5G modularity

How telecoms are using a simple concept to better serve complex needs

Dan Headrick
30 October 2019

3 min read

5G, the fifth-generation communications and data platform for mobile devices, is not a network. Instead, it is a concept for organizing networks and other technologies to create greatly expanded capacity, enabling a wide variety of uses in multiple scenarios.

5G (fifth generation) represents the latest in cellular mobile communications, but it is more than an evolution of 4G technology. Proponents describe it as a platform for digital innovation, linking everything digital and managing that data more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

Peter Linder, head of Ericsson’s 5G Marketing in North America, describes the difference this way: Say you lay asphalt for a highway based on current and projected traffic patterns. “When traffic patterns change, you haul your equipment out and widen the road,” Linder said. “That’s today’s 4G network – smart phones and fast Internet speeds, traffic metered in bits and bytes.”

5G goes one step further, laying more digital “asphalt” in a new part of the spectrum. By matching the needs of different use-cases to the specific capabilities of different spectrum ranges, 5G can accommodate more traffic simultaneously, much as smart roads and autonomous driving systems will one day enable cars, pedestrians and bicycles to coexist in perfect safety.


“That much variation is only possible with modularity,” said Jan Gopfert, founder and managing director of ID-Consult GmbH, a Munich-based firm that advises companies on complex projects.

A modular approach allows telecom equipment makers and wireless carrier companies to deploy and combine different radio, baseband and cloud technologies flexibly across multiple spectrums and distributed architectures.

To achieve it has required broad collaboration among telecom equipment makers, including Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Huawei, together with mobile operators, including AT&T, Sprint, Orange and Vodafone. The result: a three-layer infrastructure to support different bandwidth and latency requirements:

Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB). Addresses consumer demand for faster, more reliable mobile broadband with data transmission rates of at least 100Mbps for HD video and augmented reality/virtual reality.

Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC). Handles real-time, mission-critical tasks that can’t risk interruptions, including remote surgery on patients,autonomous vehicle interaction and industry automation. Latency for such critical applications must be less than 1 millisecond.

Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC). Supports the billions of low-cost, long-battery-life devices connecting to the Internet of Things (IoT). These devices transmit low volumes of non-critical data and are not particularly delay-sensitive.

Nokia has developed its AirScale Active Antennas to boost radio frequency performance and cell coverage over a range of approximately a city block. Such equipment will be deployed first in cities, close to ground level at power poles and crosswalks, as 5G rolls out. (Image © Nokia)

To create enough room for all of the anticipated traffic, the carriers have agreed to employ unused spectrum in the high-frequency range, where more bandwidth is available. Technologies for higher frequencies, however, have shorter ranges than 4G, so each technology is being used to deliver communications and data within the limitations of its own range.

“In the first phase, the industry is not trying to cover the whole universe of 5G,” said Volker Held, Nokia’s 5G market development manager. “We did a lot of activities with companies like Qualcomm and Intel to create devices with interoperability to communicate properly from a network perspective, and we are continuing the collaboration with the ecosystem for further building blocks of 5G technology.”


Initially, 5G will offer faster speeds on smartphones and wireless devices. As 5G evolves, IoT usage will ramp up, interconnecting devices, vehicles, cities, utility grids and infrastructure.

By 2025, Statista.com estimates that more than 75 billion devices will be connected to the internet.

The most demanding and complex applications will require sophisticated, modular combinations of the technologies. Assisted and autonomous driving, for example, requires dynamic cellular-V2X (vehicle-to-everything), vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V), vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I), and vehicle-to-network (V2N) communications. 5G will direct that traffic into the high-frequency range, where signal response time is super fast (low latency). To enable this, Qualcomm, Ericsson, Ford, Audi and others are creating new devices and systems that reliably deliver signals 20 times faster than 4G.

Other uses, however, don’t require that kind of mission-critical speed. Smart facility climate control systems, factory production lines and e-commerce chatbots fall into this category. Still, they will require different equipment working in different frequencies, or will depend on cloud-native, software-driven architecture than can shift computations into the edge cloud.

“This requires a high degree of orchestration and automation capabilities from the start,” Ericsson’s Linder said. ”While 4G is based on standardized network functions for a universal service, 5G allows us to tailor capabilities for specific categories of use cases.”


As 5G evolves, the platform will be subdivided further through virtualization technologies that include Software Defined Network (SDN) and Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) – an approach known as “Network Slicing.” Slicing allows virtual networks to be dedicated to particular functions. Deployment is expected in 2020.

“5G is a system of systems that makes the network totally programmable, with different virtual networks on the same infrastructure,” Held said. “It will enable a lot of vertical industries to digitalize themselves.”

For more information on designing modular 5G systems, please visit: https://go.3ds.com/aPYt

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