5G will have to do more than send speed up your phone, Ericsson says

Next-generation mobile networks may run in multiple modes to support industrial and other uses

For consumers looking forward to 5G mobile technology for super-high speed, network giant Ericsson says there will be more to it than that -- and less.

A 5G mobile standard isn't in formal development yet and isn't likely to be in commercial networks until 2020, according to Vish Nandlall, Ericsson's CTO and senior vice president of strategy, who spoke at the GigaOm Mobilize conference Wednesday. Even then, 5G won't be totally at consumers' beck and call to deliver their cat videos and social network feeds.

More so than any previous generation of cellular gear, 5G will have to serve two masters, Nandlall said. Between wireless sensors, industrial equipment and an array of consumer gadgets, in a few years there are likely to be 10 mobile connections per person. If 5 billion humans join the mobile world, that's 50 billion connections that 5G networks will need to serve.

Not all of those devices will be hungry for megabits per second, Nandlall said. For example, remote sensors may need slow connections to achieve decades of battery life, while other pieces of the so-called Internet of Things may have to have much higher reliability than consumers get when they're just making phone calls.

"Every now and then, those calls drop, and that's probably not something that we want if I'm putting an industrial application on it," Nandlall said. For example, a device that turns the floodgates on a dam had better work correctly and at the right time, he said.

Bandwidth-hungry consumers won't get left behind, Nandlall said: As the next major step in the standards process, 5G should deliver 10 times the speed of 4G, putting a theoretical maximum of 10Gbps (bits per second) on the books. But with many more uses of wireless emerging, service providers may carve up their 5G networks and dedicate only part of that capacity to what we think of today as the mobile Internet, he said.

In an example of software's growing role in networks, 5G should be flexible enough that carriers can reprogram and reconfigure their networks to accommodate different applications, according to Nandlall.

"Those will actually get different slices of the network with different technologies," including modulation schemes and levels of capacity, Nandlall said. He compared the future architecture to cloud computing with multiple tenants each running their own applications.

Meanwhile, 4G will coexist with 5G, along with Wi-Fi and other technologies, which may include a future lightweight protocol specially designed for machine-to-machine communications, he said.

By moving to 5G, carriers should be able to keep cutting the price of mobile data, Nandlall said. Most consumers haven't recognized falling prices because their consumption continues to rise, he said. Network efficiencies have slashed the cost of delivering a megabyte of data by about 50 percent per year, from about 46 cents in 2008 to between 1 cent and 3 cents now. That hasn't lowered subscribers' bills at the end of the month because average data consumption has been doubling or more each year, he said.

Those looking at requirements for future 5G networks want them to be able to support 50GB of data consumption per subscriber, per month.

Stephen Lawson covers mobile, storage and networking technologies for The IDG News Service. Follow Stephen on Twitter at @sdlawsonmedia. Stephen's e-mail address is stephen_lawson@idg.com

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