What is 5G New Radio (NR) technology and how does it work?

5G is one of the most talked-about topics in the mobile communications industry, and it totally deserves it. However, when a topic becomes so popular, many people say lots of things, making it hard to separate the hype from reality.

5G is the fifth-generation of mobile networks enabled by the New Radio (NR) technology to facilitate eMBB, mMTC and URLLC with average download speeds of 150 to 200 Mbps. 5G NR uses 3.3 to 4.2 GHz frequency bands; it is OFDMA-based and can be implemented as a standalone or non-standalone network.

The fifth generation of mobile networks – 5G is already live in many countries. New Radio (NR) is the technology that enables 5G services worldwide, and it is the upgrade path for all 4G LTE networks across the globe. From a consumer perspective, 5G NR can offer remarkably high data rates (in Gbps), and it also provides extremely low latencies as low as one millisecond. 5G can provide support for billions of low-powered IoT devices for industries. In addition, its ultra-low latencies can help digitise many market verticals, including manufacturing factories and self-driving cars, its real-time communication capabilities.

Difference between 5G and 4G

LTE – Long Term Evolution provided the 4G upgrade path to all key 3G technologies, including UMTS and CDMA2000. The key difference between 5G and 4G is the technology focus which in 5G is targeting three distinct use case classes: eMBB, uRLLC and mMTC. eMBB stands for Enhanced Mobile Broadband which from a use case perspective is the closest match to 4G LTE networks. But unlike 4G LTE, 5G has a strong focus on two additional areas, uRLLC – Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication and mMTC – Massive Machine Type Communication. In addition, 5G can work alongside 4G LTE by using the existing 4G mobile core network, EPC (Evolved Packet Core), in a deployment model called non-stand-alone 5G – 5G NSA. 4G LTE and 5G NR are expected to co-exist for a long time to address many mobile broadband use cases together. The other model for 5G, the standalone model, is the full end-to-end 5G network with its own dedicated 5G cloud-native core network that caters to a wide variety of enterprise-level use cases.

How is 5G different from earlier cellular technologies?

The concept of 5G is fundamentally different from earlier mobile technologies like GSM, UMTS, LTE etc. The earlier technologies were mostly about data speeds, so for example, HSPA+ could offer peak download speeds of up to 42 Mbps which increased considerably with LTE and later updates. 5G is not all about speed; it can definitely provide ultra-high data speeds, but it is a technology with the aim to revolutionise industries and not just consumer lives. The real promise of 5G, arguably, is that it is has a very quick response time and it is capable of supporting a large number of low-powered devices that can help digitise many industries.

5G can operate in multiple frequency bands, which allows it to achieve a latency of 1millisecond or even lower when higher frequency bands are used. It can also utilise the existing 4G LTE frequencies through the concept of Dynamic Spectrum Sharing or DSS. The lower latency of 5G networks makes them ideal for providing communications for self-driving cars, manufacturing, virtual reality (VR) and other IoT (Internet of Things) services.

Many use cases for 5G are very futuristic and it may take a good few years of development for those use cases to even become more widely known. The real demand for 5G networks will evolve over time as we become more and more digital. The lower latency of 5G coupled with its capability to support a vast number of devices makes it ideal for many market verticals including the manufacturing sector. For the general public in the short-term, 5G may be more about ultra-fast mobile broadband also known as Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB). The challenge, in the short term, may be the lack of coverage in many areas which may take some time to overcome. The good news, however, is that 4G and 5G will co-exist for a very long time and when unlimited data packages become more common, it will only make things better for the customers.

How fast is 5G?

