The future of mobile communications

5G – much more than just speed

Future 5G technologies deliver massively increased speeds and bandwidths in mobile networks, thus opening the door for completely new applications for industry, public services and private users.

Text: Urs Binder, images: ©iStock,

“By 2020, surfing the Internet will be up to 100 times faster using mobile communications.” When the discussion came to 5G, this and similar headlines could be seen in the press in the spring of 2017. The talk now is of up to 30 Gbit/s per radio cell, whereas theoretically, the 4G LTE advanced technology we have today delivers a maximum of 100 to 1000 Mbit/s depending on the standard and situation. This increase in speed is only a partial aspect of 5G, however: the next fifth generation standard combines a variety of technologies and possibilities for a wide spectrum of applications, ranging from private users’ smart phones to global networks. Qualities such as short reaction times are just as important as pure transfer speeds here.

And it all starts with New Radio

A central element of 5G is the efficiency and capacity on the radio interface: Each 5G cell should be capable of supplying a multiplicity of devices with a massively increased bandwidth than was previously possible with mobile radio technology. Compared to today's LTE networks, 5G should facilitate a data transfer rate which lies between 10 to 30 times more per radio cell, with roughly 1000 times the capacity. This will make it possible to address up to 100 thousand million mobile networked devices at the same time worldwide, including "things" in the Internet of Things. Energy efficiency is also set to rise significantly: Energy consumption per transferred bit on the end devices themselves will drop to a thousandth of its previous level. This facilitates up to 10 years of autonomy in terms of power.

These requirements cannot be met with the 800 MHz to 2.1 GHz frequency bands used to-date, which are practically running at full capacity. The magic word today is 'New Radio'. 5G uses new and higher frequency bands. Initial plans are for frequencies ranging from 3.4 GHz. Even higher frequency bands from 24 GHz are being discussed for the distant future, but the physics of wave propagation means that the range decreases with increasing frequency. A 5G network like this based on millimetre waves would thus need a large number of 'microcells'. Conceivable would be a mini base station on every street lamp in urban environments, for instance.

Massive MIMO and beamforming

5G networks use additional technical elements to reliably provide 5G mobile network services when large numbers of mobile users need coverage. The most important element here is 'Massive MIMO' (Multiple Input, Multiple Output). To facilitate this, base stations are equipped with transmitting and receiving units, which can number in the dozens or even hundreds. These units communicate simultaneously with numerous spatially separate mobile devices in the same frequency range. Environmental conditions, such as radio waves reflecting off buildings and resulting delays and multiple transmission paths, are used to advantage. They allow the base station to target and address individual devices, which is referred to as 'beamforming'.

When will 5G be launched?

5G technologies and their related standards are in development. A 'Giga Release', in the form of a Big Bang, which delivers all the possibilities of 5G at one go is not expected. Instead, the standard will be introduced gradually. A first milestone for the new wireless interface is expected to be passed at the end of 2017. According to the present roadmap, the new wireless standard will be adopted by the end of 2019.

Swisscom expects to be able to offer 5G services at the end of 2018. A milestone on the way to the 5G era will be the allocation of frequencies by the Federal Office of Communications (BAKOM). This summer, BAKOM launched a public consultation to clarify the nature of the allocation. It is quite conceivable that the frequency bands will be auctioned off again, as was the case with UMTS.

So why 5G?

Four broad scenarios exist for 5G networks: mobile public network services with increased bandwidth and capacity, massive IoT, critical local connectivity and fixed wireless access.


  • More bandwidth and capacity
    New Radio delivers more speed and supplies more devices with mobile services per radio cell. This has an immediate effect on the perceivable quality, including shorter download times and reduced network utilisation. It also allows entirely new applications to be used, such as the virtual reality transmission of sporting events and concerts: this will allow you to sit in the comfort of your armchair at home, and still feel as if you are in the stadium and even lets you choose where you view from. To facilitate this, an enormous amount of data needs to be transferred without error.
    High data volumes are generally in trend: on average, private mobile users 'consume' around 3 gigabytes a month. When you bring Millennials into the picture, the demand rises to a whopping 35 GB/month, which is expected to double every 12 to 18 months. Mind-boggling volumes of data can also be found in industrial applications, such as real-time video analysis software with high-frequency images for monitoring production processes.
    Higher levels of efficiency and capacity also form the indispensable basis for critical connectivity over large areas. Thanks to its uniform standards, 5G can guarantee a high quality of service over a large area, both nationwide and globally. This means that blue-light organisations can rely on stable mobile communications services at large events, without the need to establish a dedicated network. Networked vehicles also benefit from the reliability and real-time communication offered by lower latencies, which make messages like "After 500 meters, there is a herd of cows on the road", that arrive just as the cows are in front of you, a thing of the past.

  • Massive IoT
    Applications in the Internet of Things generate huge volumes of data with their myriad data points spread across globally distributed machine parks with hundreds of sensors in each machine. Industrial applications like this also depend largely on low energy consumption levels and short latencies. This is not just true on a global scale, but also in production facilities.
    For instance, the fast and reliable networking of machines also makes it possible to control the manufacturing process in real-time: the continuous monitoring of each individual module allows outages to be predicted in advance. This makes it possible to decide whether the next production lot should be started at all, or whether preventative repair should be carried out to avoid an expensive standstill in production.

  • Critical local connectivity
    Imagine a factory hall with a hundred-metre-long production line. On average, a different product is produced in the hall every month, which means that the machines need to be set-up differently and reconfigured every time. A classic cable-based network or wireline means that new cables also need to be installed. In contrast, if you have a wireless-based network in place that meets the high industrial standards, you can network your company's facilities and easily customise the configuration. 5G network providers are faced with new challenges in this regard, however: elements from the world of wireline, such as security and the demarcation point to public networks, are now assuming great importance in the world of mobile communications.

  • Fixed wireless access
    In remote regions, which are difficult to access geographically, a 5G network can be used in place of copper or fibre-optic cables to the supply the population with telephony and Internet services. Fixed wireless access is only of minor importance in Switzerland, however, where most of the country is already well developed.

No fear of 5G

Companies are confronted with the question of whether it is the right time to make sustainable investments every time a new technology comes out. That said, even though some companies are still showing restraint, the correct time to address 5G is right now. The best approach is to remain open and evaluate the possibilities. Now you have the opportunity to explore the potential of 5G for your organisation together with your mobile communications provider. It may emerge that 5G is not right for your company at the moment, which, of course, is also a valid option.

Later though, you will need take up initial ideas and projects to prepare for the coming 5G era. In much the same way as making the transition to the Cloud, there is no need for the whole company to 'convert to 5G' at once. Technologies like Narrowband IoT, which already work with 4G and can later be integrated seamlessly into a 5G network, may prove to be a suitable entry-level topic for industrial projects. This is because 5G does not represent a radical breakthrough that makes everything that went before it obsolete, but a comprehensive, although organic enhancement of mobile communications as we know it.

Hand with smartphone


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