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The arrival of 5G Networks

Technology research

There has been a great deal of media coverage of the arrival of 5G Networks in some cities in the UK from most of the major mobile telecoms providers. Frankly most of the fuss has been about the use of Chinese modem technology within the UK networks but in the last couple of weeks Telefonica O2 have announced that Leeds will be one of the pilot cities for the first roll-out of the O2 5G network in the UK in October.

So what does this mean for you and I and what possibilities does it open up especially for the Health and Education sector? Those of us that live down the Wharf Valley would be quite happy if we got a reasonable 3G service, let alone 4G, for our smartphones. What will 5G do?

The mobile networks have evolved over the past 10 years to support the two basic functions that are needed by mobile phones. The initial networks were voice only; remember those Nokia 3110 phones we all loved at the time (- OMG its 20 years ago) . The data services were delivered by the TXT message service using the same network as the voice services. With the arrival of proper Smartphones – epitomised by the original Apple iPhone 3 – the mobile networks delivered voice services (called LTE) and data services to our mobiles. 3G and 4G separated the voice and data channels so we got good performance for our data services and clearer and better voice connectivity. The Smartphone had arrived, could access the internet and our lives would never be the same again.

Increasingly, however, this new technology changed the way we communicate – TXT and Voice communications have given way to social media, internet access, images and video. Music and TV are delivered by download or streaming. This meant more bandwidth and the rise of generally available WiFi to complement the mobile broadband services. So 5G is the mobile industries response to the need for more speed, greater bandwidth and reliability to our mobile phones when we can’t get WiFi. It’s not going to do much extra for your voice services if you can already get 4G. What it will do is increase the speed and bandwidth of your mobile data (more downloads, faster streaming, reliability and lots of cloud storage access). 5G is over 10 times faster than 4G. 4G was in itself 10 times faster than 3G.

5G networks achieve their goals by using extremely high frequencies in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range. (4G is 6GHz). Using these high frequencies is key as they support a huge capacity for fast data, they are less cluttered with existing cellular (Voice) data, they're highly directional and can be used right next to other wireless signals without causing interference.

Even more importantly 5G opens up the possibility of connecting a wide range of different devices to the internet. Not just mobile phones but many other devices that need internet connectivity to operate. Commonly described as the internet of things, (IOT) the industry is starting to develop applications where we need access to data. Think of how the motor industry will develop autonomous driving cars – they will need continuous access to mapping and environmental positioning data – reliably. Our cars will be internet connected using 5G.

In the medical field medical devices can use 5G networks to ensure continuous and reliable patient monitoring and, when linked to some of the new AI (artificial Intelligence) techniques and apps, start to support diagnosis and possible treatment plans.  5G networks will start to give us access to the volumes of data we need to develop AI to ensure Patient Safety and developing Robotics capable of supporting health service delivery (think remote surgery applications). It will also be a vehicle for device to device communication and not just about smartphones. This is probably the tip of the iceberg in terms of the kind of applications we can start to develop. Obviously a blank canvas for our future medical entrepreneurs.

So what about good old WiFI? – Well WiFI 6 (802.11ax) is coming with greater bandwidth and speed. There is clearly an overlap with 5G. 5G is a subscription service, however,  as the providers have to pay a licence fee (v large) for the frequencies they use to deploy it. WiFI is subscription-free and as a service is generally deployed in buildings. The laws of physics will still dictate whether 5G or WiFI is available in specific locations. So I think we will still be going to McDonalds and Costa to connect to WiFi or searching for eduroam in the University and NHS for some time to come.

What are the challenges of 5G? Well that increased and fast access to data will raise many ethics, security and privacy issues; the ultra-reliability needed by many IOT applications will be a challenge as will the ultra-low latency needed by those applications. Those driverless cars can’t hang around waiting for the network to respond and neither can those surgical robots.

Good problems to have? Certainly in terms of opportunities for research and development into applications and systems which will improve Healthcare Education and delivery of services.