Under ideal network conditions, 5G can offer peak downlink speeds of over 10 Gbps with a latency of as low as 1 millisecond. As the downlink helps with the downloads, the download speed of anything around 10 Gbps or even 1 Gbps sounds amazing. A download speed of even 100-150 Mbps is exciting enough for most fibre broadband providers in the UK, so you can imagine what anything with Gbps in it means considering 1 Gbps equals 1000 Mbps. In real life though, we never really get to witness the peak speeds as a mobile cell serving us is usually serving lots of other people at the same time. The available network capacity and the resulting speeds get shared with many other mobile users and the data speeds we get on our mobile phones are the average speeds. In the UK, 5G networks were launched in 2019 and even though the initial deployments have mostly been non-standalone 5G (NSA), the standalone 5G networks are yet to be widely deployed. At the moment, 5G networks can offer average download speeds of around 150-200 Mbps in the UK through the NSA deployment model. However, speeds of between 300 Mbps-500 Mbps have also been witnessed by our tests in the area of Reading, UK.

How does the 5G New Radio – NR technology work?

The 5G mobile networks require two key network components to offer their full potential (i) a radio network using the New Radio -NR technology (ii) a cloud-native 5G core network – 5GCN. Since 4G LTE networks are currently the most widely deployed networks and as LTE Advanced and LTE-Advanced Pro can comfortably support many enhanced mobile broadband use cases, 5G and 4G networks will work together. 5G and 4G can work in dual-connectivity scenarios where a user device can be connected to both 4G and 5G networks at the same time to offer bigger bandwidths and, therefore, higher data rates to customers. This is where non-stand-alone 5G networks come in as they can support both 4G and 5G user devices by supporting both 4G LTE and 5G NR radio networks. The non-stand-alone 5G model requires the 5G radio network to connect to the 4G LTE core network – EPC. The standalone 5G networks have their own cloud-native core network which uses a service-based architecture and enables network virtualisation for many network functions. One key capability that utilises network virtualisation is network slicing. Network slicing allows mobile operators to offer “virtual” sub-networks. It means they can create individual network slices for specific market verticals (sectors). For example, they can create a very targeted network slice using the millimetre band to achieve ultra-low latency for a manufacturing unit. At the same time, they can create another slice for the rest of the population in the same area for general 5G mobile coverage. Have a look at our dedicated post on network slicing to learn more.

How does 5G Internet work?

The 5G home internet is based on the use case category eMBB – Enhanced Mobile Broadband. In marketing documentation, the abbreviation eMBB is also expressed as Extreme Mobile Broadband. A 5G home broadband set-up may comprise a 5G data-only SIM inserted into a 5G broadband router to create WiFi coverage just like a regular DSL or Fibre connection. Have a look at this detailed post on 5G high-speed internet services. Also, just like in the 4G LTE networks, mobile hotspots are also an option if you want to use your 5G smartphone for tethering.

Is 5G based on small cells?

5G networks use various frequency bands, including the millimetre bands. Since higher frequency bands (millimetre bands) offer limited coverage, they need to operate in a small-cell architecture for situations that require targetted coverage. Examples of that can include urban areas, office buildings, manufacturing facilities etc. However, the wider coverage with 5G will require larger cells (macrocells) that can make use of lower frequency to provide better coverage. But that doesn’t mean that macrocells can’t use higher frequencies. The Massive MIMO antenna technology in 5G enables beamforming which allows the wireless signal to travel to the receiver in a more targeted way with more energy. Since higher frequencies offer higher antenna gains, they also form higher beams, leading to extended coverage.

What is the frequency band for 5G?

5G networks are not tied to a single frequency band and they can operate in various band types. According to this web page on GSMA’s website, 5G spectrum guide, the majority of commercial 5G launches rely on the 3.3-4.2 GHz frequency range. In the UK, for example, all mobile operators use the 3.4-3.6 GHz band for 5G which falls in the mid-band range.

5G networks can operate in various frequency bands starting from below 1GHz and going all the way up to 28 GHz. The three(3) band-classes for 5G are as follows:

  • Low band: Below 1GHz e.g. 700 MHz.
  • Mid band: 1 to 6GHz e.g. 3GHz.
  • High or Millimetre band: Over 6GHz especially 24-30 GHz.

