About 5G: Part 2 - Who Will Adopt 5G Technology, and When?

Welcome to our conversation series on 5G. In this next segment, we talk about when 5G network technology will be adopted in mainstream consumer applications and in commercial and industrial applications.

Part 1 of this conversation - What is 5G, Evolution and the Next Generation -  covered the evolution of the network generations leading up to 5G. In this post, Scott Nelson, Digi VP of Product, again interviews Harald Remmert, Digi Director of Engineering. In case you missed it, be sure to check out the first blog in this series, Venturing Into the Fog of 5G.

Who Will Adopt 5G Technology, and When?

Scott: Let's move on to the next question. Why are we so excited about 5G? If I go back to your statement about decades, and were just shutting down 2G, 3G this year, that's at the end of a 20-year run, right? So if I extrapolate forward, should we think that LTE is going to be a viable network from 2020 to 2030? That I've got 10 more years of LTE? Is that a fair statement?

Harald: At least. And that is also true with previous technologies. With 5G there are two modes that 5G can operate in. One is non-standalone (Non-SA) and the other one is stand-alone (SA). Lets cover stand-alone first. So, in that case, my device only has a 5G radio and only connects to the 5G infrastructure. That is the future. However, there is not much 5G infrastructure around. So, if you were to use a 5G-only phone that could only connect to 5G networks, you would have a terrible user experience.

Scott: Yeah, you can't hear me much of the time.

Harald: Exactly. So, thats where non-standalone mode comes in. So, in non-standalone mode, the device has both a 4G LTE radio and a 5G radio built in. It will connect to the 4G LTE network first, and use the 5G network, if available, for additional bandwidth. Later, as 5G networks get built out, this role gets reversed, until finally, when 5G networks are ubiquitous, the device only connects to 5G and we can drop the 4G LTE radio.

Scott: Will it be twice as expensive?

Harald: Those initial devices will be very expensive. You've probably seen some companies announce their first 5G phones, right? For me, these early phones are still prototypes based on first generation silicon to claim a market first. They are expensive - you're looking at $1,500 to $2,000 - and are still battery hogs as the silicon and infrastructure are not optimized yet.

Scott: Let me ask, if LTE is going to be around for 10 years, why would I buy one of these non-standalone phones? Why wouldn't I just buy a cheaper LTE phone until it made sense to buy the 5G phone? Why would I pay for both when I only need one?

Harald: Well, because it's cool.

Scott: Because it's cool? Okay, I guess the advice there might be to consumers, is if you want to be cool, you can be cool, but if you want to save money, you buy an LTE phone.

Harald: Well, that's right. If you want to be an early adopter, it comes at a price.

Scott: Back to why do we care. We're not concerned that they're going to shut LTE down, but there are the improvements that you mentioned. There will be new applications?

Harald: Yes. So one thing to think about is when 3G was first defined, Facebook didn't exist. Twitter, Instagram - all of those services did not exist yet, right? But after the technology was there, people figured out that, hey, there are cool new ways to use that, right?

Scott: The innovation follows the technology.

Harald: Right. And 4G LTE is very similar. There are a lot of applications that we have today that take advantage of the higher bandwidth that 4G LTE provides, compared to 3G, that wasnt possible back then. Now, with 5G, when you think about AR/VR, and about what you can do, it gets exciting. You can overlay a video conference with voice direction, or an existing picture. And in order to do that, you don't have all the processing power and the goggles, right? So the processing is done somewhere else. But you need that high-speed, low-latency communication link in order to provide something like that.

Scott: You mentioned you need two things. You need high-speed rendering, which typically will be in the cloud, that we compute, but then you've got to get that rendering down to visualization, which means you need high-speed connection. So one area is high speed, and anything that needs high speed. Imagery needs high speed, real-time communications, visual and audio need high speed.

Harald: Tactile needs high speed, low latency.

Scott: Yeah, tactile Internet they call it I think, right?

Harald: Yes.

Scott: The other part you mentioned is low latency, which is sometimes called real time or RTE.

Harald: Yeah, there's Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communication, or URLLC.

Scott: And does that have its own part of the 5G spectrum?

Harald: It's not a spectrum play.

