5G: How it works and what it does

Alexia Barakou

But not so fast. 5G hasn’t been rolled out yet and is still being piloted in many cities around Europe and the rest of the world. The allocation of radio frequency, through spectrum auctions, is still underway.

5G uses entirely new technology to deliver the promised ultra-quick connection and download speeds and in the absence of the necessary infrastructure will initially piggy-back off existing 4G infrastructure.

Ancestral lines: from brick to miniature marvel

To understand where the development is going, it’s useful to remember where cellular wireless started and what it offered users.

First generation mobile telephony (1G) delivered analogue voice from 1979 onwards. Think devices to size of bricks with floppy aerials. The introduction of 2G digital voice happened in 1991, riding on the back of the miniaturisation revolution with smaller, aerial-free devices that fitted in your pocket (just).

The first 3G networks came along in 1998, bringing with them mobile data and fast (relatively speaking) transfer rates. The fourth generation was introduced in 2008 heralding the era of mobile internet. For many, 4G is more than sufficient and still on an upwards development curve. 5G they argue is not ready, not needed and, at least in Europe, is being pushed by an industry in league with politicians who are waking late to opportunities that countries with more advanced 5G roll-outs, like the USA, China and South Korea, are ready to exploit.

William Webb is a consultant on wireless technology, visiting professor at numerous universities in Europe and the US, and author of ‘The 5G Myth’.

“4G continues to improve and delivers pretty much everything anyone wants. So there is no real need for a new generation. The timing is driven more by the industry than any consumer need. I suspect the 5G that is deployed will indeed be essentially an enhanced 4G, at least for the next few years.” 

He continues:

“For the manufacturers there is a clear benefit. If 5G is widely deployed then they will sell more equipment to the operators. For governments, there is perceived to be political benefit to ministers in aligning themselves with the latest digital technology. The problem is that it is not in the interests of most to say anything negative about 5G as they gain no benefit. This means the hype can run out of control.”

5G nuts and bolts

5G promises mobile data speeds far quicker than superfast home broadband, with speeds around 100 times faster than 4G (up to 100 gigabits per second). It makes three main advances on its forbear.

  • It uses broad channels in under-utilised parts of the radio frequency spectrum to transmit data, with little chance of overload at peak times.
  • The time lag in processing data (known as latency) is far lower than with 4G. In effect, this means virtually instantaneous connection to, and communication within, the network. Low latency has obvious value in applications like self-driving vehicles, remote robotics and traffic collision avoidance…and many more yet to be developed.
  • The capacity to connect a lot more devices and applications to each other will increase vastly.

Without these three, the much-anticipated Internet of Things, with its massive data handling workload, couldn’t happen.

5G, the child of 4G. Born a bit early?

3GPP (“3rd Generation Partnership Project”) is the multi-national standards body that is helping define the parametres of 5G. It  made a decision to accelerate the initial phase of 5G New Radio, the new global 5G standard, starting in 2019. The initial rollout of 5G New Radio will establish enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) to increase capacity and provide a heightened mobile broadband experience, with faster speeds and lower latencies. However, as with previous generations of mobile networks it will take time to for the 5G network to grow. Meantime, 4G will continue to serve as the carrier for years to come by providing gigabit data rates outside 5G coverage areas. 

4G works on “core” and “edge” technology, a kind of hub and spoke system with the hub storing data from many sources at a given time and passing it on to destination via towers clearly visible in cities, towns and the countryside. Although 5G will initially piggy-back on this, using its own network but with 4G infrastructure, the physics and function of the two generations are very different and eventually the old carrier will become obsolete.

To achieve big data handling, 5G will use part of the spectrum assigned for high-band wave, or millimetre wave. These are short-range waves incapable of travelling through walls or past trees which drop off and die after a few hundred metres. They can be individually targeted, but also have to be relayed from a base station via small antennae to avoid obstacles and reach their destination. These will be small, the size of fire alarm boxes or smaller.

Dr Michael Repacholi, former Chair of the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection and now Member Emeritus of the organisation, says:

“While 5G will commence by using the LTE [4G] frequency range, and mostly existing base station infrastructure, the number of base stations will have to increase substantially because radio frequency millimetre wave signals do not travel far before being absorbed in air.
These base stations need to be close to each other for the network to function. The number of base stations will mushroom. However, with increasing numbers of small base stations, people will be exposed to more uniform radio frequency fields, that will generally be lower than those from existing base stations.”

