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How networking can prepare for 5G mobile technology

An 'average Joe' engineer discusses the impact 5G mobile technology may bring to his operation as developments around the standard heat up.

If there is such a thing as an average IT guy, I think I fit the bill. Having worked in networking from the physical...

layer through applications -- with a concentration on LAN and wireless LAN -- my resume probably reads similar to a lot of folks out there in Network Land. I've seen a lot of changes and a fair amount of hype in my 20-plus years in networking, and now I find myself contemplating one of the biggest technology changes on the horizon: 5G.

I don't claim to represent all my fellow average IT guys or gals, but I'm guessing a lot of them are also starting to listen to the building 5G buzz, trying to process what it may mean to them. Here's how I see the current and future impact of 5G mobile technology on my own corner of the world.

Confusion now, confusion later

I see a lot of conflicting information in 5G-related articles and projections. This isn't really surprising, given some Wi-Fi industry marketing types thought it would be swell to commandeer the 5G moniker and apply it to 802.11ac Wi-Fi as the fifth major incarnation of wireless LAN (WLAN) technology.

This was just terrible, and the notion of "G" ought to be left to mobile networks. As it is, when you read an article about 5G, you have to get through the first few sentences to figure out if the topic is high-speed mobile broadband or an idiotic WLAN marketing term.

Also adding to the confusion over 5G mobile technology is it is so loosely defined right now. We know 5G will hands-down be faster than 4G wireless tech by an order of magnitude, but many of the specifics won't be firmed up until 2019 or 2020, and then there will likely be years of evolution before a standard emerges after that. Networking people like discreet metrics a lot better than "four times faster, 10 times better, etc.," but that's all we have when 5G expectations are compared to 4G. It'll eventually tighten up, but I encourage keeping an open mind until we get there.

A lot of new coming our way with 5G wireless technology

Some of 5G's eventual impact is easy to envision -- like everyone needing a new iPhone XV that retails for $5,000 or some such. But 5G will indeed drive a lot more new -- beyond merely needing new headsets -- including  new additional cell sites and fiber strategies needed to backhaul the enormous capacities associated with 5G; radical changes in the in-building cellular market; and sensors and controls that we can't yet envision in oddball locations that right now seem unimaginable.

On our own networks, 5G technology might complicate things. If we suddenly have a slew of internet-of-things devices not actually logically connected to LAN or WLAN topologies, device management could get interesting. Some of this has cloud written all over it.

5G raises specter of metered services

The cable companies and Verizon FiOSes of the world will likely feel competition from 5G's capacity and low-latency design that make all kinds of exciting things possible in the home. From entertainment to telehealth and telecommuting, big pipes deliver big networked-enabled opportunities.

But those same big pipes let more traffic through faster, and nothing is worse than hitting your plan limits and facing overages on metered data plans. Given the same folks who do 4G now will be doing 5G in the future, I find the question of, "How is this going to be billed to me, the little guy?," one of the most worrisome among all unknowns around 5G.

Distributed networking and the underserved

I can't help but contemplate the impact 5G might bring on the large-venue WLAN market ...Could 5G make more sense than multimillion-dollar WLAN installations?

Often, a 4G edge router -- think Cradlepoint-type gear -- is the fundamental building block of a small business out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes, the 4G connection is enough to get by, and sometimes not, depending on what goes on over the network. But 5G should be profoundly enabling to these far-flung stores and shops once the network is built out, and I'm assuming options like data plan pooling will be in play to help keep costs down. One of my farm customers recently brought up 5G, hoping it will make its spotty 4G connection better for business operations and hosting agricultural workshops over the network.

Also way out there on the fringes are a lot of currently underserved, can't-get-any-real-network areas thirsty for even a mediocre connection. Many 5G mobile technology discussions also dovetail with rural-broadband initiatives -- at least in the more altruistic conversations -- and I hope 5G network expansions actually help to finally bring a decent option to those whose only option right now might be slow, lagging satellite ISP. Whether 5G is used as backhaul or access or not, hopefully it gets more people online who now live in challenging environments.

The end of stadium and large-venue Wi-Fi?

This is not a prediction I see anyone else making, but I can't help but contemplate the impact 5G might bring on the large-venue Wi-Fi market. If a 5G cell can provide an estimated "tens of thousands of users" with 10+ Mbps each -- one popular estimation, where speeds get better all the way to over 1 Gbps as you reduce the number of users -- could 5G make more sense than multimillion-dollar WLAN installations in pro stadiums? Or, will 5G be so pricy that the same multimillion-dollar WLAN is cheap by comparison to a competing 5G approach? I guess time will tell, but it is interesting to think about.

There's obviously a lot to think about related to 5G mobile technology, including timing, the expense and its effect. There's also the question of how 5G might affect the allocation and grabbing of frequencies, and whether new spectrum-use efficiencies will arise from 5G. I can't say I'm worried about 5G, but I know the changes it will bring may exceed anything I've experienced in my career so far. It should be, as they say, interesting.

This was last published in February 2018

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What are your thoughts on new 5G mobile technology?
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Whether it's 5G or 802.11ax, they're all going to face the fundamental issue of radio propagation physics. At any given dBm signal level and channel width, both are going to yield similar throughput. The difference is that cellular systems tend to be more managed and more efficient per MHz of bandwidth, but they always have far less radio bandwidth than unlicensed 5 GHz.
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