5G – Network of the future

Mobile phone coverage and 5G are currently the subject of intense debate in the media and politics. For some users, the importance of 5G amounts to faster downloading of their favourite series, while others say that nationwide expansion is a necessary step for Germany's digital connectivity. What is certain is that the debate about the nationwide introduction of 5G is running at full speed and is characterised by a great diversity of opinions, also within the parties. But what does 5G actually mean and what effects does the technological upgrade have on industry, infrastructure and private individuals? Time to take a closer look at this issue.


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5G? 5G is simply the fifth generation of mobile communication networks, offering improved speed and bandwidth and, most importantly, low latency.

Latency refers to the delay that happens in communication, when you've taken an action and you're waiting for the response. 5G is the only communications protocol that promises low latency, strictly defined as one millisecond. The pause between action and response must be a single millisecond for that communication to be classified as having "low latency". It is a holy grail for telecommunication networks, as this is also the basis for real-time communication.

5G follows on from 3G in 2001 and 4G in 2009. While there has been global criticism of the high projected cost, it is almost undisputed that 5G will improve everybody's and everything's connection – most importantly, it is seen as a critical component in the Internet of Things (IoT), a concept in which not only devices, but also machines, cars, robots and all manner of electronic objects can be linked. Home appliances, door locks, security cameras, heating systems, wearables, saucepans, pet chips and many other inert devices are all on the list of possibilities to be revolutionized by real-time communication.

Real-time communication matters less for video game players or music streamers, but for applications such as driverless vehicle software, it's a difference between success and failure. Driverless vehicles rely on a single car being equipped with every sensor it needs to avoid hitting anything else. But this is inefficient because none of those sensors can see around the corner. A network running on 5G real-time communication could constantly be updating every other vehicle in the mesh to let them know what's going on immediately around them, as well as what's coming up elsewhere on the route that might cause them to want to change their behaviors. Real-time communication will improve all manner of decision-making processes in this regard – not least those made by robots, who could run amok without real-time ability to respond to an emergency situation.

5G is also – importantly for Germany – seen as a foundation for smart cities and smart energy grids, reducing inefficiencies across the board. Gartner, a global research firm, predicts that 20.8 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020. By comparison, there are currently an estimated 6.4 billion connected devices in the world. That’s a lot more devices asking for a quick connection and a huge amount of technology and hardware needing to be produced.

Existing infrastructure, such as lampposts and traffic lights, are to be used as transmitters to aid the reach of the network, while the increased speeds and bandwidths should further enable concepts such as smart houses and intelligent energy grids.

You'll hear about 5G first from mobile phone providers purely as the successor to 4G. However, behind the scenes, the network gear — switches, routers and the entire system — will require upgrades. Then mobile devices will need to be built that have 5G chips to take advantage of that new infrastructure. Even after those things appear, we'll be living in a sort of hybrid 4.5G world for a long time.

5G should be reasonably widespread by 2020 on a commercial/profit-making level as a result of Release 15, a rubber-stamped set of 5G standards agreed by global meta-standards group the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). 2022 will see the culmination of Release 16, which will promise true real-time communication – and when the world will have taken a huge step forward in automation.

The 5G Lab Germany at the TU Dresden is doing pioneering work on 5G in Germany as part of the Smart Systems Hub Dresden. The interdisciplinary team comprises of almost 600 scientists from 22 research areas of the TUD and is led by Prof. Gerhard Fettweis and Prof. Frank Fitzek. The aim is to supply key technologies for the development of the 5G mobile radio standard. The research covers four areas: Wireless & Networks, Tactile Internet Applications, Silicone Systems and Mobile Edge Cloud. There are more than 50 related industry partners, including Vodafone, National Instruments, Nokia, Rohde & Schwarz, NEC, Claas, Ericsson and Deutsche Telekom. The Center for Advancing Electronics in Dresden supports the 5G Lab with its three system-oriented research areas: Orchestration, Resilience, and Highly-Adaptive Energy-Efficient Computing (HAEC).