The fifth-generation wireless technology promises an array of enhancements over previous generations. 5G is becoming the decisive competitive factor on the way to networked production - from product development and production to intralogistics and goods dispatch. In the future, applications such as driverless transport systems, conveyor systems and belts, dynamic storage and sorters or robots will be controlled by high-performance radio technology. But without standards and spectrum, it remains a game of wait and see.

Now the race is on to launch a next-generation digital mobile technology capable of communicating with autonomous cars, androids and drones in near real time. The technology, dubbed 5G for fifth generation, is the latest evolution – or better revolution – of cellular communications. What makes it unique from previous generations is its potential to connect not only millions of people around the world and provide them with higher speeds to stream HD-quality video or use virtual reality applications, but also trillions of machines, sensors and other devices in vertical industry sectors as divergent as manufacturing, transportation, health and energy. The buzzwords are Industry 4.0 (the “smart factory”) and the Internet of Things (IoT).

Unlimited connectivity for Industry 4.0?

Does this all sound too good to be true? For sure, each generation of mobile technology has generated plenty of hype: 5G is no exception. There is an incessant and triumphant stream of predictions of its seemingly ubiquitous, instantaneous and unlimited connectivity. In fact, its very name is just a marketing term right now. There are no 5G standards — yet. The International Telecommunications Union hopes to have them ready by 2020. So until then, 5G refers to a handful of different technologies that are predicted, but not guaranteed, to emerge at some point over the next several years.

More than twice the LTE speed

That said, several criteria for 5G standards have already been established. The new wireless technology should be capable of delivering download speeds of 2 gigabit-per-second from the start, with the ultimate goal of as much as 100 gigabits. Maximum latency should be under 5 milliseconds and as low as 1 millisecond or less, which is essential for applications like autonomous cars. No less impressive, the technology should be able to connect 1 million devices per square kilometer and deliver energy savings of 90 percent over existing systems. To put this into context, 5G from the start will be more than twice as fast as the current four-generation technology, LTE (long-term evolution), and have a much shorter latency rate, compared to the previous generation’s 50 milliseconds.

Worldwide trials underway

While 5G standards are being hammered out, trials using pre-standardized systems are already popping up around the world. The European Union joins the United States, China, Japan and South Korea in the race to capture a chunk of the market for intellectual property, network expertise, device manufacturing and application development. Germany appears to be particularly fertile ground for piloting the new technology. National network operator Deutsche Telekom and vendor Nokia Networks are currently conducting a 5G pilot for infrastructure systems in Hamburg’s busy port. One of the technologies being probed there is so-called “network slicing,” which allows operators to split a single physical network into multiple virtual networks to meet specific demands, such as higher data speeds, lower latency or greater security.

Last year, the German telco, together with Chinese equipment supplier Huawei, tested an ultra high-speed, pre-standard 5G antenna in Berlin in a real-world setting. The test demonstrated how instructions for fixing a communications system could be streamed to a technician wearing augmented reality glasses and superimposed on his lenses for guidance.

Germany and Asia are breeding grounds for innovation

Research is also underway on a 30 kilometer-stretch of autobahn between Nuremberg and Greding in southern Germany where several companies, including network operator Vodafone, vendor Ericsson and carmaker BMW have created an infrastructure and real-life application environment to test 5G vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure services under extreme network loads and at very high speeds. Ericsson has also helped launch the “5G:Haus” innovation lab with Deutsche Telekom as well as the “5G Application Lab” within the smart logistics cluster linked to the prestigious technical university RWTH Aachen.

No less a hotbed for 5G innovation is Asia, where South Korea used the Winter Olympics to showcase the technology. Among the various applications demonstrated at the PyeongChang Winter Games was “immersive broadcasting.” The demonstration offered a close-up viewing experience with 5G-powered cameras, communication equipment and sensors attached to players, sports gear and arenas allowing users with test phones to experience the games via mobile apps.

Cell-like Sigfox system as an alternative?

But 5G is not the only technology competing for a slice of the M2M and IoT markets, both of which will give rise to billions of nodes requiring connecting. Depending on the application, many of these nodes will require only low bandwidth to transfer small amounts of data. Among the 5G alternatives to meet these demands is Sigfox. The cellular-style system is engineered to provide low-power, low-data-rate and low-cost communications for remotely connected devices.

Apart from competing technologies like Sigfox and pending standards, plenty of challenges still line the way for 5G, in particular spectrum and regulation. But if the new wireless system delivers on everything it promises, it will deserve its place in the list of technologies that have radically changed our lives – professionally and privately.

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