5G: why do we need it?

May 25, 2015

While LTE networks are seemingly just now starting to take off and are not yet omnipresent, networking vendors and carriers are already fully engaged in a vivid discussion on 5G’s perspectives. Some companies have even started to actively invest in PR efforts, like Megafon and Huawei who promised to launch a 5G trial for FIFA 2018, which will be held in Russia.

5th gen mobile connectivity: what it is going to be like and why we need it at all

However, 5G standardization is currently still at the planning stage, with the first deployment being estimated as far ahead as 2020 (explaining why the upcoming standard is now referred to as IMT-2020 in documentation). The use of ‘5G’ for marketing isn’t prohibited though, as long as it does not stand for a real networking standard name. Currently, the number is there for the humble purpose of indicating the ‘5th Gen’ of mobile networks.

The issue of labeling standards and generations is an open philosophical question. In some sense of the word, a 5G network was functional as early as 10 years ago in the Moscow region — in this particular case, 5G stood for a service offered by ArtCommunications, a local service provider.

Those who struggle to stay ahead of the game are quite indecisive about 5G’s benefits: “High-bandwidth mobile Internet access and an increasing number of affordable devices drive massive growth of data volumes. 5G connectivity will provide higher capacity networks, which will ease the load and lower the latency when transmitting the signal. Subscribers will be able to experience higher mobile speeds which will become available with the new standard – for instance, enjoying video streaming from second one, without waiting for the file to buffer”, Huawei comments.

This language mirrors that which was used during the active promotion of LTE-Advanced, LTE, 3G, and even EDGE — I vividly remember watching video streaming demos every time one of these standards was launched.

The commercial tech needed to support 5G has yet to be developed. As of today, the market has really only hypothesized which frequencies 5G will be operating on, as well as what types of modulation and encoding are needed. So far the plan is to use different carriers in the 1-100 GHz spectrum. With this ongoing discussion, the only feasible finding is that the new connectivity standard will leverage maximum bandwidth (which makes sense, since there is no other way). Elaborating further, using microwave frequencies will mean the emergence of femtocells and picocells with minimum operation range.

One of the major reasons why 5G will inevitably emerge is the need for more capacity — enough to accommodate all IoT (Internet of Things) devices. It is predicted that every household will soon have over one hundred ‘smart’ connected devices — some of which might serve as ‘base stations’ to connect other appliances, like refrigerators or TVs. This approach is called Massive MIMO (Multiple Input, Multiple Output): a client device connects to a number of transceivers simultaneously.

Due to this elevated number of devices, the needed cumulative bandwidth should be no less than several dozen Gbps, especially indoors where the majority of connected devices tend to be. Capacity that high is needed to cope with the 1000x data volume growth expected by 2020.

Outdoors, speeds of a couple hundred Mbps should be satisfactory, which matches the speeds in the existing LTE-Advanced production networks. The new feature 5G would bring to the industry is lower latency (i.e. ping), below 1 millisecond.

There is only one case associated with these parameters in existence today: the augmented and virtual reality solutions. It is quite unlikely we will soon be walking around in helmets looking like Robocop, but this technology is greatly advantageous for tele-medicine applications, which will allow doctors to perform surgeries remotely, or for transportation via driverless cars.

Also, minimal latency is needed to fuel up the so-called “tactile Internet“: in this paradigm, all apps are moved into the cloud and a user utilizes a thin client equipped with a touch-enabled display that doesn’t process any data locally.

Besides minimizing latency, this approach also sparks interest in our industry because of current data safety issues — when data is stored solely in a datacenter and the only thing being transmitted over the network connection is the display’s contents, it is no longer possible for criminals to hijack data or steal a device.

One of the cornerstones of 5G mobile connectivity is security. However, there are few developed concepts

One of the cornerstones of 5G mobile connectivity is security. However, there are few developed concepts, apart from visionary statements expressing the need for hardware-accelerated data security. Additionally, industry discussion has been revolving around a variety of anticipated threats that will surface in the 5G era.

Take ransomware, for instance. Today, hackers are able to block access to your files locally stored on a PC or a mobile device. In the IoT world, the same trick can be easily used as well, but this time on a physical level: how would you like it if you found yourself unable to enter your home or office, or unable to get into your car due to a ransomware attack?

Also, a larger number of connected devices will make it easier to create botnets for DDoS attacks, making them even more massive and impactful. It’s important to remember that we are talking about billions of new connected devices — presumably home devices managed by ordinary folk, not experienced admins.

Moreover, the higher the transmission speeds, the higher the chance a culprit will successfully transfer a small malicious code or quickly cover their tracks after intercepting traffic.

As a rule, today’s 5G security concepts (with Nokia Mobile Guard being one of the most renowned) are based on the cloud approach. It makes sense, considering that the majority of connected client 5G-devices will be quite mediocre in terms of computing power — it is impractical to create a separate antivirus for each vacuum cleaner, light bulb or flatiron.

That’s why security solutions will be based on the mobile data and SMS analysis performed on the carrier level. This analysis will help to spot malicious malware activities or irregularities in connected device behavior.

A side advantage of 5G, in terms of security, is the possibility of finally eliminating Wi-Fi — high-bandwidth mobile Internet will outperform legacy solutions and even function better indoor than outdoor.

The disadvantages of Wi-Fi are quite widely publicized. Firstly, it is a limited and unmanaged spectrum that causes serious issues with interference and, as a consequence, with bandwidth. Indoor devices supported by a 2.4 GHz frequency range are barely useable in multi-compartment buildings — and we’re talking about today, when we haven’t even connected all of our TVs, let alone our refrigerators and toasters.

Secondly, the process of reconnecting from a cellular network to a Wi-Fi network disrupts all current sessions on the device. This problem is just now being solved (in the likes of Wi-Fi calling), but the progress is quite slow moving and has a chance of going nowhere.

Thirdly, it gives cybercriminals immense opportunities: the encryption keys are easy to compromise and traffic can be intercepted via the creation of faux hotspots with the same SSIDs.

And, finally, Wi-Fi offers the debatable freedom of open public Wi-Fi networks, which are only really beneficial for cybercriminals, not its users. Let’s hope 5G will take this strain away from us.