GRD Tech: 5G, the tech revolution in the 2020s

2020 has brought us many new things, including a new normality we should get used to. For us, the new year has a new article of GRD Tech, a section where we want to explain and show the technologies we work with by the great opinion of our experts.

Everyone is talking about 5G mobile technologies and how they will transform our lives. The autonomous car, smart homes and cities… but how will 5G really affect to us? Will it have such an impact on our daily lives? Gradiant works with technologies to provide connectivity, intelligence and security: artificial intelligence, Big Data, IoT… and with the set of 5G enabling technologies too.

The current situation resulting from COVID-19 pandemic has tested us: are we ready for 100% teleworking Are our telecommunication networks prepared for such a high volume of traffic? These and other questions are filling media pages and, of course, are on our minds because it is undeniable that communications networks are essential critical infrastructures to the economy and business continuity.

In this GRD Tech we talk to Luis Pérez Roca (LPR), director of Advanced Communications department, to learn more about 5G technology.

There is much talk about 5G technology and how it will change the world as we know it, but what is 5G technology?

LPR: The obvious answer to this question is that 5G is the new generation of mobile communications meaning, what comes after 4G, what is already available and has made possible applications and services that have changed society habits (such as social networks, online shopping or the consumption of multimedia content from mobile devices).

However, 5G technology not only means going further in this type of services and enabling new applications of interest to people (such as virtual or augmented reality) but also focusing on what is called machine-to-machine communications. In this sense, 5G has been conceived to support new applications and services and to offer new business models in Industry, Health or Automotive, but also to have a social and environmental impact in areas such as Security or Energy Management.

Looking back, the history of mobile communications begins with the 1st generation, the analog technologies emerged in the 80s; the 2nd generation brought digital mobile technologies and, with them, the outbreak of ‘data services’, a feature of great importance that evolved into the 3rd generation by increasing transmission speeds and enabling the appearance of new applications. Then 4G technologies arrived, representing a turning point with regarding previous generations and meaning a real revolution in mobile networks, not only for talking on the phone and for daily use, but also because of the potential to connect us to machines and for the amount of high-value services that can be offered. We’re talking, for instance, about the Internet of Things (IoT), with technologies such as LTE-M or NB-IoT, or vehicular communications, with LTE-V2X.

According this mobile technologies evolution, we could think that it’s been done “in leaps” but actually it is a continuous advance step by step where, more or less every one or two years, new functionalities are added to mobile networks. That’s why we sometimes hear some confusing terms like 3G+, 4.5G or 4.9G.

It is important to note that when it was decided to start designing 5G mobile technology it was done in a slightly different way than how previous generations had been designed, where the main goal was to meet the requirements of operators and end users. In this case, first an in-depth analysis of possible use cases and connectivity needs in different sectors (such as Industry, Healthcare, Automotive, etc.) was carried out to take into account their requirements when designing the new networks.

Having to support a wide variety of applications in such different areas means that 5G networks have to be much more flexible than the previous ones and to adapt their characteristics (speed, reliability, coverage, etc.) according to their use. With this in mind, three categories of services were defined: the first one is enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB), which offers more bandwidth (allowing, for example, to watch much higher quality videos on our smartphone or download applications much faster than with current 4G networks); the second of the services defined is massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), designed to connect a huge number of devices with no very high bandwidth requirements, such as smart energy meters or environmental sensors, in smart homes and cities or farming and livestock. The last of the services defined is the one known as URLLC, the Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communications is, due to its own characteristics, focused on applications classified as critical and can become one of the main enablers of the autonomous car and Industry 4.0.

Nowadays, we are experiencing the first deployments of 5G networks by major operators. These deployments and the technology available on the market (mobile devices, modems, etc.) mainly cover enhanced mobile broadband services. This may lead many people to think that 5G is only here to make our mobiles “go faster”, leaving aside the most important aspects: new use cases, new sectors interested in and involved with the development of the technology, more specific (and complex) aspects and problems… there is much more. On the other hand, someone can also get the impression that “5G technology is already done”, when there’re actually many aspects to design and develop. There is still a long way to go, 5G technologies we can have at present are not the ones we will enjoy in a few years to come, but the proper steps are being taken in the right direction.

What will be the big change for businesses? And for society?

LPR: That’s the big question and, obviously, a difficult one. The advent of 5G technology is going to be a change in our daily life, both for companies and for ourselves as users, but this change is going to tie in with many other factors. We must comprehend 5G as an enabling technology when combined with others -IoT, Big Data, Artificial Intelligence, Intelligent Video Analytics-, will become a very powerful tool for different use cases: in the automotive sector, 5G will be one of the pillars to allow totally autonomous driving and provider of new mobility and security services on the roads; in the industrial sector, it will become the unified communications platform to increase efficiency and quality in production and a reduction in the environmental impact; the 5G technology will allow infrastructure inspection and surveillance work in different environments using drones, carrying out real-time surveys to detect possible defects or threats, reducing costs and improving security.

Despite I commented before that many of the most important features of 5G technologies are designed for different production sectors, there are also multiple use cases of interest to personal users that may seem futuristic but are closer to reality than we might think. For instance, 5G tech will allow the use of virtual reality and augmented reality for the 3D reconstruction of historical monuments and scenes in real environments or create new personalized ways to enjoy sports and music events.

