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4G v. 5G: The top 6 advantages and pitfalls of future's wireless standards

Posted by Marcello Perricone on Jun 27, 2019

NASAs Orbiting Carbon Observatory satellite wider

5G has been the talking point of the tech industry for quite some time, promising massive bandwidth improvements that are supposed to affect everything from Netflix to self-driving cars. The rail industry has also been long excited by this future tech, salivating over the train tracking, user experience, and backend improvements that can be realised with it over the upcoming years.

However, while the transition to 4G was already a massive jump in speed and 5G is predicted to be even bigger, it isn't all green pastures -- technology changes always bring along difficulties, and for all its many advantages, 5G has its fair share of pitfalls.

SmartTransit Congress, Boston, 2020

Let's start with the good things first: the biggest draw of 5G comes from the increased capacity and frequency, which allows for more network connections; while 4G can support about 4,000 devices per square kilometre, 5G can support around one million in the same area. That higher capacity is tied to higher bandwidth, which allows each of those devices to have a much faster connection in 5G among millions of devices than they did when sharing 4G with fewer of them.

“What the 5G network promises -- and it depends on the extent to which people invest in it -- is that those 4G capacity limitations will largely go away,” says Stephen Farrugia, CTO of BAI Communications in Australia. “It's millimetre wave spectrum has huge capacity, and the high frequency means it is like using a laser pointer to communicate -- each device gets great bandwidth.”

by shutterstock

However, that increased frequency and intense bandwidth requires a more focused transmission, which leads to sparser coverage. The implementation of 4G saw a big increase on the construction of extra towers to cover the area previously handled by a single 3G transmitter, which resulted in higher maintenance and expansion costs to provide a proper, contiguous coverage. Given the requirements of 5G, the same thing is expected to happen when it undergoes intense implementation, as at least twice as many transmitters are needed to cover the same area serviced by 4G connections nowadays.

That higher frequency -- around 1,000 MHz across the entire spectrum versus today's 100 MHZ -- also means a much smaller latency for 5G devices, reducing the time it takes for devices to respond to each other and turning even the most bandwidth-intensive operations near-instantaneous. The 20-30 milliseconds response time of current 4G connections will be reduced to 10-1 milliseconds, meaning passengers will be able to play HD and 4K videos in real-time without buffering and even game, while train operators will be able to transmit obscene amounts of data for tracking, maintenance, and ops purposes.

CBTC CITYFLO is also installed in Kuala Lumpur

“Improved coverage, faster speed, and low latency will drive consumer and commercial access and usage to higher levels, says Melinda White, CEO of Transit Wireless. "A post-5G world will leverage anonymous data to inform new smart technology applications and services. Whether it be more efficient transit operations with predictive train maintenance, schedule accuracy with enhanced signalling, smart safety features, or any other topic in a virtually endless list, it all starts with a multi-network convergence strategy that includes a very robust fiber footprint.”

Of course, these optic fiber footprint requires significant expenditure in expanding and improving infrastructure. As with every new technology, emerging standards and production concerns tend to keep prices high for a few years after its initial adoption, which can quickly balloon the value of any infrastructure projects. As the technology proves itself and the kinks are worked out, prices are expected to drop down and facilitate widespread adoption.

by Jürgen Diermaier from Pixabay

Another logistical, high-level strategic worry is in regards to air wave saturation -- an increasingly more common problem as the modern world becomes ever more modern. Radios, mobiles, and satellites all communicate via radio frequencies, turning the world into a massive crisscross of frequencies as every device under the sun communicates with each other constantly. The 5G network is expected to operate on both existing LTE ranges of 600 MHz-6 GHz, as well as millimeter wave bands of 24–86 GHz, which can cause several unforeseen conflicts as data signals collide and fight for space in an overcrowded airwaves.

Regardless, both the tech and the rail industry are dedicated to facing and solving these problems, as they will not only help people on their day-to-day activities and improve passenger experience, but also vastly expand the options when it comes to operational resources.

“5G is actually a mesh of networks, or a heterogeneous network where you can have massive broadband as one of the facets, critical machine communication as another facet, and then massive machine-to-machine type communication as yet another facet,” Farrugia says. “It is a network that has people there, but it is more about how it enables people to do more rather than being people-centric.”

SmartTransit Congress, Boston, 2020To find out more about 5G, interconnectivity, and integrated mobility, book your ticket now and join us at SmartTransit LA, on October 28-30.

Topics: Telecommunications, SRW Featured, 5G, 4G

Marcello Perricone

Written by Marcello Perricone

The Editor of SmartRail World and Transport Security World.

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