Technologists are always looking for the next best thing and sometimes it seems solutions are sought for problems that don’t exist. However in the realms of mobile broadband, the European Commission is convinced the 4G mobile phone networks that are only just being rolled out will not be adequate to meet our needs by the end of this decade. They forecast that by 2020 worldwide mobile traffic will increase 33 times compared to 2010 figures. Which is why, earlier this year, the EC’s Vice President Neelie Kroes announced a €50 million grant for EU research aimed at delivering 5G mobile technology within this timeframe, also hoping to put Europe back in the lead of the global mobile industry (source: European Commission).
The EC is not alone in this belief. China is also promoting a government-led 5G research program and, more recently, Korea’s Samsung Electronics revealed interest in 5G by announcing its development of the world’s first adaptive array transceiver technology for cellular communications, operating in the millimeter-wave Ka bands. Samsung claims this technology will achieve transmission rates several hundred times faster than current 4G networks, “offering a ubiquitous gigabit per second experience to subscribers everywhere” (source: Samsung Tomorrow).
This all sounds wonderful, but, as many reading this will appreciate, it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to turning this dream into reality. The complexities involved in delivering massive data files including high-quality digital movies should not be underestimated. Even Samsung’s demonstration of a 1Gbps transmission on a 28GHz carrier signal over a 2km range requires 64 antenna elements to overcome the radio propagation losses at these frequencies and ensure a reliable connection.
And what about the base stations? If these are to serve up 1Gbps broadband to multiple handsets then what bandwidth do they require and how many users can they support simultaneously? Samsung talks of “several tens of Gbps per base station”, after which presumably even these services will incur the bandwidth throttling (aka contention ratios) familiar to most users of conventional wired broadband services.
Nevertheless, while perhaps thoughts of mobile broadband replacing all wired Internet connections may seem overly ambitious, the promise of fast, easy-to-use and reliable mobile Internet will be very welcome especially to mobile users whose experience has been jaded by the patchy and unpredictable performance of 3G services – how often have you waited to have a webpage load on your phone only to see the 3G icon disappear as the signal drops while you are on the move!
Of course in a forum like this we should recognize past successes in developing all the various technologies and areas of expertise that have got us to where we are today. Just cast your minds back, and it’s not that many years ago, to the days of first generation analog mobile phones and dial-up Internet phone connections. Core to many of the advances we have seen since then have been the inexorable improvements in the underlying semiconductor processes used to produce the various devices that go into our mobile phones, and also into the base stations and other infrastructure equipment. These circuits integrate the radio transceivers, complex DSP-based modems, core processors, the audio, video and graphics functions and a range of other features that today we can no longer live without.
So if 5G can really deliver a fast, seamless, mobile Internet service, then bring it on!