Understanding 5G: A Basic Primer
The initial, essential step toward understanding 5G is to perform an intellectual body purge of the endless disgorging of cluelessness and disinformation that emerges from the Washington White House and radiates out around that city and then to the outside world that it infects. The institutes, pundits, self-professed experts, summits, and even the U.S. press all pretty much feed out of the same trough of 5G political slop that gets passed around as incantations of ignorance, spin, and K-street lobbying.
The next essential step is the difficult one. Unfortunately, it requires the hard work and a knowledge base obtained from following and analyzing the only authoritative collective sources of 5G information — and that is the multiple global industry bodies where hundreds of technical experts constantly collaborate at diverse locations contributing thousands of input documents per month developing and specifying in great detail, the architectures, services, interfaces, radio links, and capabilities that constitute 5G. These bodies have been working on this effort for the past five years, and publish the resulting documents in a series of releases that resemble computer operating system versions. Release 16 — which is true 5G SA with network core virtualization (as opposed to transitional precursors) — is being accomplished this year. Subsequent releases promise ever more advanced applications and features. The bottom line: 5G is a constantly evolving continuum.
These bodies are usually layered and have endless strings of acronyms like the 3GPP (SA, CT, RAN) core, which is then surrounded by NFV ISG, MEC ISG, ETSI TCs, MEF, ITU-R, ITU-T, OASIS, TCG, IETF, OMA, GSMA, IEEE802. You can search on the acronyms for meanings, access portals, meetings, participants, and input and output materials. Additionally, large swaths of 5G work never make it into the global industry fora, and only appear in patent filings, research literature, and product announcements that require continuous monitoring and assessment. Given the enormous complexity and continuously evolving technical and institutional complexities spread across all these venues, anything approaching a complete understanding is not possible. All 5G knowledge is an approximation at a point in time.
Principal 5G features
A number of basic features can be distilled out of the enormous swirling 5G maelstrom that goes far beyond the focus on political trivializations, lobbying, trolling for spectrum, and marketing in the popular press. These features represent a tectonic change far exceeding anything seen in the history of electronic communications – in the way networks and services are instantiated and provided.
- Virtualization of everything from data centers and local Mobile Edge Computing facilities
- Partitioned architectures & services on demand transparently across all media using network slicing
- Shifting away from DARPA internet protocols to low-latency Virtual Carrier Ethernet
- Prolific ephemeral encryption
- High-speed mobility support combined with constant dynamic portability to mobile platforms and IoT
- Commoditized hardware and orchestration of everything else
- Ubiquitous, high bandwidth radio access capabilities
- Shift to global “content distribution networks” on-demand where discoverable endpoint and traffic intelligence become highly valuable
- Intelligence shifts from endpoints to middleboxes and data centers
- Trusted platforms, middlebox based traffic analysis, and auditing become security essentials
Explaining these features and conclusions are beyond the scope of a basic primer, but readers can do their own homework using authoritative source materials.
Threaded through this array of capabilities is a need for security that is best summed up as constant “cyber hygiene” representing a virtualization reapplication of today’s 20 CIS Critical Security Controls. Unilateral actions undermining public international law like banning a vendor’s hardware because of its place of incorporation are not only unlawful but utterly delusional and counterproductive toward addressing the necessary capabilities. The 5G security capabilities have for several years been developed and evolved continuously in global industry bodies.
The problem here is that understanding all of the above requires a comprehensive level of knowledge and available resources to distill from a broad array of activities — and those resources only exist in a few companies and institutions. As a result, the purveyors of jingoistic 5G snake-oil political analysis are left to pursue their trade. Simplistic portrayals of 5G are low-hanging fruit for a world challenged by understanding even the basics of how a smartphone works.
Emerging 5G markets, strategies, and participants
There are arguably four classes of winners in the 5G world. In the near term, they include a few companies and their component suppliers who can exist in the global 5G mass commodity physical “box” game that has a finite market period and extends into developing countries. Their success is synergistic and important to the derivative markets. The three additional, larger, persistent, and even more lucrative market winners in this massive tectonic shift to a tailored, on-demand, content delivery global architecture, are: 1) those who provide the low latency, trusted network slice orchestrations out of cloud data center/MEC facilities and middleboxes, 2) those who collect and maintain the mobile endpoint identifiers and intelligence to provide resolver services, and 3) those who can maintain and provide content for specific classes of customers.
The providers who fall into all of the above categories are very actively engaged in the real 5G/NFV work. They encompass product vendors and service providers at multiple levels across the globe — in many instances, orchestrating different subsidiaries across multiple countries. Some industry consortiums in the cable, railway, and automobile fields have become prominent. The metrics of the huge commitments of personnel and contributions of intellectual property in submissions are available in all the venues. In the 5G security arena, by any metric, there is only one clear global leader — the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre.
Principal 5G Challenges
Although the challenges are certain to evolve over time, those that are obvious at this point fall into three categories: 1) effective, inclusive global arrangements for extraterritorial orchestrations of 5G architectures and services including access to forensics, 2) concentration of 5G orchestration, resolver and end-point intelligence services in the hands of a few commercial providers, and 3) an inability of government institutions to understand the previous two challenges and their own strategic interests. The last challenge is largely resident in only one nation at the moment.
The first challenge can be potentially satisfied by further extending the many global intergovernmental arrangements developed a century ago for the first global radio-based networks and a quarter-century ago for public internets. To the extent solutions cannot be found, costs will simply be driven up and market access limited by building more national-based facilities that operate within a confined jurisdiction. The second challenge is similar to the first with complex antitrust, privacy, law enforcement, and national security overlays. Nations will similarly insist on geographic jurisdictional compartmentalization. The third challenge will hopefully be solved in the near future.