Cellular providers will fix tens of thousands of these small, low-power base stations, or cells, to street furniture such as lampposts and outside and inside buildings. Currently, 4G uses fewer, more powerful ‘macro cells’, constructed further apart thanks to their transmission range. So which is potentially more damaging to health? Numerous low power small cells, or fewer high power macro cells? No one’s definitively answered that yet, but it causes concern in some expert quarters.

Dr Fiorella Belpoggi, Director of Research at the Ramazzini Institute, Bologna, Italy, says:

“The difference lies in the fact that it will change and intensify the disbursement both in terms of intensity and coverage of the airspace, both on land and with satellites, and that there will be no point on the globe without coverage.

“Although millimetre waves have not been studied as such for long-term effects, the fact that they are similar to those of which we know the danger makes us worry even more.”

Prof. Eckhard Grass, Professor for Wireless Broadband Communication at Humboldt University Berlin, does not deny that electromagnetic radiation from mobile phones might pose a health risk. But he doesn’t believe 5G will increase that risk.

“More antennas do not automatically mean more, stronger electromagnetic radiation.”

In fact, he argues the opposite might be the case:

“The smaller the cells, the shorter the distance between the smart phone, or any other device, and the base station antenna. This reduces the necessary energy for the signal transmission from the phone to the next antenna and also the strength of the accompanying electromagnetic field around the phone near the head. So the electromagnetic “pollution” could become lower, or at least will not increase with 5G.

“The highest potential health risk is associated with mobile phones connecting to antennas two kilometres away, because this needs maximum transmission performance of 2 watts near the head.”

The Internet of Things (IoT)

“Nobody wonders if we really need all this internet of things.”

Dr Fiorella Belpoggi.

It may be too late to wonder. Appetites have been whetted and app designers are raring at the bit. In fact, very few smartphones are 5G ready, but that will change quickly with a host of new developments capitalising on faster and more reliable connectivity for professional and personal use. The Internet of Things will transform retail, manufacturing, logistics and supply chains, agriculture, the automotive industry and healthcare, to name just a few potential users in the commercial/service sector.

There’s also the Consumer Internet of Things (CIot). Household products will soon come with pre-embedded sensors and connectivity, enabling more efficient functioning and servicing. Smart kitchens will evolve with appliances that advise owners on everything from cooking tips and levels of household supplies to healthy eating and waste reduction. There’s climate control and immersive entertainment with virtual or augmented reality. The list goes on and on.

Mr Mario Di Mauro, chief strategy officer of Telecom Italia, identifies several key initial users of IoT. First, there’s us the consumers and manufacturers who are anticipating big consumer demand.

“The retail world […] will develop a lot on virtual reality around the Internet of Things at home, and this category also includes the world of e-health. The projects we are pursuing are a mirror of our future expectations: smart robotics, smart cities, smart cars. The automotive sector will be on top of the demand, then robotics will develop a lot. Also, the development of drones.”

Then there’s the equally huge sphere of public and community services, where a range of functions are likely to be clustered in master control rooms overseeing, for example, waste management, emergencies, health, public mobility and security. 5G will enable new services such as remote control of critical infrastructure and robot-led medical procedures. Smart public utilities, shopping centres, hospitals, farms, factories, offices, sports stadia and schools. Little will escape the march of 5G.

“[In] local administrations, the possibilities for development are enormous. Smart cities need infrastructures, platforms, applications and smart citizens capable of using all this,” says Mr Mario Di Mauro.

And then there’s driverless cars. Today, crudely speaking, these go forward and back, turn, brake, indicate and sense other vehicles. But they operate autonomously and don’t communicate with others – yet. 5G will change that, allowing for lightning interaction and response, on smart roads.

Or there are smart bandages that track your body’s healing. Advocates of all these ideas says they need the high bandwidth and low latency of 5G to function fully.

Professor Dariusz Leszczynski, a molecular biologist with a doctorate in the field from the Jagiellonian University, Krakow, in his native Poland, says:

“Politicians are completely mesmerized by sales pitches for this wonderful smart world. There will be so many advantages. And they are right, there will be many advantages. It will make a lot of money. Ericsson estimates that it will produce profits of 3 with 12 zeroes behind after a few years […] Politicians go for that because it provides jobs and wealth. Who would oppose this?”

