Everything you need to know about the 5G revolution—and how it will usher in 6G

researcher working in WiNES lab
A Northeastern student working in the WiNES lab, where researchers are designing a new generation of secure, reliable, energy-efficient wireless networked systems. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

When it comes to the dizzying pace of technological change in the world of smart devices, it’s perhaps easy to fixate on when the next big boost to connectivity will come and forget about the present. 

That leap forward is at least seven years away, some experts say, when the next generation of mobile internet, called 6G, is expected to launch. Between now and then, researchers immersed in the Internet of Things are hard at work improving 5G operability, the potential of which has still to be fully harnessed. 

In addition to being on the cutting edge of the 5G revolution, faculty with Northeastern’s Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things are expanding their course offerings to include industry training to prepare students to work on current and future generations of cellular network technology.

Since the Federal Communications Commission approved 5G deployment in 2018, telecommunication companies, including AT&T and Verizon, have been gradually getting their networks up to speed. While the broader societal impacts of the technology are still being worked out, proponents of 5G tout, among other things, faster network speeds for internet and cellphone users. 

From 3G, 4G to 5G

Michele Polese, a principal research scientist at the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things, spoke to Northeastern Global News about the differences between 5G and its preceding generations.

“In the cellular world, there’s been this transition from 3G to 4G to 5G, with the goal of always improving the connection that the data user gets,” Polese says. 

Commercially available in 2001, third-generation mobile networks enabled internet connectivity on the early smartphones. The major milestone of 4G was marked by the widespread deployment of mobile broadband. With each new generation, connectivity speeds improved leaps and bounds. Experts say that 4G technology is largely responsible for ushering in ubiquitous connectivity for services such as Netflix and Uber, among others. 

“It’s this ability to have fast, reliable connectivity always available to you on your phone—in addition to the availability of better smartphones, obviously—that is what made these kinds of services [Netflix, Uber] possible,” says Tommaso Melodia, the ​​William Lincoln Smith Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Northeastern, who directs the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things. 

According to Polese, the three main upgrades associated with 5G deployment include, first, enhanced mobile broadband; second, ultra-reliable low-latency communications, designed for “mission-critical” communications, such as those required to operate autonomous vehicles, for example; and third, massive machine-type communication, which focuses on the networks specific to sensors and machines. 

“The idea behind 5G is the diversification of what you can connect, where you can connect, and how you can connect it,” Polese says. 

How close are we to 6G?

At present, 5G is widely deployed, with widespread coverage in most cities around the globe. But many of the capabilities promised by 5G have yet to be fully deployed, Melodia says. 

“We’re still in the first half of the deployment of 5G, moving towards the second,” Melodia says. “Every cycle, going from one generation to the next, takes somewhere between 8 and 10 years.”

Those promised capabilities include things such as remote surgery and autonomous driving that are still being realized. 

“One of the promises of 5G was that it would provide this very tight interconnection between the physical and digital world,” he says. 

It’s possible, Melodia says, that there are 5G applications in development that the broader community may not be aware of. 

Softwarization and a paradigm design shift

As researchers and engineers improve on the existing standard, networks in turn are becoming less reliant on hardware—on the “network-in-a-box” paradigm. 

This innovation is centered around so-called open radio access networks, Open RAN or O-RAN, a movement to disaggregate and virtualize network components and create a unified set of industry standards for telecom suppliers to follow. 

“Through O-RAN, networks are transitioning to more software-based designs,” Polese says. “The idea is, with software, you can reprogram it or rewrite [it] to have it do what you want it to, rather than having a box you can’t reconfigure or update. This is one of the pillars changing the way cellular networks are deployed.”

Network providers, vendors and researchers have long called for companies to move away from the proprietary hardware model to the open software approach, which entails decoupling network functionality from systems’ underlying hardware. This new approach—a key part of 5G deployment moving into 6G—favors “interoperability and programmability” in which systems would conform to unified industry specifications that enable greater flexibility between mobile sites.

Leading the charge to shift the paradigm is the O-RAN Alliance, which has been calling for “a unified interconnection standard for white-box hardware and open source software elements from different vendors.”

5G research and education at Northeastern

Northeastern students are receiving 5G training through a university partnership with Qualcomm Wireless Academy, the educational branch of the prominent 5G company Qualcomm Technologies. The free certification program and its associated courses will be integrated into Northeastern’s 5G curriculum in the future. 

“5G is not a thing of the past,” says Stefano Basagni, professor of computer engineering at Northeastern. “In this sense, the partnership with the Qualcomm Wireless Academy is relevant because they provide an industry perspective.” 

As part of a three-year $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers with the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things are also in the process of constructing a fully open, programmable platform to test higher frequency radio bands in order to unlock even faster internet speeds and solve barriers to connectivity that exist with 5G. 

The platform would be made up of eight separate nodes that will be built around campus, serving as cellular base stations, or Wi-Fi access points and—when complete—will be available to the broader research community.

What does the future hold for consumers and businesses?

“There’s two ways to look at this,” Melodia says. “From the perspective of the final user, so you and your smartphone, you can expect to see more ubiquitous connectivity—faster data rates, faster download speeds—and hopefully fewer dropped calls.”

In tandem with developments in AI and machine learning, Melodia says the next few years will bring “digital transformed” physical realities, with further inroads toward smart cities, smart highways and accelerated industrial automation—all made possible by the 5G revolution. 

“From the perspective of businesses and industry, we’re moving into a world where there is a lot more data available for real-time decision making and real-time automation of decision-making processes,” Melodia says. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.