What IS actually 5G – and what is the need for it?

On a “5G event” like the Johannesberg Summit, the above question may actually sound like blasphemy, but seen over the two days this was one of the key discussion items. Ralf Irmer’s (Vodafone) presentation illustrates some of the key issues:

  1. The wishlist is long
  2. The list is not that different from the 4G and 3G wishlist

One of my colleagues even dared to suggest that he today could give a 5G talk with 1997-vintage 3G slides and hardly anyone would know the difference. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but my main take-away from these two days is that

  •  it is not obvious that all the scenarios and requirement can actually be met with one new “5G” system. Since we do not exactly know which are the “killer applications” today, like in 3G we end up in an immensely complex standard that is overloaded with features (the term “feature porn” was actually used) of which most are never used. The only two of the innumerable “bearer services” in 3G that actually made it to widespread use was voice and best effort data. In 4G only best effort data remained.
  • 5G is to fix what we didn’t manage to fix in 3G and 4G (i.e. evolution). The key requirements that stand out as truly different (revolution) are the Machine Type Communication (MTC) modes with low data rates, but large volume of devices (sometimes) requiring low latency, low power and very high reliability.

The “Elephant in the Room”, the one question that kept hanging in the air was why cant we partition the problem and provide separate solutions, i.e. for the Person-Type-Communication problems (the “Data Tsunami” issues) we go with evolved 4G and High Efficiency WLAN (HEW), whereas we for the MTC design a new system. We already have 3-4 co-existing legacy systems (GSM, EDGE, 3G, HSPA, LTE etc) in both towers and terminals, so whats the big fuzz with one more? 3GPP has done this trick before so if we want to call the combination “5G”, so be it!

About Jens Zander

Professor Jens Zander is professor in Radio Communication Systems at the Royal Institute of Technology, Stockholm, Sweden. He has been among the few in Swedens Ny Teknik magazine's annual list of influential people in ICT that have been given the epithet “Mobile Guru”. He is one of the leading researchers in mobile communication and is the Scientific director of the industry/academia collaboration center Wireless@KTH. His research group focuses on three main areas – the efficient and scalable use of the radio frequency spectrum, economic aspects of mobile systems and application and energy efficiency in future wireless infrastructures.
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