Currently, several pilot projects are being carried out in Galicia with 5G technology to test its capabilities as an enabling technology for different use cases, through public-private collaboration. In the end, the support of the administrations, the involvement of the operators and the work of the companies and technology centres is essential to develop and put into value the solutions to demonstrate that 5G has the capacity to improve the productive fabric and respond to the demands of society.

What does a company need to incorporate this technology into processes? What will 5G networks allow us to do?

LPR: At present, virtually no business is viable without reliable and fast communications networks. This dependence will grow if we take into account the context of digital transformation all industrial sectors already find themselves in. Some people say that 5G technology will be one of the enablers of the 4th industrial revolution.

For a successfully implementation of new 5G-based services, they have to be appropriately designed and adapted not only according to the characteristics of each sector, but also to specific needs of each company. It may be immediate to think about the application of 5G technology in large companies at a national and international level, but SMEs cannot be left out of this process, as they can benefit from it in production processes optimization, logistics management or customer relations. 5G launch will be progressive and will give early adopters a competitive advantage, so it is important not to be left behind and start thinking about the role this technology can play inside our business. We must also keep an eye on the fact that 5G technologies may in some cases replace other technologies that currently rely on private communication networks (both wired and wireless), and the implications for example in cybersecurity. Finally, we cannot fail to mention that 5G, largely thanks to virtualization, will open the door to new business models, even enabling the entry of new service providers between the operator and the end companies.

What are the main actors in 5G? ‘Who’ is building it?

LPR: There are currently many worldwide initiatives (in Europe, the United States, Korea, China…) working on the development of 5G mobile technology.

At the international level, one of the best-known players is 3GPP, the standard organization responsible for defining UMTS (3G) and LTE (4G) technologies and is now working on the architecture of 5G and all aspects related to what are called radio interface and network core.

The European initiative that has played (and is playing) a central role in the development and implementation of 5G technologies is the 5GPPP public-private partnership, who brings together the most relevant European actors -public organizations, operators, manufacturers, distributors, universities, technology and research centres- responsible for defining a shared vision of what the communications infrastructure of this new generation should look like and setting the course for the strategic research and innovation agenda.

An important detail is that the 5G Infrastructure Association (5G IA), the private part of this partnership (the public part is the European Commission) is working closely with the Alliance for Internet of Things Innovation Association (AIOTI) – we are an active part in leading the Smart Farming and Food Security working group- to strengthen Europe’s scientific and industrial leadership by contributing to the development of technologies for the digital infrastructures of the future (next generation internet, connectivity and smart services), in an initiative called “Smart Networks and Services”.

All member countries are contributing their know-how and expertise to get things right and make the most of this enabling technology. The Spanish commitment is also important, as I pointed out earlier, is supporting the implementation of 5G pilots to test how the technologies will work, to see what uses we will be able to make of it, both from an industrial or business point of view and from the perspective of users.

How can Gradiant contribute?

LPR: The fact that we are a centre specialized in ICT and have a wide experience in the fields of connectivity, intelligence and security, allows us to work in two fronts related to 5G: the development of technologies that are part of these new networks and the use of 5G networks as a support for new services and applications in areas of interest for the productive sector and society.

Gradiant is part of Open-VERSO, the national network of excellence in Advanced Mobile Networks, together with other two R&D Centres such as Vicomtech and i2CAT, in the framework of the Cervera Programme launched by CDTI and CDTI and Ministerio de Ciencia e Innovación of Spanish Government, the national bet to strengthen the applied research carried out by the R&D Centres, reinforcing their capacities in strategic technologies and promoting the collaboration with the companies. Open-VERSO aims to design, implement, evaluate and demonstrate the architecture of an integral 5G network, evolving to technologies beyond 5G, federated, scalable, conceptually innovative, with a vision of future, covering all the levels involved in the deployment, operation, maintenance and evolution of an integral network of next generation mobile communications. Among the technologies we develop in this field, we find those related to a better use of the spectrum resources (such as broadcast over cellular networks, Artificial Intelligence applied to the management of the radioelectric spectrum or in-band full-duplex technologies that allow simultaneous transmission and reception over the same frequency band), as well as those associated to the “network virtualization”, which allow the creation and management of “virtual networks” adapted to each need over the common infrastructure of the network operator.

Taking into account that 5G networks will play an essential role in the digital transformation of the economy and society over the next decade, the enormous negative impact that attacks that put at risk both the privacy, confidentiality and integrity of data and the availability of 5G networks could have on the economic and social fabric has recently led to increased concern about their potential vulnerabilities. In this sense, at Gradiant we are developing solutions to improve the security of new generation mobile networks, both from the point of view of cybersecurity and radio-level security.

On the other hand, as I said at the beginning, at Gradiant we are also working on the use of 5G networks as support for new services and applications in areas of interest to the productive sector and society. Some examples of this are the automation and optimization of processes in the industry, the applications of security and maritime surveillance through cameras and drones connected by 5G network or the monitoring of health risks in elderly people, both in residences and in their own homes.