5G is one of the hottest topics in the telecoms industry – and beyond – at the moment. Most telecoms or IoT conferences and tradeshows are awash with discussions on next-generation cellular radios, while many politicians and regulators use it as a centrepiece in their countries’ technology strategy announcements. There is an expectation that it will bring gigabit-speed mobile data to smartphones, ultra-low latency for demanding use-cases like drones and machinery, or enable industry “verticals” with millions of sensors or customised needs for connectivity.
It is also often linked to edge-computing (with servers envisaged at the base-station or roadside), and the concept of “network slicing”, which allows all these various use-cases to coexist happily on a single infrastructure. All this is due to arrive from 2020 onwards, with some early showcases even sooner.
Yet in reality, much of this is hype and wishful-thinking. And in any case, most of this is happening outside of Ammbr’ s near-term domain, either as opportunity or threat.
Ultimately, 5G will indeed become important, and help network owners generate new revenues and new use-cases. It will doubtless intersect with Ammbr’s world. But it will be complex, expensive and piece-meal in the first years of its existence.
much of this is hype and wishful-thinking
The first deployments will be for fixed-wireless “last mile” access, probably in the US or South Korea, either to suburban homes outside of reach of fibre, or perhaps to feed connectivity to apartment blocks. Next will come familiar mobile broadband, aimed at smartphones used in the most-dense locations in big cities, or structures like sports stadiums.
Neither of these are ideal markets for Ammbr to consider – for the most part, they will be addressed by major carriers in developed markets, buying equipment from major network suppliers, connecting top-end devices. In addition, 5G cells will still need to work (initially) with a 4G core network. They will also need fibre connections – perhaps multiple fibres – to deliver backhaul or fronthaul capacity, especially where “massive MIMO (multiple-in, multiple-out)” is used for “beam-forming” in 5G, using multiple antennas simultaneously. And they will be working mostly in licensed spectrum – typically in quite “high” bands of 3.5GHz and above, which will suit outdoor large cells, as the signals will struggle to penetrate walls. None of this is a focus for Ammbr in the short term.
The next phase of 5G will likely focus on IoT – either “massive IoT”, or “ultra-reliable low-latency”. The former is aimed at dispersed networks of mostly simple and low-power devices. Think about a smart city, with many thousands of sensors or timetable-displays for transport, or “connected objects” like refuse bins or shared bicycles. The more-demanding URLCC uses for 5G are being aimed at things which need millisecond response times, such as delicate machinery, or robots and drones.
URLCC 5G is also being heavily-hyped for autonomous vehicles, although in reality these will do most of their realtime analysis and decision-making in hugely-powerful onboard computers. 5G could be good for navigation, upload of telemetry to the central machine-learning database, or entertainment for the passengers.
In the long-term, we could imagine a future 5G Ammbr small cell module as a hub for IoT devices of either type – perhaps “distributed smart city meshes”, or allowing passing vehicles to purchase capacity in ad-hoc fashion using micro-transactions. But there are many “moving parts” and technology evolution cycles to consider before then.
Discussions about 5G for developing markets, or semi-rural areas are taking place as well – but as yet, there has been only limited traction. As with most new wireless technologies, the earliest deployments will be based on expensive (often custom-integrated) equipment in the most densely-used locations, run by engineers employed by large, leading-edge carriers. It will take time – likely 5+ years – for costs and experience levels for infrastructure, chipsets and devices to progress down the curve for more marginal markets. There is a possibility that one of the Chinese operators – or perhaps Reliance Jio in India – might catalyse a faster move along with local device partners, but so far that seems improbable.
A couple of other options have potential too – the fixed-wireless variant of 5G could be used instead of existing point-to-point solutions in rural areas, or as a main connection to a small town or village from a central hub. An Ammbr mesh could then be deployed locally within that location, allowing the capacity to be shared between multiple homes.
We will also get 5G small-cells operating in unlicensed spectrum bands, as we see today with 4G variants such as LTE-U. These are intended either for use as extra capacity for major carriers alongside licensed frequencies (LTE-U and LAA), or as “standalone” networks (MulteFire). This has more potential for Ammbr to work with, although we would still need to address how we implement core networks – and what devices we can connect to, as few things can support these technologies today.
Looking further ahead, there are plans to develop various types of 5G relay and mesh – albeit under centralised control, rather than Ammbr’s decentralised, blockchain-based vision. Maybe, when Ammbr’s footprint in community meshes is broad enough, we can suggest some of our own innovations could take roles in future 3GPP standardisation processes?
In the short-to-medium term, though, 5G’s hype has one other potential upside for Ammbr – albeit perhaps a slightly cynical one. It seems that many policymakers are just using “5G” to mean “advanced wireless networks”, without being too precious about the exact technology.
Indeed, much of the industry description of 5G suggests it can be an “umbrella” for many different radio technologies. When governments award funding for supposedly 5G-based projects, their definitions may be a little loose. The UK government, for instance, has already announced a set of 5G testbed projects, including one  which describes itself, rather confusingly, as “5G community Wi-Fi in health and social care”. If we take this malleability a bit further, perhaps Ammbr deployments could also be positioned as a “5G multi-radio mesh” by more imaginative project leaders?
In summary – we at Ammbr are watching 5G’s progress with interest. It is great to see so much high-level attention on mobile technology. We are slightly concerned that some governments seem to think that it could be “one technology to rule them all”, but also optimistic that the extra time and resources will also benefit alternative technologies such as ours. In the medium-to-long term we too might look to create 5G radio modules – but we’ll need to see considerably greater maturity before that becomes practical option.