5G-Advanced will expand the network’s scope beyond mere communication
Mobile networks have become rather good at providing us “what” we need to know. The high speeds, low latencies and enormous capacities of 5G networks today makes the world’s vast repositories of information available to us instantaneously. But in the 5G-Advanced era, the network will become just as capable of answering new types of questions. Specifically, 5G-Advanced will be able to tell us “where” something is within a few centimeters and “when” something happens to within a few hundred nanoseconds.
These new timing and positioning capabilities will expand the role of the network beyond communication. This “expansion” is one of what Nokia’s Chief Strategy and Technology Officer Nishant Batra calls the 4 E’s – experience, expansion, extension and operational excellence. Each represents a distinct dimension in which the network will be transformed as we move from 5G to 5G-Advanced. As part of a series of blog posts exploring each of these dimensions, my colleagues Sari Nielsen and Klaus Pedersen recently tackled the experience theme. This month, I will explore the theme of expansion.
The benefits of 5G-Advanced’s positioning capabilities can best be illustrated by imagining an automated factory. A robot picks delicate items out of storage and whisks them off to an assembly line. Other robots line up components for integration into a final product. Elsewhere on the factory floor, trucks are automatically unloaded and their goods sorted and consigned to their destinations, while an operative in the control room uses extended reality (XR) technology to remotely verify quality of every item leaving the assembly line. Such levels of automation are the hallmark of efficient 21st century manufacturing, which wouldn’t be possible without super-accurate positioning combined with low-latency communication.
Today, the communication and positioning components of industrial automation technologies typically require separate infrastructure, but with 5G-Advanced a single network does it all. New, state-of-the-art positioning technology integrated into 5G-Advanced will bring reliable positioning accuracy down to the sub-10cm realm. Significantly, this will be achieved without supplementary beacons, and, most importantly, without reference to satellites. Satellites are the cornerstone of GPS technology, which can provide accurate positioning outdoors, but their fundamental limitation is that their signals cannot penetrate indoors. They are therefore unable to facilitate the super-accurate positioning needed for industrial automation and other indoor applications.
In order to provide this high level of positioning accuracy, 5G-Advanced positioning techniques will go beyond the time-of-arrival measurements that are well established in mobile communication networks but limited in accuracy. 5G-Advanced is expected to use a technique known as “carrier phase positioning,” whereby the phase of the radio-frequency carrier signal transmitted by the base stations is measured and used to fine-tune the position estimate down to a tiny fraction of the signal wavelength. Such technology has in fact already been proven outdoors using satellite signals, but with 5G-Advanced we will see carrier phase positioning’s first application to local base stations.
This means that devices connected to a 5G-Advanced network can benefit from the same level of positioning accuracy regardless of whether they are indoors or outdoors – a great advantage for dedicated logistics networks at ports and airports, for example. The ability to maintain super-accurate positioning in all locations will also be hugely advantageous for vehicular applications, as accuracy and safety can be assured even in tunnels, far out of reach of satellite signals. We will also increase the resilience of our critical infrastructure, as it will be less susceptible to the vulnerabilities of satellite systems such as interruptions caused by space debris or solar storms, or even intentional jamming.
Returning to our factory example, the complex interaction of machines, robots and people I described suddenly becomes possible using a single infrastructure. The wide-area 5G-Advanced network can track raw materials as they make their way to the factory, handing off to a private 5G-Advanced network in the factory that uses sub-10cm-accuracy positioning to perform the most intricate manufacturing feats. And upon completion, the manufactured goods leave the factory where their journey to their final destinations is monitored once again by the wide-area 5G-Advanced network.
Reliable knowledge of precise absolute time is a critical requirement for an increasing number of professional applications. Financial transactions and automated stock trading require knowledge of split-second timing, verified by means of at least two independent timing sources. In major financial centers, timing may be provided by global navigation satellite system (GNSS) signals, relayed by fibre-optic cables. But GNSS is just one source, and it is susceptible to the kinds of satellite vulnerabilities that I have already discussed.
This is where 5G-Advanced can provide the resilience needed for these types of mission-critical applications. For one thing, the 5G-Advanced network will be able to maintain timing during temporary interruptions of a satellite source. But more fundamentally, the 5G-Advanced network would also be able to connect to other timing sources such as the ground-based atomic clocks that are currently being deployed in some nations. These will provide completely independent time references. 5G-Advanced is designed to distribute these timing references with sub-microsecond accuracy to end users. This is achieved using timestamping and time synchronization protocols, together with compensation of the radio propagation delays. The result is that the end users have precise knowledge of absolute time, even when they are distributed over a wide geographical area.
Such absolute timing services will enable multiple applications besides financial transactions, many of which are currently just too expensive to deploy. For example, professional audio productions such as concert events depend on high-precision timing to coordinate sound from different speakers. Today they rely on cabling to meet their timing requirements, but 5G-Advanced will allow them to get the same results wirelessly. This will allow production companies to set events up quickly.
Power grid networks, whose importance is magnified by the transition to low-carbon generation, will be able to control switches with the most miniscule accuracy without relying on wired connections. Highly intricate procedures like tele-surgery will come closer to reality as 5G-Advanced timing accuracy will allow for the most delicate of operations. In the factory, the 5G-Advanced network will not only know the position of every robot and machine, but also provide the precise timing necessary to synchronize their movements.
5G opened the doors to new gains in speed and new lows in latency, boosting communication capabilities to previously unattainable levels. But 5G-Advanced will additionally unlock opportunities beyond mere communication, enabling users to exploit location and time to a completely new level. The particular beauty of all this is that it will all be enabled by a single infrastructure. Whether the application requires data transmission, super-accurate positioning, or sub-microsecond timing accuracy, one network will do it all.