Every few months, there is a new press release about how a mobile network operator has collaborated with a network vendor to set a new 5G data speed record. There is no doubt that carrier aggregation between the mid-band and mmWave band can deliver more than 5 Gbps. However, it is less clear what we would actually need such high speeds for. The majority of the data traffic in current networks is consumed by video streaming. Even if you stream a 4k resolution video, the codec doesn’t need more than 25 Mbps! Hence, 5G allows you to download an entire motion picture in a matter of seconds, but that goes against the main principle of video streaming, namely that the video is downloaded at the same pace as it is watched to alleviate the need for intermediate storage (apart from buffering). So what is the point of these high speeds? That is what I will explain in this blog post.
The mobile data traffic is growing by 25-50% per year, but the reason is not that we require higher data rates when using our devices. Instead, the main reason is that we are using our devices more frequently, thus the cellular networks must be evolved to manage the increasing accumulated data rate demand of the active devices.
In other words, our networks must be capable of multiplexing all the devices that want to be active simultaneously in peak hours. As the traffic grows, more devices can be multiplexed per km2 by either deploying more base stations that each can serve a certain number of devices, using more spectrum that can be divided between the devices, or using Massive MIMO technology for spatial multiplexing by beamforming.
The preferred multiplexing solution depends on the deployment cost and various local practicalities (e.g., the shape of the propagation environment and user distribution). For example, the main purpose of the new mmWave spectrum is not to continuously deliver 5 Gbps to a single user, but to share that traffic capacity between the many users in hotspots. If each user requires 25 Mbps, then 200 users can share a 5 Gbps capacity. So far, there are few deployments of that kind since Massive MIMO in the 3.5 GHz band has been deployed in the first 5G networks to deliver multi-gigabit accumulated data rates.
I believe that spatial multiplexing will continue to be the preferred solution in future network generations, while mmWave spectrum will mainly be utilized as a WiFi replacement in hotspots with many users and high service requirements. I am skeptical towards the claims that future networks must operate at higher carrier frequencies (e.g., THz bands); we don’t need more spectrum, we need better multiplexing capabilities and that can be achieved in other ways than taking a wide bandwidth and share it between the users. In the following video, I elaborate more on these things: