The network of networks with endless possibilities

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Although 5G isn't slated to start in earnest until 2020, this new communication standard has been making waves in the telecommunication sector for some time. And speed isn't everything. Not just faster, but also better, more reliable and more individual – that's what communication with 5G will be like. What's more, it won't only be people that are communicating with one another. Cars, heating systems and even trash cans will also become active network participants, posing completely different challenges than the needs of flesh-and-blood Internet users. 5G will enable the Internet of Things. Still a far-off scenario? No. Many of the building blocks for communication with 5G are already embedded in its predecessor, 4G.

Four becomes five

The leap from 4G to 5G isn't just a simple "plus one"; instead, it's a smooth transition with many small, intermediate steps. Looking at the latest developments under 4G and the current technical evolution, it isn't easy to determine where 4G ends and where the fifth generation will begin. One thing is certain though: the new communications standard will not only cover mobile but fixed networks as well. 

4G is also called LTE, an acronym for Long Term Evolution. And the name can be taken literally, because 4G is nowhere near maxed out yet; the needs of most users are expected to be provided for the foreseeable future on the basis of this fourth generation mobile technology. LTE Advanced and its successor LTE Advanced Pro won't be the last stops on the way to 5G either. As such, 4G evolution will be adopted as a baseline of a generic 5G standard laying the groundwork for its coverage and performance.

The foundation for a connected society

The coming fifth generation of the global communication standard differs from its predecessors in many ways, however. 5G is much more flexible than the previous wireless standards and is designed to serve the future needs of connected things alongside human communications. Technically speaking, "the network" will therefore no longer exist. Instead, there will be a number of virtual networks, operated in parallel, based on a shared physical infrastructure. That means 5G will be a network of networks, one that can meet the individual needs of all participants, opening up heretofore unimagined possibilities.

Network slicing – smart, flexible and tailor-made

To meet these different, often conflicting requirements adequately, the provided network infrastructure is going "smart." And that's the real innovation of 5G. The network's intelligence will be enabled with a method called "network slicing." To date, networks have been inflexible. Customers (people, businesses and machines) had to take what was available, and all networks had very similar services to offer. In 5G, networks will change gear and become smarter, more flexible and more tailored to specific customers’ needs. With this approach, the network can deliver low latency slices for gaming and robotics applications, fast data rates for UHD streaming and low-energy, wide-area narrowband connections for maintenance-free communication with billions of sensors (NarrowBand IoT).

Low latency – guaranteed fast response times

Latency, or response time, describes the time between an event and a visible reaction to it. In telecommunications, physics is the greatest obstacle to latency – the length of the routes that the data has to travel in the networks determines how long it takes before users notice a response. What does that feel like? Take mobile virtual reality (VR) experiences, for example: when you wear VR goggles and move through virtual worlds, your head movements provoke a response from a remote server: a change of the field of vision that matches the movement, and thus the user's expectations. The rule of thumb is quite simple: the shorter the delay, the more realistic the user's experience of the virtual worlds is likely to feel. The same goes for online gaming.

Future topics like autonomous driving also require extremely short response times. Take, for example, the information that a moving vehicle has just braked around the next corner or just over the crest of a hill in front of an autonomous vehicle. That data will need to flow through the networks and be processed and delivered, all at lightning speed. The vehicle behind it will only be able to respond appropriately if it receives the information in time.

Moreover, it is hugely important in many industry sectors that fast response times on the network aren't just achieved now and then, but guaranteed with complete reliability. This guaranteed latency (maximum delay) is one of the outstanding features of 5G. Deutsche Telekom engineers have already achieved extremely short response times in the 5G network and can guarantee them. 5G latency times can be selected flexibly for different needs and service levels.

NarrowBand IoT – Narrowband with a broad vision

The network infrastructure must also be ready to interconnect machines, cars and countless other things via the Internet of Things. It is no longer a question of handling only a few hundred smartphones in every radio cell, but tens of thousands of devices and sensors.

The narrowband network for the Internet of Things (IoT) is a globally established standard that makes IoT solutions possible that would be unimaginable with "normal" mobile communications, because the energy needs would be far too high and the networks would quickly collapse under the load of thousands of devices and sensors in a single cell. Narrowband communication works using radio waves (3GPP) that permit particularly extensive coverage. At the same time, these waves can get through thick concrete walls and into far flung corners of any building, penetrating also the floors below ground level. Since the sensors usually only transmit relatively small data packages each hour or day, their energy needs are low. They can be operated for years without needing their batteries changed.

One use case involves gas and water meters which – in contrast to smart meters – are not connected to the electricity grid. What's more, they are often located in cellars, where mobile reception is usually weak or not available at all. Using battery-operated NarrowBand IoT modules, service providers can read such meters remotely without requiring the customer to stay home to let them in.

And in smart cities, narrowband technology can be used to manage street lighting or parking spaces, for example. Streetlights that are retrofited with the appropriate modules can send signals when they break down or be controlled remotely, for instance, when a sensor detects pedestrians, bicyclists or cars. Connecting parking spaces with NB-IoT can optimize their utilization: a smart parking guidance system directs drivers to the next free parking space on the shortest possible route.

Flexible for the future

Autonomous driving, smart parking, remote reading of gas and water meters… All scenarios for the near future. But what will happen next? Which applications will we be using then? Previously, every new technology had specific characteristic attributes – and all the devices that were to work with it had to follow them. But 5G turns the tables. A visionary application specifies the need and the network will be flexible in its response to it. The beauty of this logic is that we cannot yet predict which 5G-based application scenarios will be created over time. The only essential aspect and common driver is an intelligent network as the foundation to all of them. A network that adapts to visionary ideas and will thus enable a multitude of new and innovative solutions.

For more information, see Deutsche Telekom's 5G Special.

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