Next-generation mobile networks, or 5G networks, have lately gained plenty of attention and even praise in the media. 5G networks promise to be very fast, delay-free, energy efficient and reliable. Some people are sceptical – will anything really change, or is 5G just hype?
Both views are partly true. From the viewpoint of ordinary mobile phone users, the jump from the current 4G to 5G may not be very dramatic, as the functionalities of existing networks are being gradually updated towards 5G. The change will not be sudden. Elsewhere, the change will be greater: In the future, more and more network traffic will pass between machines and equipment. Existing networks are unable to meet this demand. The amount of data passed through the network will multiply, and growing amounts of increasingly critical operations will be performed via wireless networks. Examples include smart traffic, unmanned ships or remote surgery. Partially funded by Tekes, 5G test network projects (www.5gtnf.fi) and the related research projects will research how far the limits of the new solutions can be pushed and what the users of new network solutions think they should be capable of.
What benefits does 5G offer, then? When combined with cyber security solutions, big data and the related analytics – and enabling IoT functionalities – 5G forms a digital service platform for all sectors. 5G is the cornerstone, offering a solution to the rapid increase in data transmission needs. What does this mean in practice?
Nokia's 4G/5G small-cell access nodes were tested at the Flow Festival, held in Helsinki this August. In major mass events, telecom networks are easily jammed as they are unable to carry traffic. Mobile 5G base stations complement the capacity of existing base stations – and the bits flow freely again. Meanwhile, one of the most extensive and longest fully automated traffic tests on a global scale is about to begin in Tampere – also using 5G solutions.
As a matter of fact, driverless cars would not be possible, even on a theoretical basis, without 5G. Driverless cars require fast, delay-free and reliable networks to such an extent that, without 5G, they would continuously drive off the road or collide with each other. These requirements also apply to remote surgery and future hospitals built around the Internet of Things. The development of the latter was recently boosted by IBM's involvement. In addition to speed, 5G stands for safety and security.
The race to introduce 5G solutions on the market is just like other races we have seen before. The Olympic Games – Korea 2018, Japan 2020 and China 2022 – set the stage for gradually rolling out solutions for the new generation. American and Korean operators are probably closest to introducing the first commercial test networks and the first non-standard outputs are expected to emerge in a couple of years.
Finland is at least as advanced in this regard. The test networks of Tekes's 5thGear programme and the related research projects, which were launched spectacularly during the world's largest mobile fair in Barcelona, are pioneering the testing of new solutions and showcasing Finnish expertise abroad. This expertise has attracted several foreign businesses to Finland in recent years.
Finnish open innovation cooperation is globally unique, and is not limited to industrial and academic partners. For example, the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications is contributing to the testing culture, by flexibly offering new 5G test frequencies. In early September in Oulu, Minister Berner challenged various operators to make proposals for amending legislation to better accommodate new business openings built around 5G solutions.
Let's return to the question I asked at the beginning. Will anything really change, or is 5G just hype? Some parts of 5G are old features for traditional use, but packaged in a new, improved form. At the same time, 5G offers many new and unforeseen features enabling future and new business – regardless of the industry. Digitality brings us together, while 5G makes this possible.
The author is Tekes's 5thGear Programme Manager