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Service Provider / August 21, 2019

What Is 5G Technology? Tomorrow’s Cellular Today

Updated July 26, 2020

5G technology is poised to revolutionize mobile cellular networks, but what is it exactly? And what are the advantages — and potential problems — the fifth generation of wireless technology brings with it?

Ever since the first transistors were introduced, technological progress has been following a domino-effect rush of increasing computer power over time. New advancements pave the way for other advancements, and today’s top-of-the-line processors quickly become tomorrow’s outdated recyclables.

Think of the computing capacity of a modern smartphone. Now compare it to what was cutting edge only 10, or even five years ago. “Moore’s Law”1 describes this phenomenon, essentially stating that the computing power of new electronics will double approximately every two years. And although the observation was originally made over half a century ago, it’s more applicable now than ever before — with the arrival of 5G technology.

Making the transition from 4G to 5G? Gigamon can help.

What Is 5G Technology?

5G technology is the next step in cellular. 5G refers to the RF wireless Radio Access Network (RAN), but also the Core network architecture, which has many aspects not specific to radio or wireless at all. And while phones (even those of the pocket supercomputer variety) have always been the focus of these successive cellular generations, 5G will expand to more fully encompass other network devices such as IoT technologies, including drones, security cameras, cars capable of sharing traffic data, and more.

The Path to 5G Technology

In early 2019, the four major US mobile carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon, and Sprint) launched limited mobile 5G services in select areas.2 But 5G technology is still in its infancy, and currently, it’s more notable for its potential than its potency. Still, 5G stands to change the way we use technology. After all, it’s happened four times before.

1G–4G: A Brief History

That supercomputer that you carry around in your pocket — what do you call it? If you’re like most people, you call it a phone, even though it’s so much more. But the first cellular communication technology wasn’t. When cell phones originally hit the scene back in the 1980s, they were voice only. This is what’s known as 1G technology — the first generation of cellular.

Of course, Moore’s Law wasn’t going to let it stand at that. And as technology moved forward, new generations of cellular technology were born. 2G in the early 1990s introduced SMS and MMS capabilities to cellular users, followed by GPRS (2.5G) and EDGE (2.75G) in the mid ‘90s with limited data and call/text encryption. 3G arrived at the beginning of the 2000s, and allowed for faster data transmission, making video calling and mobile internet a reality. Then, less than a decade later, 4G (also known as 4G LTE, long-term evolution) significantly upped data speeds, allowing mobile users to enjoy online gaming, HD video and television, video conferencing, and more.

With each new generation, networks and mobile technologies made a leap forward. Today, 4G technology is the standard, with most cell phone models supporting both 4G and 3G technologies. Of course, that begs the question: What leap forward can we expect as 5G becomes the new standard?

5G Countries, Devices and Vendors

As previously mentioned, the four big US wireless carriers are committed to making 5G a reality. Of course, the US isn’t the world, and it’s not the only place where 5G is poised to make an impact. What countries have 5G technology? The following nations are leading the world in 5G deployment:

  • United States of America
  • United Kingdom
  • South Korea
  • China
  • Germany

As for what will be available, the following 5G optimized devices have been announced:

  • Huawei Mate X
  • LG V50 ThinQ
  • OnePlus 5G Phone
  • Samsung Galaxy Fold
  • Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
  • Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G
  • ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G

Additionally, vendors that are involved in building 5G core elements include:

  • Affirmed Networks
  • Ericsson
  • Huawei
  • Nokia
  • Samsung
  • ZTE

5G Advantages

Naturally, 5G technologies are a step up in terms of what 4G was already doing. This means significantly faster cellular wireless download speeds, lower latency for better responsiveness, and the bandwidth to handle more devices connected to a single network at once.

As for how much better, there isn’t a whole lot of concrete information to go off of. Some experts are taking the safe road and predicting that 5G will offer speeds of about three times faster than what’s available with 4G, while others are promising the stars by claiming speeds 200 times 4G. And even though 5G really is just around the corner, the technology itself hasn’t been fully standardized yet. But whatever the case, the end result is that 5G will be much faster than the current standard.