Scott: It's not a spectrum play?

Harald: No. That is done in two ways: First, the higher frequencies such as mmWave used by 5G help to achieve lower latency. Second, the frame structure and protocols of 5G network give the network the flexibility to respond faster with shorter packets, unlike 4G, where you have a rigid frame structure.

Scott: So it's kind of like if I'm sending you a book; in 4G every book is 250 pages, but in 5G the book only has eight pages, I can send you eight pages and it doesn't take as long to transmit?

Harald: Yes, that's correct.

The Three Waves of 5G Adoption

Scott: So, why do we care? People care, the ones that want to stream video, the people that want to play games, of course, always want speed. Basically, the applications that use AR and VR will care. But the high-speed, real-time people will also care. Who do you think will be the first three? From a markets or applications point of view, who are the first three big adopters?

Harald: The first big wave of adopters will be fixed wireless access (FWA).

Scott: Say more about that. What is that?

Harald: Fixed wireless access is basically home and enterprise high-speed connectivity. The best way to think about this is that today, you might have a satellite dish on the roof or cable or DSL for TV and Internet. With 5G, you can replace all of that with a 5G antenna on the roof or on the side of your home, and you can receive both high-speed data and content over this high-speed data link, at the same time. Scott: So I'll cut the fiber, I'll cut the cable, cut the satellite dish, or remove the satellite dish, and I'll put up one antenna. How big is this antenna?

Harald: The antenna will be smaller than a dish, about a foot by a foot.

Scott: Well, that's cool. And everything will come over that?

Harald: Yes. So, you already hear a lot about people cutting the cord, for cable. We still keep Internet over cable but the content, we get elsewhere. This is another way to cut the cord.

Scott: Okay, so what the next wave of 5G adoption?

Harald: The next wave are handsets - smartphones. Users always want more speed, and with the lower latency they can interact with their environment in new ways. It may also change the specification of phones. For example, today, you download apps and store content on your phone. When you buy your phone, you decide how much memory you think you need: 64 GB, 256 GB, 1 TB. That makes phones expensive. With 5G and its high speed and low-latency, apps and content can be downloaded on the fly, resulting in simpler, lower-cost devices. Scott: That's exciting! Tell me more about the next wave. We haven't talked about the benefits of 5G for IoT.

Harald: Good observation. We haven't. The next, third wave is where IoT comes in. And specifically the industrial Internet of Things, or IIoT. Sometimes people call this Industry 4.0. And there, specifically, the low latency is very interesting. We're talking industrial automation over 5G networks. Scott: Okay. What about self-driving cars? Everybody talks about self-driving cars in 5G. You know, is that just hype so is that real?

Harald: No, it's real. So, there's a lot of invention in that area as well. The challenge I see with...not the interest but is the timeline. In order to have a self-driving car, you have to first build up all that infrastructure, you have to get technology designed into cars, and as you know the design cycles for cars are not very fast, right? Maybe a Tesla can pull that off. Or maybe one or two other companies. But it's a longer iteration cycle. So, in order to have a self-driving car, you have to have a city lit up, and specifically with 5G millimeter waves, so the higher frequency bands. That means you need to put a lot of infrastructure in place for that to work. But I think that's going to take a while. I'm confident that that will come eventually and that's going to be a big use case, but it will take time.

Scott: Take more time because it requires more infrastructure?

Harald: Correct, and new cars.

Scott: A lot of the other things you mentioned are point solutions, including phones, fixed wireless, and even industrial automation is a little bit more of a point solution because as soon as my factory has coverage, I can deploy in my factory.

Harald: Exactly. And private LTE is also gaining momentum in factories. Private LTE is basically operating your own cellular infrastructure on shared or unlicensed spectrum. So, either a mobile network operator might offer that as a service to you, or you can bring in your own infrastructure like a Cisco.

Scott: So the metaphor would be Wi-Fi?

Harald: Yes.

Scott: The same way that we set up Wi-Fi in our building, we could set up LTE?

