Will 5G herald true converged communication?

Posted 13 May 2021

It is promised that 5G will revolutionise mobile and wireless communications to facilitate exciting new applications. The primary new use cases that 5G is intended to address are high-speed broadband delivered over wireless, ultra-reliable low-latency applications like autonomous vehicle coordination, and high density, low power IoT devices, such as smartphones and watches. 

In this article, we will look at the implications of 5G, how it will change the way we carry out day-to-day tasks and how it will impact enterprise voice in a mobile environment, but first let’s take a look at why 5G is different to preceding generations of mobile technology.

Why is 5G better than 4G?

Each generation of mobile technology has delivered incremental improvements in mobile data throughput and density of users that can be serviced per unit area in busy urban locations, meaning more people connected and receiving greater speeds. 

For a given spectrum band and background noise level, there is a hard upper bound, the Shannon limit, which determines the number of bits per second that can be reliably sent and received in total within that spectrum band. 4G LTE networks are already reaching their capacity limit that the radio spectrum has allocated to it. 

To ensure reliability, the frequencies that are used by the various applications and providers must be coordinated to prevent competing networks interfering with each other. Everything from civilian and military radar, broadcast radio and TV, through to mobile networks all have their own reserved, licenced spectrum. Bands within the licensed spectrum are assigned by national regulators OFCOM for exclusive use by operators, such as BT, Virgin Media, Sky and Vodafone etc, in a given area. 

There is also an unlicensed spectrum, mostly at the higher bandwidths that have limited geographic reach. This is available to all, but devices are responsible for resolving competing uses between themselves. Wi-Fi, for example, uses unlicensed spectrum in the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands, but the protocol standards define how the radios “play nicely” to avoid conflicts. 

As well as additional conventional licenced bands that have been freed up and allocated to 5G, it sidesteps the very restricted bandwidth available in two ways: 

Using License Assisted Access (LAA) in which 5G devices and base stations use the licenced spectrum to coordinate the use of locally available unlicensed spectrum to increase the size and number of available bands to transmit data between them. 

Using small cells in the “millimeter band” frequency ranges with very wide bands to deliver large quantities of bandwidth.

A different kind of network

The small cell size significantly changes the capabilities of a high-frequency band 5G network compared to 4G but means that it must be deployed very differently. In these bands, there is much more available bandwidth and the network can support a much higher density of devices. There is a cost to this though, the signals in this spectrum band don’t travel over significant distances (100s of metres rather than kilometres), and don’t travel well through walls. 

Therefore, millimetre wave 5G cells will need to be deployed at very high densities within buildings and in urban areas to deliver promised results in performance. 

This cell model is very different from the wide-area coverage models of previous mobile operator technologies. It brings some interesting challenges like who pays for and manages the physical 5G network infrastructure within the walls of an enterprise? One mobile network operator, who then charges the enterprise for data access? The enterprise itself, carrying its own private data service but also allowing multiple network operators access via its infrastructure? 

There are technical solutions like MONeH (multiple operator, neutral host) that allow local network infrastructure sharing by competing networks, but it is unclear how the commercial arrangements will work in an environment where significant investment is needed for 1000s of cells which must be deployed and backhauled by fibre connections to provide the required bandwidth. 

If fully implemented, 5G promises to merge the benefits of a mobile network, with the bandwidth, and latency of a LAN.

True convergence

In the early 2000s voice over IP protocol implementations started taking phone calls off dedicated and costly time-division multiplexing (TDM) infrastructure instead, making voice simply another service that ran over a pervasive IP network. 

That project has just about run its course. Even before ISDN switch off, the reality is that non-VoIP links are now islands in an environment where telcos and their customers mostly transport voice around their networks in IP packets, only occasionally converting to or from legacy circuits where they are encountered. 

Mobile has always been a bit of a hold-out from this environment. Even though our smartphones have IP connectivity most of the time, placing a call through a VoIP client when away from the corporate LAN has always been a bit of a lottery. Reliability and specifically latency and packet loss of mobile data have always made the native phone dial button the “safe” option when away from the office. 

Remote workers and their organisations have been robbed of the many the benefits of a sophisticated voice system like the IPCortex platform. Call records and call recordings are missing when critical business calls are made from employees’ mobiles directly, and control of the CLI isn’t possible so return calls go directly to the employee. This makes it hard to control employee duty schedules or deliver a consistent customer experience. 

On the inbound side, we often avoid including mobile clients within extension groups which take inbound calls, even if those employees are available to pick up a call because the risk of a poor mobile call connection is too great. 

If 5G does deliver ubiquitous, reliable low latency connectivity then ensuring that all business calls go through the platform via our smartphone client will become feasible. The location of the endpoint will become irrelevant as the end to end VoIP calls allow all the control and features of the platform to be used irrespective of the access technology. This will bridge the last major gap in pervasive network independent converged communications. 

IPCortex is focused on developing quality products and features that exceed partner expectations. 

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