This is made possible, in part, due to 5G millimeter wave technology. Cellular networks use radio signals to transmit information, and these radio signals are measured by their wavelengths. 5G technology will use frequencies so high that their wavelengths are measured in millimeters. These shorter wavelength frequencies allow for much higher data bandwidth, better throughput, and more data from more sources being sent and received more easily. Likewise, a large portion of the underused high-band spectrum have been freed up and reallocated for use by 5G networks, making significantly increased throughput a possibility. At the same time, carriers are petitioning the FCC to free up more mid-band frequencies for 5G use.

But while there are certainly clear advantages of 5G over the 4G networks that we’ve all become accustomed to, there are also some issues that might hinder 5G’s adoption.

5G Disadvantages

The aforementioned 5G millimeter wave technology comes with a tradeoff: reduced range. Shorter frequencies can carry more information, but can’t carry it very far. Similarly, short wavelength radio signals can easily be blocked by things like dense foliage, glass windows, or even just someone walking in front of the transmitter. To combat this, 5G carriers are looking at installing hundreds of thousands of small-cell transmitters on telephone poles around the country, as well as using massive MIMO beamforming to send out multiple signals carrying the same information to ensure that information reaches its intended destination, so that coverage remains optimal.

Along with this will come an increased demand for skilled engineers to install and maintain 5G equipment. The equipment itself can also be prohibitively expensive. Together, these issues increase the costs associated with 5G deployment and maintenance phases. And this investment may not immediately pay off; 5G compatible devices are similarly expensive, and many users will likely stick with their 4G devices for an extended amount of time before upgrading.

And the technology itself might bring with it unforeseen complications as well. As with any new advancement, it will take time for 5G technology vendors to work out bugs and other operational issues. 5G security and privacy issues will similarly need time to be identified and resolved.

5G Core Network

To understand some of the deeper advantages of 5G technology, we need to take a closer look at the 5G Core Network (5GC), which is the other part of what enables increased data throughput for 5G devices.

5GC promotes new data services and requirements; in order to facilitate these changes, most 5G network functions are actually software based — making them easier to adapt to fit specific needs. The 5G core architecture is made up of the following network functions:

  • 5G base-station node (gNodeB)
  • Access and Mobility Management Function (AMF)
  • Authentication Server Function (AUSF)
  • Binding Support Function (BSF)
  • Network Exposure Function (NEF)
  • Network Repository Function (NRF)
  • Network Slicing Serving Function (NSSF)
  • Policy Control function (PCF)
  • Security Edge Protection Proxy (SEPP)
  • Service Capability Exposure Function (SCEF)
  • Session Management Function (SMF)
  • Short Message Service Function (SMSF)
  • Unified Data Management (UDM)
  • User plane Function (UPF)

This 5G adaptability allows for increased data efficiency or prioritization in the form of network slicing. The 5G architecture makes it possible for operators to create a range of virtual networks on top of the shared, foundational infrastructure. This allows operators to ‘slice’ their networks — deploying only those functions that are needed to support specific customer use cases. This saves on costs, while also decreasing time to deployment.

One key component in the 5G architecture is the User Plane Function (UPF), which builds on the Control and User Plane Separation (CUPS) strategy. CUPS allows the 5G data forwarding component to be decentralized, by decoupling packet gateway control and user plane functions. This makes edge computing possible, where packet processing and traffic aggregation and routing are performed at the network edge, increasing network efficiency and minimizing latency.

5G’s architecture also offers a step up from the now defunct 4G Mobility Management Entity. The 5G Core Access and Mobility Management Function (AMF) and the 5G Session Management Function (SMF) split connection and session related information from user equipment, with AMF handling connection and mobility management tasks, and SMF taking care of session management messages.

These are only a few of the key core functions of 5G technology. Together, these and other factors allow for a service-based architecture, designed for scalability, reliability, and ease of automation.

Gigamon and the 5G Future

Technology has come a long way since the first transistors ushered in the era of modern computing. And as explained by Moore’s Law, it’s not going to stop anytime soon. 5G technology is the next logical step in this process, bringing increased data availability to cellular users and IoT devices around the world. But as this new advancement becomes more widespread, network administrators will need to be aware of what traffic is doing within these new 5G networks. Gigamon provides top-quality network monitoring solutions, designed for reduced costs, increase average profitability per subscriber or enterprise, and zero tool oversubscription across infrastructure tools. For a smooth digital transition into the 5G future (and continued network visibility for generations to come), Gigamon has the answer.

5G is here, and with Gigamon as your partner in network visibility, the future is looking bright. As you transform your network, Gigamon will have you covered on your 5G journey!


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