5G networks: A catalyst for innovation across IT?

The next generation of mobile network technology – fifth generation (5G) – is several years away, and many of the key technical and business issues associated with its rollout have yet to be fully explored or decided, not least of which is the extent to which it complements, competes with or becomes a platform for the Internet of Things (IoT). However, one thing is becoming apparent: assuming it meets even some of its goals, the development of 5G, with the stated mission of bringing IT and mobile technology together onto a single platform, will be an important driver of change and innovation across wide areas of the IT industry and among users of the technology.

The technical goals of 5G are ambitious, involving high volumes of data, high bandwidths, high reliability, and low latencies and energy use. Many of these goals will not be achievable with readily available current technology, and many of the applications needed to justify the underlying infrastructure have yet to dreamed up or fully commercialized. But the market incentives to develop these will, in many cases, be strong: from a technological point of view, 451 Research believes 5G will act as a catalyst, accelerator and core driver for a long list of innovations spanning the IT industry.

This report highlights some of the areas of innovations that we believe will be required in order to support and fully develop 5G. It is an extract from a forthcoming 451 Foresight Report, The Coming Revolution: 5G and its Impact on IT, which explores the potential and likely technological and business impact of 5G mobile networking technology on the IT industry over the next decade. The report is produced as part of 451 Research's Foresight initiative to help stakeholders across different sectors understand and identify threats and opportunities of technologies and developments at an early stage.

The 451 Take

Industry consensus points to 5G as more than a generational change in mobile radios: it will act as a catalyst for innovation across much of the IT industry. The largest and most immediate impact will be on the mobile industry itself, but there are still clear implications and imperatives for all concerned with the wider ecosystem. While it might take a decade or more to fully unfold, 5G could come to be viewed not as an additional ripple of opportunity, but a core part of next-generation IT.
Innovation needed

Areas of likely innovation that will be primed or driven by 5G are extremely broad, especially at the application and services level. Progress is needed in segments ranging from small batteries in embedded devices; distributed load management software; new, smaller and lower-power transmitters; the latest consumer applications; services management software; analytics and event-processing software; and small edge-of-network datacenters.

These innovations are not dependent on 5G, nor are they solely driven by it: in many cases, they represent a natural evolution of the technology. However, 5G will help spur investment, innovation and deployment.

The following are four key areas that are likely to see the greatest activity, innovation and opportunities as the move to 5G gathers momentum:

  • Edge devices ‚Äì These includes phones, wearables, meters, actuators, smart homes, IoT ('smart goods'), vehicles and industrial controls.
  • The network ‚Äì This includes the core network (switching, routing, load management, billing, etc.) and the radio access network (RAN).
  • Services and applications ‚Äì These include business, consumer applications and services such as cloud and social networking.
  • IT infrastructure ‚Äì This includes storage, processing, data management and datacenters.

Edge devices

A strong opportunity for all suppliers, many of which are outside the traditional IT and mobile industries, will be in the 'edge devices' category. Developments in this segment will be driven partly by applications and partly by the need for generic improvements for all IoT devices.

Opportunities here include the development of a myriad of embedded customer application-specific devices that embed connectivity, which will enable low-cost, ubiquitous function based on continuous and near-real-time connectivity. Over time, hundreds of thousands of device types will become network-connected as the IoT era unfolds – although the opportunity for 5G itself will clearly be far narrower.

For 5G devices and phones, there will likely be a need for devices to efficiently support more radios and frequencies simultaneously, and to rapidly switch between these to conserve energy while maintaining optimum connectivity. Better and ultra-long-life batteries are already a focus of research at major manufacturers and startups, again partly driven by the IoT device opportunity.

New protocols and processors for event-driven, low-chat transmission will be needed to reduce power consumption and network traffic as activity increases – this is an important area of focus among operators. There might also be some limited demand for efficient wireless charging to meet demand for more reliable edge devices.

Core networks and RAN

5G involves ambitious goals for bandwidth and latency, as well as for the volume of devices supported and the amount of data that networks can handle. The 'burden' of innovation, therefore, falls most squarely on equipment providers and operators in the radio access network. New protocols and faster processors will be required to support event-driven, low-chat transmission, as will sub-millisecond transceivers to support mission-critical, low-latency applications.

Also required: multiple-input, multiple-output/beam-forming antennae to enable higher-bandwidth, reduced-interference networks; vertical market protocols such as vehicle control for IoT and for integration with 5G, enabling market-specific applications for 5G; and a real-time spectrum-access database, allowing rapid coordination services to optimize selection of bandwidth at the network edge.

In support of all this, investment in the IT and core infrastructure will be needed. Areas where operators will have to focus include low-latency distributed applications and platforms, most likely with more processing at the edge of the network; infrastructure management software to support failovers and enable light infrastructure and high resiliency; and intelligent power management in radio access and core networks to reduce energy consumption by managing traffic, transceivers and IT devices. Given the complexity, scale and flexibility required to support all of these mobile services, operators will need to continue on their path to greater use of software-defined networks and network functions virtualization. Without extensive deployment of these architectures and the associated technologies, most of which already exist, it is not clear that 5G could be economically deployed at scale.

Services and applications

The developers of applications and cloud-based services will find that 5G brings new demand – with many more new devices, more traffic and data, and new opportunities. 5G-class connectivity enables the deployment of ever more applications and services, including the provision of communications applications and services that might once have been (and could still be) provided by the operator. Cloud services will also be developed to provide real-time spectrum-access database and coordination services to optimize selection of bandwidth at the network edge.

IT infrastructure and datacenters

One of the areas for investment currently being explored by several companies is edge-of-network processing. Specifically, this relates to how to distribute more processing to the edge; how to ensure performance/integrity at the edge; how to best replicate and manage data; and the best ways to house equipment. In addition, there is much discussion around how much processing needs to be at the very edge, and how much can be at relatively nearby urban datacenters.

While the combination of low latency and high volumes suggests that more processing will have to be done at the edge of the network, the likelihood is that most applications will not require this. But for those that do, there will be a need for more processing, more storage, real-time analytics and edge-of-network datacenter capacity. This could mean the use of more micro-modular prefabricated (edge) datacenters to enable secure local processing – these might be directly linked to radio masts or be further back from the edge.

Given the requirements for security and availability, this could encourage the use of distributed energy sources such as fuel cells or new forms of durable batteries. The need for low latency will likely encourage the use of all-flash storage arrays and the emerging storage-class memory to support low-latency and low-power local storage, as well as application-specific processors, low-power servers and storage to enable optimized IoT and application-specific devices and services. With more analytics at the edge, some applications will provide an opportunity for complex event processing at the edge of the network – a technology to support rapid, automated decision-making.