A brave new world of progress and opportunity. However, Prof. Leszczynski predicts problems lying in wait, such as cyber security, the malfunctioning hardware and software…and exposure to unknown radiation levels of the very consumers the whole system is supposed to serve.

“Those who question philosophical and ethical issues like whether this radiation may be harmful, and whether cyber security may be weak, and whether we really need machines to do everything for us, are being pushed away. These people are often being ridiculed as foil hats,” he says.

The commercial reality of things

Some industry leaders, like Mr Mário Vaz, CEO at Vodafone Portugal, are also less sanguine, more cautious.

“We have to look at 5G in a dispassionate way, without political motivations and technological motivations,” Mr Vaz says. “[These] are accelerating in a very significant way the introduction of 5G. This acceleration is not new: it happened in 3 and 4G. New technologies should not arise by regulatory or political determination. They must come from a market need.

“It is inevitable that 5G will happen. 5G will be necessary. The business model that is recognizable today is the efficiency in data transmission. We note that the volume of current data, the devices to come, and the use cases associated with the latency issue will make evident the need for 5G.”

He continues: “But it is necessary that these use cases appear and that this need for data is justified. 4G and 4.5G already allow many of these cases. There is no obvious use case today that has economic or social potential […]. We are accelerating this need. 4G is not yet on the downward curve. It is in a phase of acceleration, with capacity for growth and absorption of data growth. But that has a limit. The sooner we reach this limit, the more it becomes necessary to introduce 5G.”

Mr Jorge Graça, Chief Technology Information Officer of NOS, one of the three big telecoms companies in Portugal, agrees:

“We consider the 5G calendar predominantly supported in a political agenda, and very distanced from the real needs of evolution of the networks and services. The technological immaturity of 5G substantiates this same precipitation which should only have as a consequence increased development and exploration costs that have in the long term conditioned the resources for a more assertive 5G rollout.

“In Europe, at least in countries like Portugal, we can’t find 5G drivers identical to those registered in the US or China. In the US there is greater maturity and use of 4G mobile network, since its adoption was initiated before Europe […]. In China the drivers are sustained in the use cases focused on leverage industry and IoT.

“Given that this framework imposes the allocation of spectrum to 5G by 30 June 2020, and further that during the year 2020 at least one large city [should be] covered by commercial service, in our opinion this is recklessly ambitious and, above all, inadequate and counterproductive.”

Economic value

A number of estimates suggest it will be years before the economic impact of 5G will be realised worldwide. Perhaps not before 2035. But the projected figures are staggering – potentially up to 12 trillion USD in goods and services, supporting millions of new jobs, many of which have neither a name nor a spec yet.

Mr Graça, of the Portuguese company NOS, says telecoms service providers will have to play a very very long financial game.

“Regarding new revenues, if we keep mobile broadband services as the main source of revenue, operators will find it difficult to monetise by the incremental nature of the service compared to what is offered on 4G networks. The various studies point to monetisation coming from the more complex applications of low latency and IoT, whose development costs are incomparably higher when compared to the historical costs of 4G.   

“Similarly, the perspective of reducing development and operating costs, in the first phase of lower maturity, is compromised by factors such as high costs of spectrum acquisition, implementation and operational complexity.

“The most complex application value chains, such as autonomous, robotic and IoT driving that require highly specialized network infrastructures, are today sedimentary, despite the increasing emergence of influence groups and collaboration in vertical areas [such as] smart grids among others.”

Mr Mario Di Mauro, Chief Strategy Officer of Telecom Italia, says the clock is ticking, demanding quick footwork.

“We have to work fast, very fast. In the past we have already been bypassed, for example by the message market, text messages. Now there is the German car industry that wants to do all the development of 5G by itself, to speed [things] up. This is why we innovate. We want to be first. The American GSMA [Global System for Mobile Communications Association] estimates that in 2025 fifty per cent of users will use 5G. We’ll be there.”

As a reminder that for most people personal health always trumps personal things, however cool and multi-functional they are, a final cautionary word goes to Professor Lennart Hardell, a renowned oncologist at Örebro University hospital, Sweden, known for his research into environment-generated cancers.

He suggests we’re all “on a wrong track”. If 5G is to be introduced without the closing down of 3G and 4G, Prof. Hardell argues, it will increase radiation produced by the many small antennas that need to be positioned in urban areas every 100 to 150 metres.

5G: Who’s Who? Click to see scientists, organisations and how they are connected