Navigant Research Blog

5G: What It Is and What It Isn’t

Richelle Elberg — May 15, 2015

Anyone who follows the communications industry with any regularity has been hearing a lot lately about 5G technology—the amazing next generation of mobile (and fixed) technology that promises ubiquitous, low-latency, high-bandwidth connectivity. 5G will power the Internet of Things and provide always-on coverage for a hyper-connected society. Conceptually, energy cloud connectivity will be a piece of cake for 5G networks. Practically, however, it’s a long ways off.

What Exactly Is 5G?

Good question. The answer is, they’re still figuring it out. “They” being a multitude of organizations and standards bodies worldwide that are currently working independently; once they’ve each come up with working definitions, they will then all need to agree to standards and spectrum alignment issues, among others, before a final answer emerges. But 5G sounds really good on paper, especially the part about less than 1 millisecond (ms) latencies and 1–10 gigabits per second (Gbps) connections. Here are the generally agreed upon working specs for a 5G network:

  • 1–10 Gbps connections to end points in the field (not theoretical maximum)
  • 1 ms end-to-end roundtrip delay (latency)
  • 1000 times bandwidth per unit area
  • 10x–100x number of connected devices
  • 99.999% availability
  • 100% coverage
  • 90% reduction in network energy usage
  • Up to 10 year battery life for low-power, machine-to-machine devices

Cool, right? The problem is that there is currently no way that all of these conditions can be met simultaneously. Rather, certain characteristics will be needed for certain applications, while other characteristics are needed for others. And creating a ubiquitous, less-than-1 ms latency network may simply not be physically possible across large geographies. This is a pretty tall order. Delivering even a few of these goals will be tough while simultaneously reducing network energy consumption by 90.

When Will 5G Really Happen?

It may sound cynical, but it’s unlikely that 5G will become a meaningful communications platform anytime even close to 2020, which is the target date that most standards bodies have set for initial commercial deployments. For years in the nineties, I wrote articles about the zero billion dollar wireless data industry. Following the hype cycle, it took another 15 years before all the necessary components came together and real billions were generated by wireless data. Particularly given the lack of agreement today on the goals and purposes of 5G networks, it will be a decade or more before real-world installations develop. For an excellent overview of the issues and challenges faced in defining and developing the 5G networks of the future, check out this white paper from GSMA.

What Does 5G Mean for Utilities

Over the longer term, 5G infrastructure may power futuristic applications like autonomous driving and virtual reality as well as smart grid applications. But for utilities today, existing communications technology is more than adequate—in places where it’s available.

The bigger challenge for utilities is getting those networks more widely deployed with a holistic strategy for a multitude of energy cloud applications. Monitor the 5G evolution if you’re curious about how engineers plan to defy the laws of physics, but when it comes to your utility’s network, consider the best existing solutions for the smart grid applications of today and tomorrow as you build and extend connectivity throughout the grid.

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