Over the past year we at Cumucore have delivered several bleeding edge 5G Stand Alone (SA) projects spanning media production, industry 4.0 and public safety. Though all different in implementation, each of these projects share a common thread and one very easy answer to our titular question, “is 5G is over hyped?”.
Short answer: No.
Long answer: It depends.
The even longer, more qualified answer and the subject of this blog is an important one as it is born of a year of 5G implementation, still in its early days, but delivering on the hype and then some.
That major waves of new technology are a double edged sword is an immutable fact, and 5G is no exception. The typical technological advantage of being able to do more with less – in 5G’s case, delivering massive flexibility at reduced cost – is diluted at the bottomless well of complexity. Beware the innovation with endless possibilities. And so, through our sample year of novel private network implementations where a sharp focus on the use case immediately delivers on the promise of 5G. We also get a strong hint at the herculean challenge of bringing those kinds of returns to more complex, fragmented, legacy-laden, general purpose systems, namely public networks. Let me explain.
In a non-public network there is always a specific problem that needs to be addressed. There is also existing infrastructure that needs to be integrated with very specific, use case-driven applications that are using the non public network. This makes it a much more complex playing field than a public, still best effort network, where coverage and speed test capacity is everything. When you have to deliver on all possible use cases, no specific use case is the order of the day. If everything is a priority, then nothing is.
So while in private networks understanding IP plans, application requirements and any technological restrictions to the finest detail is hard work upfront, it is also the key difference in delivering on a successful end-to-end use case. On the flip side, in our use case focused private networks, application requirements can be very well addressed thanks to the flexibility in the air interface. Let’s unpack that for a minute.
The 5G Air Interface
The 5G air interface is, in a word, a game changer. For someone like me, who’s spent most of their adult life on the radio side of wireless, tinfoil cap and all, the flexibility, mobility, power and efficiency of the 5G variety is something to behold. You can tailor uplink/downlink balance and select needed numerology to meet stringent latency requirements. But that is not all. You also gain all of the IP and application-level tools to build out unique use cases one device or application at a time. In a previous blog I went into some detail about the low physical and energy footprint of the 5G mobile base station, also known as the Cell on Wheels (COW), so I won’t gush on here. As amazing as this is, even more amazing is the fact that while pushing what we expect to be its limits, we still don’t know where 5G’s performance limits are. We can say that technology is much, much more flexible than previous generations.
In an Environment of Unlimited Flexibility, Beware Unbridled Complexity
This double-edged sword is true of most new technology paradigms and 5G is no exception.
So back to the question: “Is 5G over hyped”. The core advantages of 5G are flexibility and cost. The main challenges relate to the real possibility of runaway complexity. Still in the early stages, drawing strong conclusions about 5G is a bit immature, but here’s the case for why we believe the hype is warranted and then some.
On the flexibility / cost side, the returns of the virtualized service container paradigm deserves a #believethehype bump. In these deployments we have implemented all virtual network functions in containers allowing the environments to be scaled up and down at will just by adding or pulling virtual machines in the cloud. This virtual function flexibility on the microlevel plays up to the marco scale by allowing us to easily do multi-vendor 5G Cores within a hybrid cloud architecture. In this model we can, say, deploy all User Plane Function (UPF) on-premise while other Network Functions (NF) humm away in the cloud, ready for rapid scale up on demand.
On the efficiency side, and this is really amazing, we can see the low resource demand of the 5G Core in action as it can be run on practically any computer, even a Raspberry Pi.
Hint: Imagine what it can do on a HPE Spacebourne Computer-2.
Certainly we have not yet seen all possibilities and potential, and we may never get there, but suffice to say in practice we can bring the 5G Standalone (SA) network into any environment.
The other shoe in this 5G hype assessment relates to a very different flavor of 5G networks, namely the Non Standalone variety. This is the one that most of us will at some point be using day-to-day depending on our regional carrier’s technology roadmap. For this, call it generic brand of 5G, to deliver the goods is a more difficult challenge.
5G was introduced in public networks as a 4G update. That’s where the Non Standalone (NSA) label comes from. In this layered handoff, the handsets are using 4G signaling to access the 5G data layer. While this works in consumer use cases it doesn’t make any sense for non-public networks. There is also the small issue of how to switch from NSA to SA in public networks. We’ve all heard about Qualcomm switching chips can set phones a flame. But this will soon be, if it is not already resolved, opening up major opportunities, as the SA network has a significant cost advantage over NSA.
Another major challenge is the availability of frequencies for non-public networks. Not all frequencies are available in every country and where they are available the rules vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. As the demand seems to be really very high to at least test out non-public networks, early adopters will have to get in line.
No doubt but that 2022 will bring us a great deal of new learnings as we continue delivering private 5G SA networks free of ethernet cables. Among them, and just now shared here and among our partners is Cumucore’s induction into the Next Generation IoT (NGIoT) project with the EU and a catalog of real-world, high value IoT use cases. For additional background and a solid primer on the Cumucore 5G IoT value proposition along with an illustrative assessment of our company’s readiness and maturity in supporting digital transformation we invite you to read our NGIoT project contributor submission and case study.