Over the past two years, 5G has progressively emerged across the world. South Korea was one of the first countries in the world to launch 5G services nationally. It now has the highest penetration rate in the world with 7.8 million users. China and the United States have also joined the race, set to the backdrop of a geopolitical battle over Huawei’s leadership in the domain. Europe is no exception: the technology is already available in 18 member states, as well as in the UK, Norway and Switzerland. Deployment there remains very gradual, however, and should not be completed until around 2025.
In France, the rollout plan has accelerated in recent months, with Arcep (an independent French agency in charge of regulating telecommunications in France) allocating the 3.5 GHz band frequency to various telephone operators. This enables the latter to launch their first commercial offers to the general public, after several years of infrastructure testing. According to a study by IHS Markit, 5G in France could generate $124 billion in revenue and 448,000 jobs by 2035. However, the 5G commercial launch has not sparked a gold rush and rollout remains slow. Back in mid-December on France Inter radio, the president of Bouygues Telecom, Olivier Roussat, explained by putting things into context: “Only a few tens of thousands of people are in the process of switching to 5G. It’s early days. Uptake starts extremely slowly.”
A world of possibilities
In concrete terms, 5G must improve existing mobile communications services for the general public, but most importantly, pave the way in new business applications. On paper, speed is multiplied by 10 compared to 4G. The increased bandwidth means new augmented and virtual reality experiences can be developed. For example, workers equipped with connected headsets will benefit from additional information or remote expertise during dangerous operations on a construction site. Mobility solutions are eagerly awaiting the improved latency as it will improve connected vehicle driving efficiency (self-driving shuttles, drones), making it more reliable and improving response times.
Beamforming and network slicing technologies specific to 5G will make the network infrastructure smart. Rather than broadcasting a continuous, undistinguished signal over a large area, beamforming will direct the signal to a terminal when it is needed. In a sense, the connection will therefore be on demand, optimizing energy use and improving signal stability and signal strength. As for network slicing, this enables a network to be sliced in order to dynamically allocate the frequency to various services. Factories, warehouses and airports can already develop solutions adapted to their needs via private 5G networks while waiting for national coverage to be completed.
A gentle revolution
However, most of these applications will still have to wait. Why? Because of spectrum management. The first rollout phase is much like an additional layer on top of the existing 4G network and does not exploit the technology’s full potential. 5G standalone (5G SA) operates autonomously and uses the most powerful millimeter spectrum. 5G SA is not expected to be authorized in France before 2022-2023. From then on, the most significant disruptive innovation will be possible since the network will be able to use both low frequencies (from 700 MHz) and very high frequencies (up to 26 GHz, a speed comparable to fiber) at the same time.
With frequencies authorized above 6 GHz, the United States is the only country in the world to use millimeter waves. The main problem lies in 5G standalone installation costs, which is much higher than a 4G antenna. What’s more, while the speed is incomparably more powerful, millimeter wave range is much smaller. At this frequency, waves also have more difficulty penetrating buildings. By way of comparison, a 700 MHz wave can cover 2 km in an urban area, while a 26 GHz wave covers approximately 150 meters. The latter will therefore be more relevant in very dense urban areas.
The good news is that many of the innovations expected with 5G don’t need the technology’s full potential. Some may be satisfied with a low speed and can already use LPWAN networks which have a very wide range. These inexpensive low-power wide-area networks have developed over the past 10 years, mainly with the two French protocols Sigfox and LoRaWAN. Together with their cellular competitors LTE-M and NB-IoT, they represent 92% of the IoT market for LPWAN networks.