cases. If you see the terms eMBB, URLLC, and mMTC, those are just the three general groups of applications that 5G is supposed to address—making broadband better, delivering more reliable services, and helping IoT along. We’ll tackle this stuff in our first “real” article (since this is our warm-up).

One more important note here is that we all think of 5G in a specific way because we’re cellular users. We pay a monthly bill (that sore topic again), which allows us to text, shop, surf, consume the Internet, and receive spam calls from solicitors while staying mobile. But cellular providers also have their eye on a couple of expanded interests in 5G. Here are a few:

  • Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) – this just means using cellular as an Internet connection at home or in a small business. 5G makes cellular-for-Internet more compelling where wired (cable, DSL, fiber, etc.) options may not be available or have faults. FWA is appealing to rural users, as a business Internet backup option, or even for primary home or SMB access in the right conditions.
  • Smart Connected Things – in some cases, this might be your home things, but for the most part, those things connect via BLE and Wi-Fi, and no one wants more monthly bills (that topic again) if they don’t need it, so this won’t change much. But, cellular-connected smart meters, utilities, video cameras, and other municipal and outdoor IoT devices are definitely in play.
  • Private Networks – when you hear this, you might fight back imagery of employees in carpeted cube farms connected by 5G instead of Wi-Fi as their primary access method; but that’s not what private 5G means, if we’re being realistic. For now, private 5G simply means businesses are utilizing cellular in new ways, like for robots in manufacturing, connected terminals in large outdoor facilities like shipping ports or mines, or for mobile emergency or fleet services. We’ll pick up the 5G versus Wi-Fi debate in another article, but there’s room for co-existence to tackle different use cases. 

Cellular certainly takes a big step forward with 5G. However, I will stand firm in the conviction that cellular technologies are not displacing any wireless personal area networking (WPAN), or wireless local area networking (WLAN) technologies at the moment. And this blog series will provide arguments to back up this statement. Cellular is a tool in the wireless toolkit, fit for some applications, but not a panacea for all. The hype is fierce, and plenty of the premises and conclusions going with it are make-believe.

There’s a lot more depth to explore on the use cases, the technologies, implementation, and the go-to-market approach. That’s what this series is all about. This first article was our level-set before we dive in headfirst. Up next, we’ll talk about the broad applications of 5G, and I’ll do my best to quit whining about monthly cell bills.

1I’m not proud of myself for quoting Napoleon Dynamite, but I figure we all take ourselves too seriously sometimes, so whatever.

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