5G: The Future of Communications Networks

A new IEEE initiative is working to improve the next generation of wireless

5 min read

Illustration: iStockphoto
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTEFifth-generation wireless technology is causing a lot of excitement in the telecommunications industry, and differences of opinions. Some see 5G as the next evolution in wireless data communications, promising higher bandwidth and data rates, with significantly fewer transmission delays. Others, however, say the technology will be revolutionary, enabling a host of new applications including humanoid robots, connected cars, and the Internet of Things, with its billions of devices laden with embedded sensors.

Wireless carriers have started building 5G networks even though issues—like defining standards to ensure interoperability and outlining security requirements—are still being worked out. How the first 5G networks, expected to debut in 2020, will be built is important because of the effect they will have on cellular-based businesses and multimedia services.

Concerned that vital issues aren’t being addressed, the IEEE Future Directions Committee, the organization’s R&D arm, in December launched the IEEE 5G Initiative. Its purpose is to engage industry, government, and academia to work together and lay the foundation so that the opportunities envisioned for 5G can be realized. The initiative is run by asteering committeeand organized by working groups that cover education, events, publications, standards, and other areas. The IEEE Standards Association and 16 IEEE societies and organizational units are participating.

“IEEE has a special role to play because it’s a neutral organization,” says IEEE Fellow Gerhard Fettweis, the initiative’s cochair. “IEEE can collect ideas and feedback about 5G from operators, researchers, and government regulators to understand the different proposals in the works, identify any problems, and propose solutions.” Fettweis is a professor at Technische Universität in Dresden, Germany, and a senior research scientist with the International Computer Science Institute, an independent nonprofit in Berkeley, Calif.

“IEEE is in a unique position to collect input from around the world and contribute to the whole 5G ecosystem,” adds Fettweis’s cochair, IEEE Senior Member Ashutosh Dutta. “That’s because among its societies and regions are members who are experts in signal processing, network communication, software engineering, antennas, and other related technologies covering all layers of a communication system. It’s a true global initiative.” Dutta is a lead member of the AT&T technical staff in Middletown, N.J.


Throughout the history of mobile communications, data speeds have jumped incrementally within each generation of the network. That will be the case with 5G as well, but much more is expected of it, including improved performance, capacity, and speed, and a network that operates the world over, no matter where or from which device a user connects.

Carriers will be working to reduce delays in transmission time. The 5G latency is expected to be less than 1 millisecond; 4G networks have a latency of 25 milliseconds. (Latency is the amount of time it takes for a packet of data to get from one forwarding point to another.) Low latency is particularly important for such applications as self-driving cars and robot-aided surgeries, where the slightest delay in transmission time could mean life or death.

But simply updating hardware and software with the latest technologies won’t be enough. The new networks will need to handle billions of devices expected from the Internet of Things and other new applications. It must provide connections that are 100 times faster than current network speeds.

That’s where software-defined networks (SDNs) and network functions virtualization (NFV) fit in. They support the flexibility and dynamics of the growing number of advanced terminals and intelligent machines at the networks’ edges. SDNs can provide improved speeds and lower latency while eliminating bottlenecks.

SDNs decouple hardware (that, say, forwards IP packets) from software (the control plane that carries signaling traffic for routing through network devices). Software is executed not necessarily in the equipment but maybe in the cloud or in clusters of distributed servers. That means networks could be built and reconfigured centrally in an automated fashion, rather than having network managers hop from device to device to make changes manually, according to Dutta.

NFV is often paired with SDNs. The concept uses CPU and resource virtualization and other cloud-computing technologies such as orchestration, network slicing, and mobile edge computing to migrate network functions from dedicated hardware to virtual machines running on general-purpose hardware. NFV can boost speed, flexibility, and efficiency when deployed with the new services expected to be ushered in by 5G. Components can be upgraded to accommodate a service provider’s needs.


To help people get a better understanding of 5G and its capabilities as well as uncover issues and concerns, IEEE has been holding summits around the world since 2015. Events have been held in Canada, China, Denmark, Germany, India, and the United States. More are scheduled this year in Finland, Jamaica, Japan, Morocco, Portugal, and elsewhere. At the 5G summits, which are open to anyone, experts discuss topics such as applications for smart cities, bandwidth limitations, network architecture, management challenges, and the need for standards.

“We are working with each IEEE region and section to bring these summits to their doorsteps,” Dutta says. “Each country has different wireless spectrums and resource allocations.”

The IEEE 5G Initiative is developing a road map to help carriers, network operators, service providers, and others find the best path forward. The initiative aims to identify trends in innovation and technology, as well as report on research being conducted in areas such as application services, millimeter waves, the mobile edge cloud, and security.

“Developed in conjunction with the initiative’s working groups, the road map will be a living document with a clear set of accountable recommendations that will be updated annually,” Fettweis says.


Companies including Cisco and Ericsson have already unveiled NFV infrastructures for 5G SDNs and the IoT. South Korea hopes to introduce 5G services in time for the 2018 Winter Olympics there, and the European Union wants 5G mobile broadband to be available around all its major roads and rail links by 2025.

The dilemma with those projects is that 5G standards have yet to be developed. Several standards bodies are working to create them, but Dutta says he fears they might overlook some fundamentals.

“They are focused on developing the architecture and the requirements but not on such things as the under­lying technology aspects,” he says.

IEEE is well-positioned to develop 5G standards, according to Konstantinos Karachalios, managing director of the IEEE Standards Association, in Piscataway, N.J. Nearly all wireless communications, he notes, go through theIEEE 802 suite of standards—which includes Ethernet and Wi-Fi, the universal enablers of wireless and localized Internet access.

“The IEEE 802 ecosystem will play a central role in the next generation of connectivity,” Karachalios says. “This technology has an impact across most of IEEE’s technical societies and standards activities.

“IEEE wants to work together with other groups to develop a vision for how it can help connect the unconnected and improve the connection for those who already have one.”

One technology the initiative is looking at, he says, is so-called frugal 5G, which “will help those who are still using 3G technologies to transition toward the next generation of telecommunications in an effective, interoperable, and standardized way that enables greater innovation. We are also addressing the impact of 5G technology based on regional needs and requirements.

“We welcome others to join us to solve some of the regulatory, technological, economic, and consumer hurdles associated with making 5G happen,” Karachalios says.

For more information on the IEEE 5G Initiative and how to participate, email Harold Tepper, IEEE Future Directions senior program director: h.tepper@ieee.org.

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