Mobile networks, which have a 40-year history that parallels the Internet’s, have undergone significant change. The first two generations supported voice and then text, with 3G defining the transition to broadband access, supporting data rates measured in hundreds of kilobits-per-second. Today, the industry is at 4G (supporting data rates typically measured in the few megabits-per-second) and transitioning to 5G, with the promise of a tenfold increase in data rates.
But 5G is about much more than increased bandwidth. 5G represents a fundamental rearchitecture of the access network in a way that leverages several key technology trends and sets it on a path to enable much greater innovation. In the same way that 3G defined the transition from voice to broadband, 5G’s promise is primarily about the transition from a single access service (broadband connectivity) to a richer collection of edge services and devices. 5G is expected to provide support for immersive user interfaces (e.g., AR/VR), mission-critical applications (e.g., public safety, autonomous vehicles), and the Internet-of-Things (IoT). Because these use cases will include everything from home appliances to industrial robots to self-driving cars, 5G won’t just support humans accessing the Internet from their smartphones, but also swarms of autonomous devices working together on their behalf. There is more to supporting these services than just improving bandwidth or latency to individual users. As we will see, a fundamentally different edge network architecture is required.
The requirements for this architecture are ambitious, and can be illustrated by three classes of capabilities:
· To support Massive Internet-of-Things, potentially including devices with ultra-low energy (10+ years of battery life), ultra-low complexity (10s of bits-per-second), and ultra-high density (1 million nodes per square kilometre).
· To support Mission-Critical Control, potentially including ultra-high availability (greater than 99.999% or “five nines”), ultra-low latency (as low as 1 ms), and extreme mobility (up to 100 km/h).
· To support Enhanced Mobile Broadband, potentially including extreme data rates (multi-Gbps peak, 100+ Mbps sustained) and extreme capacity (10 Tbps of aggregate throughput per square kilometre).
These targets will certainly not be met overnight, but that’s in keeping with each generation of the mobile network being a decade-long endeavour.
On top of these quantitative improvements to the capabilities of the access network, 5G is being viewed as a chance for building a platform to support innovation. Whereas prior access networks were generally optimized for known services (such as voice calls and SMS), the Internet has been hugely successful in large part because it supported a wide range of applications that were not even thought of when it was first designed. The 5G network is very much being designed with this same goal of enabling all sorts of future applications beyond those we fully recognize today.
The 5G mobile network, because it is on an evolutionary path and not a point solution, includes standardized specifications, a range of implementation choices, and a long list of aspirational goals. Because this leaves so much room for interpretation, our approach to describing 5G is grounded in two mutually supportive principles. The first is to apply a systems lens, which is to say, we explain the sequence of design decisions that lead to a solution rather than fall back on enumerating the overwhelming number of acronyms or individual point technologies as a fait accompli. The second is to aggressively disaggregate the system. Building a disaggregated, virtualized, and software-defined 5G access network is the direction the industry is already headed (for good technical and business reasons), but breaking the 5G network down into its elemental components is also the best way to explain how 5G works. It also helps to illustrate how 5G might evolve in the future to provide even more value.
That 5G is on an evolutionary path is the central theme of this book. We call attention to its importance here, and revisit the topic throughout the book.
We are writing this book for system generalists, with the goal of helping bring a community that understands a broad range of systems issues (but knows little or nothing about the cellular network) up to speed so they can play a role in its evolution. This is a community that understands both feature velocity and best practices in building robust scalable systems, and so has an important role to play in bringing all of 5G’s potential to fruition.
What this all means is that there is no single, comprehensive definition of 5G, any more than there is for the Internet. It is a complex and evolving system, constrained by a set of standards that purposely give all the stakeholders many degrees of freedom. In the chapters that follow, it should be clear from the context whether we are talking about standards (what everyone must do to interoperate), trends (where the industry seems to be headed), or implementation choices (examples to make the discussion more concrete). By adopting a systems perspective throughout, our intent is to describe 5G in a way that helps the reader navigate this rich and rapidly evolving system.