How 5G will solve congestion problems in today’s 4G networks

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In August 1988, the first handheld mobile phone call was made in Singapore. A year later, Singapore achieved a world first – it allowed mobile phone users to make calls in underground MRT tunnels. 

Thirty years on, the city-state continues to blaze the trail, with Singapore’s Communications minister S Iswaran recently announcing plans to roll out 5G networks by 2020, as part of efforts to maintain the country’s competitive edge in connectivity. 

As 5G is rolled out, early hype is beginning to be give way to criticism that initial 5G deployments will not be so different from 4G. The implication is clear: 5G isn’t a big deal. The problem with this analysis is that it confuses potential initial 5G teething issues with the real importance of 5G for the future.

4G networks are becoming overloaded. Telcos have been slugging it out, trying to outdo one another with more attractive data bundles. The success of the smartphone boom and cheaper data tariffs will continue to drive mobile data usage. As a result of intensifying competition, we can see enormous mobile network experience differences by comparing otherwise similar cities. 

Consumers need 5G to relieve pressure on existing networks, otherwise speeds and other mobile network experience factors will worsen. The mobile industry needs 5G, or congestion and a declining mobile experience will make it hard for operators to maintain existing revenue levels, let alone increase them. Mobile network vendors need 5G to succeed to support capital expenditure by operators.

We recently conducted an analysis across 77 countries, including Singapore, to get a sense of some of these real-world mobile broadband challenges, and which markets boast the fastest speeds and best latencies. There are clear-cut differences today in 4G experience between otherwise similar cities, likely because of the degree of smartphone usage:

  • In South-East Asia, the 4G download for smartphone users in Singaporeis far faster at 47.7 Mbps than compared with similar-sized and similarly technologically advanced Hong Kong,where networks enable an average 4G download experience of just 17.3 Mbps, or just 36% of the speed in Singapore.
  • South Asia offers another example: New Delhiusers experience 4G download Speeds of just 7 Mbps, where speed differences, by time of day, highlight the load India’s users place on networks. This compares with nearby Karachi’saverage of 12.9 Mbps 4G download speed.
  • Across Europe’s advanced Nordic markets, the mobile network experience is considerably better in Oslo, Norway (59 Mbps average 4G Download Speed in our measurements) than in Helsinki, Finland (36.7 Mbps). Although Finland is an advanced mobile-centric country, hosting the HQ of Nokia — one of the three leading network infrastructure companies – a combination of cheap data and little interest in fixed services puts more load on Helsinki’s mobile services, contributing to significantly lower speeds in the Finnish capital than in nearby Norway.
  • In North America, Toronto’s smartphone users enjoy 4G download speeds 33% faster than New York’s, where Opensignal analytics show 4G download speeds of 41.1 Mbps and 30.8 Mbps respectively.

Initial 5G new radio deployments – “real 5G” – aim to tackle these real-world problems. Enhanced mobile broadband services – targeting smartphone usage – and fixed wireless are the two use cases covered by the 3GPP’s initial 5G standards. While the more ambitious goals for 5G are to drive Internet of Things (IoT) markets, such as industrial automation or autonomous driving, they are not yet covered by ratified 3GPP standards. They are a work in progress which will arrive later in the 5G era.

While 5G is more efficient with its use of spectrum, but unlike previous network generations that is not the primary way that 5G will support a better mobile broadband experience for smartphone users. The 5G standards enable the use of much higher frequencies for mobile use cases. These frequencies have much greater capacity than the existing LTE frequencies. And, they have not previously been used for mobile.

The 3.4 Mhz – 3.8 Mhz channels will be the most popular globally and will balance mobility with high capacity. The millimeter wave (mmWave) frequencies already available in North America and other countries will offer even more extreme capacity and higher speeds but will be much more challenging to deploy because of their line-of-sight propagation characteristics and the disadvantage of being easily blocked by walls, or even by smartphone users’ hands, or even by a tree’s leaves.

Over time, 5G launches will improve mobile latency – a measure of network responsiveness – which will make everything from web browsing to voice over IP (VoIP) communication work more smoothly. The greatest initial impact will likely be improving the user experience of multiplayer mobile action games on a mobile connection. Today, many Fortnite or PUBG players choose to use Wi-Fi, over cellular connections, because of lower and more consistent latency.

As 5G rolls out, we will see latency improve on mobile networks too. Smartphone users will see some improvement when connecting with initial 5G networks, but the full 5G latency benefit will only arrive once operators deploy a 5G network core and launch “standalone” 5G where a smartphone is able to connect to just a 5G signal. This contrasts with 2019’s 5G “non-standalone” launches where a smartphone will connect to a 5G carrier for data transmission while maintaining a simultaneous 4G carrier connection to enable management by an operator’s existing network core.

While the 4G technology we use today is also called “Long Term Evolution”, the 5G era will have its own extended evolutionary cycle. The 5G experience we will all enjoy 10 years from now will be considerably improved from the early 5G launches we will see this year.

When you hear about 5G teething problems this year, remember it’s going to improve and 5G will be with all of us for the long term. 

And, also remember why the industry needs 5G now: to support the mass of current smartphones by adding mobile broadband capacity to reduce congestion, and to enable operators to continue to deliver a great mobile network experience as smartphone data usage continues to grow.

Written by Ian Fogg, VP Analysis, Opensignal where Ian leads a team developing new insights and analysis using Opensignal’s mobile analytics data combined with his end-to-end mobile telecom market expertise.

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