Whenever a new generation of wireless-network technology arrives, we typically start hearing about its rollout long before it becomes part of our everyday lives.
The first 3G network was launched in 1998, but the main services that 3G enabled – mobile email and video streaming – only took off properly in the early 2000s (it would be 2005 before YouTube entered our lives). The world’s first 4G network was launched at the end of 2009, bringing us speeds 500 times faster than 3G and supporting the services we grew up with in the 2010s: group video chats, online gaming, and browsing as if on a desktop.
Now we’re into the era of 5G, with a stop-start rollout pattern that mirrors the development of its predecessors. But whereas previous network generations enabled step changes in consumer services, the introduction of 5G is more of a giant leap forward for the way in which industry uses network technology. With its capacity to handle massive amounts of data at low latency (i.e. with very little delay) and offering the ability for networks to be split into slices, 5G promises to transform wireless communications across many sectors.
“One of the things that makes 5G different is that the network software runs in the cloud, instead of on a physical server. This makes scaling 5G up and down for different functions much easier and more flexible than was possible with previous wireless generations,” says Raimo Kantola, Professor of Networking Technology at Aalto University.
“The rollout of a new generation always takes several years, as base stations need to be installed at tower sites and then properly integrated with the network,” he says.
“In some parts of Europe, spectrum licenses for 5G have not even been awarded yet. But in Finland things are moving ahead well, with the mobile operators recently announcing that their 5G coverage now reaches 30 to 40 percent of the population. The rollout is progressing quickly in the United States and China too,” says Kantola.
One network, many slices
Aalto University contributes to the field with research into the industrial use cases that 5G enables.
Using equipment donated by Nokia, a team from the Department of Communications and Networking has been running a small 5G network on the university’s campus since early 2019. The team is led by Staff Scientist Jose Costa-Requena, who also serves as CEO of network-technology developer Cumucore.
“All the earlier generational shifts in this industry were about bringing more, better and faster services to consumers. But 5G is mainly for industrial usage and establishing private networks,” says Costa-Requena.
“In addition to its high bandwidth and low latency, one of the key features of 5G is its capacity for the network to be split into what we call slices,” he says. “Each slice is essentially a network in its own right, with a security and data-handling profile that may be completely different to the next slice. This allows mobile operators to build multiple specialized private networks for their customers.”