5G: a revolution in the making – Part III -The rise of the edge

Your smartphone can serve as a node to let other devices connect to the internet by creating a local area network. Drawing credit:

4G, as its previous siblings, was the result of a significant upgrade to the wireless networks. True, terminals, like smart phones, had to be redesigned to accommodate the new frequencies associated to the 4G and to manage the new modulation scheme.  At the same time they got redesigned to take advantage of MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output, that is the use of several antennas to become more robust – better exploiting the available signal). However, 4G would have never happened if the Network Operators did not deploy the 4G.

With the 5G the situation is slightly different and this slight difference is going to have a major impact, leading to the revolution. 
 The title of this series is not “5G: a revolution”, rather it is “5G: a revolution in the making”. Again, this additional slight difference is actually a major disruption in the Telecommunications World (be it declined as players or as market).

Revolutions seldom happen all of a sudden, there are usually telltale signs that are used by historians to declare that the revolution was “inevitable” or at least to be expected.

Something similar is true here.

4G came at a point in the technology evolution marked by a tremendous processing power embedded in terminals (smartphones). Terminal manufacturers started to take advantage of that processing power (the first tell tale signs go back to 3G and the iPhone that first started to provide conference call services in the phone!) to put the terminal in charge of network gateway selection.  Today, when you step into your office, or at home, your smartphone immediately hands over the data communication to the WiFi channels. It is usually faster and surely cheaper. Last IOS has added the functionality to switch in background between WiFi and cellular radio if it detects a better bandwidth in the cellular radio. 

This means that the radio chip in the smartphone works in background polling the existing connections opportunity and selects the one that is best suited to the situation. This selection occurs with no intervention, nor negotiation, with the Telecom Operator. The terminal is taking the upper hand.

Also smartphones have become capable of tethering another device, like your laptop. You piggy back your laptop on the smartphone to access the Internet. In some Countries Telecom Operators have the right to block tethering, forcing the client to buy a separate communication channel for each device. Thanks to competition this strategy is failing more and more and tethering has become almost ubiquitous.

Tethering is basically killing the idea of “terminal”. Your phone no longer “terminates” a communication line. It is becoming a relay allowing another device to use that same communication line.

This is just a first step. The next one (it just requires software updates, no hardware changes) is to have a terminal servicing more devices, providing access to a communication line. It becomes a network node and this is already a reality today. 
The following step is to provide node functionalities, like store and forward. What about selecting a specific gateway among several available? This would embed in the terminal routing functionality. We have just seen that present smartphones can autonomously select the cellular radio or the WiFi access. What they cannot do is to use both at the same time, sending some part of the communication on a channel and a different part on a different channel.  This is because the session is not controlled by the terminal but by the network (it is the network that authenticate the device and establish a communication session).

This won’t be necessarily so with 5G. Of course, as it was for tethering, an Operator may refuse access to its communication resources unless it has full control over the session, but again we live in a competitive world and as soon as some communications provider will accept to have the terminal taking care of the session the others will have to follow suit.

Author - Roberto Saracco

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