June 21, 2021

What is 5G (beyond a commercial argument)? | Innovation

What is 5G (beyond a commercial argument)? | Innovation

These days we will hear a lot about 5G. It is a term that has been appropriated by different sectors, especially that of telephone operators, but also the automotive sector, content distributors for entertainment and even the odd industry. Each new word related to technology usually ends up being used commercially to project capacity for innovation, modernity and even prestige.

However, this commercial use can dilute the meaning of the concept, and perhaps many of those who refer to it are unclear about its supply and magnitude. For the not understood I would like to make an analogy of what the evolution of current communication technology means to the so-called 5G. We could compare it very simply by going from cobbled streets to paved streets, or going from single-lane roads to four-lane highways.

In this way, 5G refers to the updating and evolution of communication and network infrastructures in order to support more traffic, more connected devices and more speed. As users we will perceive this improvement in the access networks. Our mobile phone will have a data connection of greater capacity and speed, or because in our homes we can contract fiber connections of several gigabits per second.

However, the biggest impact of the change proposed by 5G is not in the access, but rather in the infrastructure of the network that we do not see. To be able to support the improvements to the users while absorbing the traffic of new devices connected to the network (for example, vehicles, pets, industry sensors, etc.) it is necessary to change the management model and structure of the network, making it possible to scale the infrastructure more easily and with lower costs.

For this reason, two concepts on which this change pivots are fundamental. The first one is virtualization, as simile to cloud computing. So, the network elements will be virtualize, that is, general-purpose computers will run software that will allow emulate any device (for example, a router, a switch or a firewall). Virtualization allows scaled infrastructure at a much lower cost.

Second, the softwarization of the elements and network management. The network functions stop being static and linked to a hardware technology. Now, in a dynamic way, the network can be programmed to respond to particular needs. The network itself becomes dynamic and optimized to meet the needs in terms of capacity, speed and robustness decided by the application that uses them. This will allow, for example, that vehicle safety systems make decisions based on information obtained in real time.

These significant technological changes will be adopted by telephone operators, who are the managers and providers of this infrastructure. They are not, however, the only participants in this change. Without applications that require this capacity, the revolution loses its meaning and that is why the term 5G is disputed or rather commercially shared by these different sectors. Those who speak least, however, are those who develop the technologies that will allow it, many of them, standardization committees such as the ETSI, the IEEE, the 3GPP and the IETF.

Xavier Vilajosana is a principal investigator of the Wireless Networks group of the IN3-UOC


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