From mainframes and client-server to cloud computing accessed by mobile devices: every phase of the communications revolution we have experienced over the past 50 years has been enabled by advances in networking. This also applies to the revolution currently in progress. IoT, consumerization and AI all rely on fast, low-cost, reliable networks.
Every day, more and more devices are actively communicating with each other, and simple upgrades of current networks are no longer enough to support continuously increasing traffic. 4G is reaching the technical limits of how much data it can transfer. 5G offers a possible solution plus a range of new opportunities, but the shift will be expensive. Telecom operators who choose to build new small or macro cells will face dramatically increased network costs.
Network sharing is already becoming a standard part of the operating model for telco operators, and the huge expansion of network infrastructure required for a successful rollout of 5G will accelerate this trend. There are already different ways of putting network sharing in place, each with its own implications for the operator’s business model.
What is 5G?
5G is the successor of 4G. 5G uses higher radio frequencies (GHz compared to MHz) and offers increased speed, lower latency and fine-grain coverage.
One advantage of using higher-frequency radio waves is that more devices can be used in the same area. While 4G can support up to 4,000 OP devices per square kilometre, 5G can support up to 400,000 devices. This opens a whole new world for IoT, where the density of devices in certain areas can be very high.
One disadvantage of using higher-frequency radio waves is that they cannot travel as far as the lower-frequency radio waves used by 4G. A 5G network therefore introduces a new technology called mMIMO (Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output), which uses a high number of antennas. In addition to supporting the additional antennas required, mMIMO also provides the ability to transmit and receive more than one data signal at a time. This makes it possible to use targeted data streams to spotlight users and follow them around. mMIMO is therefore able to serve more users and devices simultaneously within a small area while maintaining fast data rates and consistent performance.
Unlike earlier generations of mobile networking, 5G will not require individual operators to offer nation-wide overage via their own infrastructure. In fact, 5G is ideal for network sharing. Telcos are therefore pushing for network sharing and software-defined networking as 'native' components of the solution. While the shift from 'private' network infrastructure to 'shared' network infrastructure will require a new way of working for the network operators, it will also increase the speed of 5G deployment, lower roll-out costs, and combat visual pollution by reducing the number of outdoor antennas required.
After twenty years of continuous development and evolution, networks have become a mature technology at the heart of our constantly connected world. The availability of standards-compliant, intercompatible networks has shaped the way people expect to communicate with each other and how information is shared today. 5G makes it possible for networks to keep pace with future demand and expectations, both for consumers and industries.
The investment required to put 5G in place is considerable, and maximizing the return on investment will require clear vision and well-defined strategies. The keys to success will be open dialogue, ready co-operation between all stakeholders and a migration to network sharing. This is what we have to prepare for without delay.