Harald: Exactly. Two emerging technologies for this are the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS), which is using shared spectrum, and MulteFire, which is using unlicensed spectrum.  Private 5G networks are not standardized yet, but that is coming in 3GPP Release 16. So, theres a lot of interest with things like car manufacturers and larger plants, Bayer, one of the bigger medical manufacturers, for example is looking at really enabling their whole plant with private LTE or private 5G infrastructure. Private LTE provides many benefits over other technologies: First, there is SIM-based security. Second, there is privacy, as data does not have to traverse over public networks. Third, they can use quality of service (QoS) of cellular that Wi-Fi doesn't provide. And fourth, they have the range and flexibility that LTE provides. Because when we talk about 5G, it covers the low and IoT nodes, all the way up to the super-high speeds. So you have one technology that can service all of those different use cases.

Scott: All right, is there anything that we didn't cover that you can think of?

Harald: Lets talk about hype versus reality.

Scott: Yes, there's a lot of hype right now about 5G.

Harald: I'm very excited about 5G because I see the tremendous opportunities this next generation of cellular technology brings. But when you hear that a carrier has announced, "We have 5G lit up," we have to ask what does it really mean? You hear them say they have lit up two cities." Right? And then when you drill deeper, they are really saying, "Within these two cities we have maybe these blocks or this neighborhood lit up." So, it's very spotty at the moment. And 2020 is when some carriers say they might have nationwide lit up, but when they say that it typically means they have service available in the low band, and maybe in the mid-band, so in the sub-6 range. Definitely not nationwide mmWave. That will take years, maybe a decade to build out, and even then mmWave won't be available everywhere. Scott: And is the mmWave the one that's going to be on this 50-meter grid?

Harald: Exactly, yes.

Scott: Because if they were fully deploying right now, we'd have one AT&T truck on every block, right?

Harald: Pretty much.

Scott: I mean, putting up towers and putting up nodes, okay.

Harald: But even for the rest, the carriers are making huge investments. So, were talking about hundreds of thousands of small cells, right, that are being deployed. In China, it's even more mind-blowing. I mean, were talking about millions of small cells that are getting deployed per year. It's pretty impressive.

Scott: So, it's happening.

Harald: Yes. It's happening.

Scott: But if we read about everything that 5G will provide, there is a broad range of time before all those things are available.

Harald: Yes. It's at least 5 to 10 years for certain things. Especially on some things like the ultra-reliable, low-latency communication. There's a first version available today that's ratified, the 3GPP is still working on the next generation and use cases, and release 16, which is expected to be released in March 2020. And then it takes some time for the equipment manufacturers to integrate that. So, 5G is a continuous evolution of what LTE started. And it's long-term, so they're still holding true to that. Gartner, for example, says that nationwide 5G would be somewhere in 2025 to 2035.

Scott: So it's a ways out?

Harald: Quite a ways out.

Scott: So, our advice to someone who says, "We need 5G," or, "We need to know about 5G," will be to make sure we understand what problem they're trying to solve. And then we should make sure in fact they have a problem that needs 5G, and then secondly lets make sure that the network will be available to you in the timeline that they need to deploy. So, the promise is there, the promise is real, but we still have to ask some questions before we jump in, so to speak.

Harald: Absolutely. And with any new technology, there are bumps on the way to full deployment. Those seeking to be early adopters should ask themselves if they really want to be on the bleeding edge, or maybe in the case of 5G wait a year or two to be on the leading edge.

Scott: An interesting lesson, looking back at the progression from 1G to 5G, is that the people who are defining those generations have learned an enormous amount from each previous generation. When you're in the fourth generation of a technology, you know you've got a really good technology, right? And the fifth generation will be better, no question. But, you know, Astro Teller would tell us, and hes got the technology curve versus the human curve, he'd tell us, "We haven't caught up to LTE yet." And I think that's a true statement.

Harald: Yes, that's a true statement.

Scott: And we haven't caught up, as a society, to LTE. It is still a growing network that has emerging technologies growing with it. So we don't need to panic, to make sure we keep innovating.

Harald: That's right. Especially on the IT side. When you think about smart cities, and all the problems that can be solved there with parking, traffic management, city lighting and metering, there is still so much more to do.

Scott: Thank you very much for your time today, Harald.

Harald: Thank you, Scott.

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