According to the laws of physics, the wireless signals that have higher frequencies experience higher losses as they travel which means they offer limited coverage. In comparison, the signals that use lower frequencies can travel much further due to experiencing lower losses. Higher frequencies are however more suitable for improved (reduced) latency and higher throughput. Therefore, in 5G, lower frequency bands can be used for providing wide-area nationwide coverage. The higher frequency bands can provide more targeted coverage in smaller areas with low latency and high throughput. Lower frequency bands are also useful for services where always connected low-powered devices are needed. The lower frequency band for wide-area 5G coverage in Europe is the 700 MHz band. The equivalent in the US is the 600 MHz band.

What multiplexing does 5G use?

5G uses OFDM (Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing), which is the same access technology that LTE uses for the air interface. In 4G LTE networks, the sub-channel spacing is 15 kHz, but 5G NR is more flexible and can use sub-carrier spacing in the multiples of 15 kHz, e.g. 30 kHz, 60 kHz etc. From a bandwidth perspective, LTE uses a maximum carrier bandwidth of 20 MHz, and by using multiple carriers, it can use up to 5 carriers to achieve a maximum bandwidth of 20 MHz x 5 = 100 MHz. In 5G NR, the maximum channel bandwidth is 400 MHz, and with multiple carriers, 5G can use up to 16 carriers. That allows the maximum bandwidth to be 400 MHz x 16 = 6400 MHz or 6.4 GHz. Higher bandwidth leads to higher data speeds which allows 5G to offer much higher speeds as compared to LTE.

Is 5G TDD or FDD?

5G networks can work in both TDD and FDD duplex schemes. FDD uses two separate frequency bands; one for the uplink and one for the downlink. TDD uses the same frequency band for uplink and downlink and separates the transmission through different timeslots. In earlier mobile technologies, including 4G LTE, 3G UMTS and 2G GSM, Frequency Division Duplex – FDD has been the primary duplex scheme for uplink and downlink. 5G networks use a slightly different approach. In 5G NR, the millimetre frequency band can use Time Division Duplex (TDD) while the lower frequency bands (low and mid) may still use FDD.

Beamforming and network slicing in 5G

Since higher frequency bands (mid and millimetre bands) offer limited coverage, they need to operate in a small cell architecture for situations that require targetted coverage. Examples of that can include urban areas, office buildings, and manufacturing facilities etc. However, wider coverage will need to be provided through the larger cells (macrocells) on lower frequency bands that can travel further. But that doesn’t mean that macrocells can’t use higher frequencies. Thanks to the beamforming technology that 5G employs, the wireless signal travels to the receiver in a more targeted way with more energy. Since higher frequencies offer higher antenna gains, they also form higher beams which can lead to extended coverage.

5G also enables network slicing which allows mobile operators to offer “virtual” sub-networks. It means they can create individual network slices for specific market verticals (sectors). For example, they can create a very targetted network slice using the millimetre band to achieve ultra-low latency for a manufacturing unit, but they can create another slice for the rest of the population in the same area for general 5G mobile coverage. Have a look at our dedicated post on Network Slicing for more information.

Conclusion

5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile networks, where 5 stands for fifth and G stands for Generation. It is a successor of 4G, 3G, 2G and 1G mobile networks. 5G is the latest generation so far introduced in 2019 and is already live in many countries. It uses a technology called New Radio – NR to offer cellular services. NR (New Radio) is to 5G as LTE (Long Term Evolution) is to 4G. Like 4G is often written as 4G LTE, 5G in most documentation is referred to as 5G NR. 5G NR is a flexible technology as it allows a single physical mobile network to cater to a wide range of use cases across many different customer segments.

Here are some helpful downloads

Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. Sometimes, we need some extra support, especially when preparing for a new job, studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:

Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy, which explains the network nodes, e.g., BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.

Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and the challenges considering how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience, which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if you work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on the product overview and product roadmap.

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