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12 October 2020

Ultra-low latency developments grow up in 5G

Ultra-low latency was the 5G capability that gained the greatest level of attention in the early days of standards development, when 3GPP and the wider industry were setting out to devise a wireless network that would do a lot more than just speeding up mobile broadband and making it more cost-efficient. By contrast with 4G, there was a vision to support the diverse and demanding connectivity requirements of industrial IoT applications right from the start, which led to the famous triangular vision of 5G use cases, categorized by a focus on eMBB (enhanced mobile broadband), URLLC (ultra-reliable low latency communications) and mMTC (massive machine-type communications).

Among these, very low levels of latency seemed to offer the chance for the greatest industrial transformation projects, enabling existing technologies, such as robotics, to be mobilized and wire-free, and supporting levels of critical availability that had previously been undreamed-of in cellular connections. That, in turn, would not only help industries such as manufacturing to deploy connected digital services in a far more flexible way, but enable them to reach unconnected sites such as mines or highways.

The vision remains, but as always with emerging standards, there was a large dose of hype, was then followed by disappointment as the first wave of  5G standards and commercial roll-outs were still focused only on the eMBB point of the triangle (with some fixed wireless broadband added to the mix), and looked very much like 4G+. Suddenly, amid all the excitement about sub-millisecond latencies, there were questions being asked – notably, how many applications really required such immediate response, and who would pay for the highly optimized that would be required to deliver them, since the MNOs could see all kinds of profitability challenges if the burden fell entirely on them.

The only way these questions will be resolved, is with active cooperation between operators, vendors, governments, R&D labs, standards bodies – and most importantly, the industries that actually do require ultra-low latency to deliver their own digital visions and new services. With Release 16 of the 3GPP standards, the first to focus on IoT and low latency capabilities, now completed, this pragmatic, fact-based approach is starting to take over from the hype and demonstrate the real world potential (and challenges) of 5G in low latency environments.

As our analyses show, there is genuine progress being made on specific applications and business cases in sectors such as automotive, manufacturing, robotics and IIoT. Sectors which require the new capabilities of 5G are prepared, as industries often haven’t been before, to share the investment, risk and reward with the operators. This makes the industrial business case more palatable for many MNOs, although the extension, of course, is that some enterprises are seeking their own spectrum, and full freedom to deploy and manage 5G with their own partners.

But this is only the beginning of the 5G IIoT and ultra-low latency journey. The initial use cases will be modest in their impact, inevitably, but further standards releases, vendor developments and use case trials will quickly enrich the landscape.

In anything that involves critical response, or indeed futuristic uses of connectivity, it is always worth looking at the defense sector, and the USA’s Department of Defense recently announced awards totalling about $600m to over a dozen companies for “5G experimentation” at five military test sites. Following a multiyear request for proposal (RFP) process, the DoD has named its test sites and explained: “Projects will include piloting 5G-enabled augmented/virtual reality for mission planning and training, testing 5G-enabled smart warehouses, and evaluating 5G technologies to enhance distributed command and control.”

The vendors and other organizations involved are AT&T, Ericsson, Nokia, GE Research and Federated Wireless, the last of these a pioneer in shared spectrum and the operator of one of the spectrum access systems for the CBRS band. Samsung is also indirectly involved because it will supply kit to GBL System, which will be creating a midband spectrum 5G testbed at one of the military sites, Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington.

Much of the knowledge and use cases involved will be transferable, in future, to civilian applications and the DoD characterizes its project as a sign of “commitment to exploring the vast potential applications and dual-use opportunities that can be built upon next generation networks.”