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Ready for 5G? A move to the edge needs to come first

Infrastructural and architectural changes that are necessary to maximise the vast potential of 5G need to be in place.

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Staring through future: An attendee makes a call using Voxon Photonics holographic video on a Verizon and Ericsson AB 5G network at the Verizon Communications Inc booth during the Mobile World Congress Americas event in Los Angeles this month.

THE demand is there. The hype is there. But is the world really ready for 5G?

In one sense, the answer is, "Absolutely". The fifth-generation of wireless broadband technology will bring an exponential increase in data speeds that will change how people interact with the internet. For example, download time for an HD movie could go from an hour to a few seconds. 5G can also power up remote surgery. And some say truly autonomous vehicles aren't possible without it. 5G will connect a higher density of devices, people and things in smaller areas - faster and with lower latency than ever. It promises to inspire an astounding array of innovations and new services.

However, many of these applications depend on ultra-low latency and a level of throughput that today's networks aren't built to consistently deliver. To best prepare for 5G, companies need to move IT to the edge of the network, close to the users who are actually consuming these services. That's going to require a shift in mindset that puts the edge, and interconnection, at the centre of network design.

The move to 4G was a big leap itself, as it enabled the richer mobile video content we currently enjoy, as well as the proliferation of 'anytime, anywhere, any device' connectivity. But 5G will take it to another level:

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Market voices on:

  • Speed - 10times over 4G is a common estimate, with variables such as whether a carrier prioritises range over speed affecting just how much quicker 5G will be.
  • Latency - 5G latency can dip to one millisecond, when the end user and target platform are pretty close - within 4 to 6 miles of each other. 4G latency is variable, but the best of 5G is 60 to 120 times better than average 4G latencies.
  • Bandwidth - 5G standards allow for exponentially wider bands than 4G and major increases in bandwidth.

These leaps in improvement have far more potential than YouTube videos loading in under a minute. 5G makes mission-critical control possible with one millisecond latency, opening the door for new applications that demand absolute reliability, such as in healthcare, utilities or autonomous driving. In fact, in Singapore, local telco Singtel and Ericsson announced that they will launch a 5G pilot network to trial drones and autonomous vehicles, which will require the kind of low-latency, real-time data exchange only 5G can provide.

5G networks will also be able to better keep pace with the explosive growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) and all its current and yet-to-be discovered applications, as 5G enables up to one million connections per kilometre at very low power. The establishment of 5G could hence even further fast-track acceptance of the Smart Home concept, which is starting to gain ground in Singapore.

McKinsey says these use cases will require network performance to increase 10-fold over current levels across all network parameters, including latency, throughput, reliability and scale. That means heavy investment is ahead in all network domains.

The consulting firm estimates infrastructure spending will continue to increase at the high end at its historic range of 20 per cent to 50 per cent annually, while Moor Insights & Strategy predicts 5G will drive IT hardware spending to US$326 billion by 2025. And much of this spending will be aimed at moving IT services to the edge.

THE ANSWER: HIGH-DENSITY DEPLOYMENTS AT THE EDGE

In a 5G world, a traditional, centralised network architecture that backhauls traffic from users to a distant corporate data centre isn't just prohibitively costly, it's a non-starter. There's too much data, and latency tolerance for many 5G apps is too low.

Take the example of remote surgery, during which a surgeon using virtual reality goggles and haptic gloves (which let users feel and touch in virtual reality), can operate on a patient half a world away via a robot. This can't happen over a 4G network. Latency isn't the primary issue, though the high variability of latency on a 4G network ultimately would make it too risky if there weren't bigger problems.

The real reason is that remote surgery requires a level of throughput 4G can't handle. Of course, latency isn't just a problem in serious situations such as surgery. It can cause the lag that ruins a 5G-fuelled multi-player VR video game, as well.

Reducing distance between these types of applications and users is the only way to ensure low latency. For 5G applications to work as they should, network operators will need to massively deploy small cell technology in extremely high densities at the edge, where their users are consuming services.

In a typical city neighbourhood, for instance, dozens of shoebox-sized small cells might be mounted on public infrastructure, like telephone poles and street lights. In less populated areas, operators will need to significantly increase the density of existing networks by building macro cell sites along the way.

This need for high-density IT deployments isn't just about data influx or the need for proximity. Many 5G network operators say they plan to maximise data speed by using millimetre wave - extremely high frequency spectrums. But millimetre wave also has limited range and can be disrupted by conditions such as humidity and rain, which are common in Singapore's equatorial climate. Heavy concentrations of small-cell technologies are needed to offset that.

Establishing these high-density deployments at the edge can be easier on an interconnection platform that spans the top global markets everywhere. Interconnection - the private data exchange between businesses - is the fastest, most secure, lowest-latency connectivity there is, and it will be a critical part of the 5G revolution. Companies need the flexibility to expand as the edge evolves.

They also need access to their clouds, networks, data and partners, so they can directly connect to whatever they need, wherever they need it. A global interconnection platform that's always growing and always welcoming new industry ecosystems and ecosystem partners can be a place that helps companies handle whatever 5G has coming.

Not everyone is ready for 5G yet because not everyone is committed to networks designed around the edge. But a global interconnection platform that gets companies to edge with speed, safety and cost-efficiency can get a lot of people a lot closer to 5G than they have ever been.

  • The writer is Vice-President of Business Development at Equinix.