How the fifth generation of the mobile network could enable next generation of consumer services, explored by Eric Volkman.
Once implemented 5G is anticipated to top out at speeds of roughly 20 gigabits per second, very far above even the quickest commercial fibre optics networks on the market today. To say that the step up from that to 5G speed is massive is a severe understatement. Additionally, 5G holds the promise of ultra-low latency (i.e., delay from input to outcome).
That kind of speed is not only helpful for the implementation of advanced assisted driving technologies and, further down the road, autonomy – it is essential for those functionalities. It almost goes without saying that a vehicle operating mostly or entirely on its own will have to crunch vast piles of data at lightning-quick rates. This goal cannot be reached on current standards; 5G is the technology that will get us there. As Paul Wilson, smart city advisor for communications industry association TM Forum puts it: “5G has the potential to cover all the data needs of self-driving cars.”
Big data, big plans
5G is on its way and will be with us quite soon, however we might have to wait some time for it to become the norm. “The 5G standard will be agreed in 2020, although many components are now widely agreed and understood,” says Wilson. “It will however take most of the following decade for the 5G rollout to be complete, because 5G represents a fundamental digital transformation of the telecoms industry and that will take some time to happen.”
The leap from 4G to 5G will require telecoms providers to build out fresh infrastructure for the new standard and, since 5G holds the promise of linking the increasing number of ‘smart’ objects together, establishing it will depend on a vast number of tech companies finding ways to collaborate with a myriad of partners. These include, but are by no means limited to, the makers of virtual reality headsets, for example, or the companies manufacturing new-generation refrigerators, digital thermostats and, of course, connected cars.
“In a way, [it’s] uncharted territory,” Borje Ekholm, CEO of Ericsson, said to CNBC recently, “We are connecting new things… this will require us to enter into new partnerships, new collaboration [and] new business models basically.”
It’ll be a much more digitalised world when they come out the other end. At the risk of stating the obvious, that the smartphone in your pocket right now is more powerful and sophisticated than the one you owned only a few short years ago and it’s going to continue advancing at exponential rates. Meanwhile, the IoT is becoming more prominent. Ditto for data-hungry augmented and virtual reality games/applications. These three developments alone are going to require much wider pipes carrying data at significantly higher speeds. Adding the vast numbers of increasingly connected automobiles into the mix amplifies this need.
V2X: Your car thinks and communicates
Even current-model cars cruising along on Level 2 functionalities are prodigious data eaters and emitters. They’ll be even more ravenous as we push towards Level 5, with systems taking on more and more sensory responsibility from the driver.
A car’s sensors will provide the system’s ‘eyes’ but, as a human driver uses mental bandwidth to process his or her environment, assisted/autonomous solutions will use that fast 5G pipe. The standard ensures that the amount of data needed to do this will pass back and forth as needed but there’s another crucial element of 5G that makes this work – the almost complete absence of latency. Taking a few moments of time to wait for a web page to load on your smartphone is tolerable; experiencing hang time whilst adjusting to a skidding wreck in front of us on a motorway could very well prove fatal.
Higher-level assisted, and autonomous, operations require the ability to make split-second decisions, to adjust to situations in the safest way possible. This, it nearly goes without saying, is necessary when an automobile is interacting with the environment around it. The list of vehicle-to-everything (V2X) elements a car needs to be aware of and communicate with is long and daunting. Traffic signals and signs, hazards/roadblocks, infrastructure that sets limits on speed and operation, etc. etc. etc.
This line-up, naturally, includes fellow vehicles gliding down the road. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) solutions will allow automobiles to not only see and track each other, but to communicate between themselves as well. The safety benefits of this are obvious, but of course this depends on data transmission speed and near-instant reaction time.
As if these functionalities weren’t demanding enough, there’s the need for an automobile to do humans one better and possess a kind of ‘super-sense.’ The sophisticated assisted and self-driving systems of the future will have the ability to ‘see’ ahead of a person’s line of sight, to anticipate upcoming traffic and obstacles before they become problems.
Unlike human drivers, these systems will operate always-on, 360-degree vision. After all, many potential accidents aren’t only located ahead of the windscreen but to the sides and occasionally in the rear. Vehicles with higher-level functionalities will maintain a state of constant alertness in all directions, ‘seeing’ much farther than a pair of human eyes. That capability is breath-taking but it’s not feasible on the current wireless standard.
The upcoming one, however, won’t come cheap. A report published in January from consultancy Accenture estimates that in the US, wireless operators are poised to collectively put in as much as $275Bn (£211Bn) over a period of seven years to build out 5G infrastructure. They’ll get something for their money, though – Accenture estimates that the 5G roll-out could create up to three million jobs and increase gross domestic product by $500Bn.
A large chunk of that, of course, would come from those armies of data-hungry automobiles prowling American roads. “5G-powered smart city solutions applied to the management of vehicle traffic and electrical grids alone could produce an estimate of $160Bn in benefits and savings for local communities and their residents,” Accenture’s Tejas Rao said. “These 5G attributes will enable cities to reduce commute times, improve public safety and generate significant smart-grid efficiencies.”
The fast lane to autonomy
Most pundits believe the parameters of the 5G standard will be finalised in 2020, with roll-out to being immediately thereafter. However, a group of nearly two dozen big wireless service providers and equipment makers have pledged to agree a standard called 5G New Radio earlier than that.
“For consumers, this means they're going to get an elevated broadband experience in 2019,” said chipmaker Qualcomm’s Rasmus Hellberg to CNET earlier this year.
This matters because the group’s participants read like a Who’s Who in American and, indeed global, telecoms. AT&T is on board, as is Vodafone, Ericsson, British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, and NTT DoCoMo. Trials of 5G NR are set to begin later this year.
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