5G Mobile Technology: The End of the Cell as Building Block

Although it seems like 4G mobile technology is relatively new, it has been around since 2006. Specialists are now speculating about what the fifth generation holds. Federico Boccardi at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs and colleagues are focusing on technologies that are likely to have a disruptive impact on the next generation of mobile communication. They are pinpointing technologies that force us to rethink networks and how devices use them.

“The first disruptive technology these guys have fingered will change the idea that radio networks must be made up of ‘cells’ centered on a base station. In current networks, a phone connects to the network by establishing an uplink and a downlink with the local base station,” reports MIT Technology Review.

This will probably change in the future. It is likely that 5G networks will rely on different frequency bands that carry information at different rates and have different propagation characteristics.

“So a device might use one band as an uplink at a high rate and another band to downlink at a low rate or vice versa,” notes the article. “In other words, the network will change according to a device’s data demands at that instant.”

Also, new devices are emerging that communicate only with other devices. Essentially, these devices will be able to decide when and how to send data most efficiently. This changes the device from a cell-centric one to a device-centric one.

“Our vision is that the cell-centric architecture should evolve into a device-centric one: a given device (human or machine) should be able to communicate by exchanging multiple information flows through several possible sets of heterogeneous nodes,” say Boccardi.

“Another new technology will involve using millimeter wave transmissions, in addition to the microwave transmission currently in use,” explains Technology Review. “Boccardi and co say that the microwave real estate comes at a huge premium. There is only about 600MHz of it. And even though the switch from analog to digital TV is freeing up some more of the spectrum, it is relatively little, about 80MHz, and comes at a huge price.”

There is also multiple input-multiple output technology, or MIMO: “Base stations will be equipped with multiple antennas that transmit many signals at the same time. What’s more, a device may have multiple antennas to pick up and transmit several signals at once. This dramatically improves the efficiency with which a network can exploit its frequencies.”

However, this will require larger antennas, which will not be a problem in large cities, but may pose a problem in older cities where panels will be hard to conceal.

Smart devices also help shape the networks of the future. Instead of signals being routed by the base station, smart devices will do the job, choosing between a variety of options.

“And the final disruptive technology these guys identify is the ability for devices to communicate with each other without using the network at all.  Boccardi and co say this will be essential for the ways in which future networks will be used. For example, a sensor network may have ten thousand devices transmitting temperature data. That will be easier if they can send it from one device to the next rather than through a single base station,” reports Technology Review.