Service providers, network equipment providers, and test equipment providers are all racing to deliver 5G wireless systems. We’ve all heard of the benefits of 5G: higher speeds, lower latencies, superior density. While fixed internet access is positioned to be the first major 5G application, many more are in the wings, including mobile applications.

While much of the industry is opining on the future benefits of 5G, there are other benefits as well. The huge investments in components, equipment, and know-how will spin off benefits outside of directly 5G networking. Here are five I’ve identified.

mmWave everything. Many 5G systems are based on the wide spectrum available at mmWave frequencies, essentially 30 GHz and above. Until now, these frequencies were the domain of military systems, satellite communication, and other comparatively niche applications. Not anymore. The giant investments into mmWave will produce a thriving commercial industry generating passive components, radios, power amps, antennas, and the like. Expect the prices of these components to drop steeply as volumes skyrocket, much to the benefit of existing applications.

Phased-array radar. One of the existing applications poised to benefit greatly from 5G mmWave is phased-array radar (Figure 1). Not only does phased-array radar share the same frequency bands, the beamforming techniques (Figure 2) are similar to those in 5G. After all, antenna beams are formed by the constructive and destructive interference of the signals received or radiated by each antenna element. This is true whether deployed in a cutting edge military defense system, or in a 5G base station streaming cat videos. The math that forms the beams is exactly the same. 5G mobile applications will add real-time tracking as well. The considerable investment into 5G low-cost phased array antennas, beamforming algorithms, and phase and amplitude adjustable components will lead to cost and productivity advancements for its higher end military cousins. An added benefit: the multichannel test equipment used to verify the beamforming design may be deployed for both sets of applications.

Movandi 64 element array
Figure 1 The original Movandi BeamX prototype is a 64-element mmWave phased-array antenna based on bulk CMOS processes. This is one example of commercial industry racing to bring mmWave components to the market. Image courtesy of Movandi Corporation.

Figure 2 Beamforming is critical to 5G, as it is critical to phased-array radar systems. Both applications will benefit as the industry brings technology and test equipment to the market. Image courtesy of Keysight Technologies.

Point-to-point mmWave backhaul. Often overlooked in the race to develop 5G radio technology are the backhaul challenges. That is, how does a 5G base station get access to the internet core when deployed? A traditional cellular deployment includes fiber cables that connect back to the service provider core network, which is then connected to the internet as a whole. Where possible and economical, this will still be the case. This, however, will be challenging for a number of reasons. First of all, 5G networks will be denser than traditional cellular networks, with base stations within 200 meters of each subscriber.

Fiber may not be readily available at each point, and adding fiber impedes one of 5G’s key selling points- easy deployments. Ideally, small 5G base stations are deployed on the occasional street light, tapping its electrical wires for power and avoiding new trenches. Backhaul can then be performed by point-to-point mmWave links to each base station. This system design requires no edge fiber at all, a key benefit to neighborhoods tired of trenched out streets. Longer range point-to-point links can be used for more rural residents. Economies of scale will make point-to-point wireless backhaul a more feasible alternative.

Gaming. Some of the top observers of network performance are gamers. This is due to gaming being dependent on both, high bandwidth and low latency. However, gamers are dependent on their local ISP's performance, which is often optimized for video streaming. It is estimated that over 70% of the internet traffic in North America is video streaming, which requires high bandwidths but is not latency critical. 5G may change that. With URLLC (ultra-reliable low latency communications), 5G promises latencies under 1 ms, making it suitable for remote robotics or even remote surgery. The entire network chain must be designed for low latency, not just the wireless portion. As these designs proliferate, low latency performance will become more available, whether on a 5G network or a wired network. These short latencies enable tactical feedback in numerous applications, including gaming, remote control (Figure 3), and factory automation. Expect these applications to flourish.

Figure 3
With 5G communications, a surgeon could wear a sensing glove while performing remote surgery. Once the network is provisioned for low latency communication, a myriad of applications become possible. Image courtesy of Ericsson.

Disrupting the edge. The internet has been an incredible disruptor, not just of the communication network, but of the general economy as a whole. The core communication network has been transformed from a circuit-switched network delivering voice services to a packet-switched network delivering data services. Most cell phone plans today include free long-distance dialing, but you pay for data. While the core network has been transformed due to optical backbones and Content Delivery Networks (CDNs), the edge retains the same topology it has always had: a phone or cable company offers internet service over wired lines.

With 5G, this is about to change. Fixed wireless access is an alternative method for internet access, and adds much needed competition to the ISP market. The recent debate about net neutrality highlighted fears that monopolistic ISPs would restrict internet access. Competitive ISP alternatives, such as with 5G, make this less likely, as doing so would lead to customers switching to their competitor. Even the threat of new entrants is likely to temper the actions of an existing ISP. After all, realizing that cellular providers are actively ranking city markets for best 5G opportunities, who wants to be the ISP that invites them in by mistreating their own customers?

This is not to say 5G networks will be net neutral. Paid prioritization, particularly for low latency communications, is expected. These are specialized networks that don’t fit the current ISP business model. A hospital may pay for a low-latency service between itself and its ambulances to perform on-scene triage surgery. But why stop there? Perhaps all low-latency applications will have a similar model. Gaming, robotics, education, medicine, and many other services may pay for specialized network features optimized for their needed characteristics. In the end, the edge may be transformed from a one-size-fits-all-love-it-or-leave-it architecture to one with a spectrum of performance attributes, enabling more applications.

And that may be 5G's largest unintended benefit of them all.

Larry Desjardin is a regular contributor to EDN's Test Cafe. He served in several R&D and executive management positions with Hewlett-Packard and Agilent Technologies.

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