5G internet is coming. Not like gran coming around. More like a fire-breathing dragon on a high definition video stream. 5G is coming. But will the 5G dragon instead burn all of the townsfolk in a terrible plot twist? Will the hype around 5G technology not live up to itself and be instead a disappointment? What’s going on and how can I break the Game of Thrones Reference?
Robert McAllister from Horizon Marine Electronics did some digging to find the answers to commonly asked questions. For a point of reference, you might find it handy for the following article to know that a normal home fibre connection is about 80Mbs, and a reasonable V-Sat connection might be 5-20Mbs.
What is the difference between 4G, 4.5G and 5G technology
4G cellular technology has been the backstay of the digital revolution for the past 10 years. It is a murky description of technologies that marketing types get overly excited with to give the impression that their technology is faster. Technically 4G technologies should be able to provide peak 100Mbs download speeds, but without anyone policing this the marketing departments got creative and you could call anything you liked 4G, or 4G+ or 4.5G, etc. The official full stop on 4G is officially 3GPP’s release 14, where User Equipment Categories 20 and 21 were defined. Anything running category 22 and up is defined 5G. So where 4G was a mix of technologies, 5G is a much better-defined beast.
Which brings us back to 4.5G, there are marine companies telling you that 5G LTE is really 5G, this simply isn’t 5G – it’s LTEA-pro. If they’re advertising CAT18 modems – they’re simply not 5G. This article aims to control the confusion and silence the misleading information in the industry. The only terms which are used to describe 5G are 5G and 5G NR (New Radio).
The New Radio part references the different frequencies that 5G technology will use, which are (FR1) Below 6 Gigahertz and (FR2) above 25GHz. The FR2 part of the equation, in particular, is a big change. High frequencies mean less range, which means WAY more cellular sites. Instead of one site every 3km in built-up areas, you’re looking at one every 100M.
This alone will be a big difference and one reason that the 3.5GHz band has been chosen for initial deployments. As Nokia state “5G at 3.5 GHz with massive MIMO (Multiple Input Multiple Output) beamforming antennas can match the coverage of existing 4G networks using the 2 GHz band with traditional passive antennas”. In other words, check if you’ve got coverage on the 2GHz band in Europe, and there’s a good chance you’ll have the 3.5GHz 5G at some point.
Speed may also be a noticeable difference. 5G will be much faster, especially with mm-wave implementation (FR2 frequencies). On sub 1GHz frequencies (those which will go further, so more likely to be used by yachts underway or at anchor) the speed difference is only going to be slight compared to 4G technology. However, the more efficient use of frequency bands should mean less congestion at cell sites during peak usage which is another bugbear for busy ports in the summertime.
What is the current state of play in the market?
As of writing (Mid October 2019), 5G Service is commercially available in parts of most European countries, almost exclusively in the 3.5GHz band. It is available in more than 30 sites in the UK from 4 different service providers and 15 Cities in Spain. Possibly closer to home, Monaco Telecom launched its 5G service in July, however, although it is reportedly working, it is not available for commercial use.
It’s not surprising but an important point nonetheless, all European countries have indicated a further roll-out of 5G technology in the next couple of years, and perhaps more importantly for yachting, Europe has prioritised the 700 MHz band for wide-area 5G deployments. 5G is here to stay and network coverage will continue to grow.
Another 5G network that should interest yachties is the T-Mobile network in the States. The reason this should be of interest is the frequency used – 600MHz. It’s a long-range 5G network which will give us an indication at least of what a full-scale 700MHz network might be like when it’s deployed.
So, will it be a game-changer?
According to OpenSignal, the average download in Spain and France was about 25Mbs, well short of Korea, with over 50Mbs. Even though the maximum theoretical speeds of 4G technology has been hundreds of megabits per second (Mbs) for years, we just don’t see those types of speeds in the frequency bands we normally use. Part of the problem is network contention and part of it is lack of backhaul capacity. As 5G uses the frequencies more efficiently, network contention should theoretically decrease – which will also be helped by more users moving to millimeter cell sites as this frees up bandwidth from the existing LTE-A and 3.5GHz 5G bands.
Backhaul (the connection from the cellular site to the internet) in remote areas is expected to benefit in remote locations by the upcoming launch of several low earth orbit (LEO) satellite constellations, such as Oneweb. Although this affects both 4G and 5G in the area, it’s worth noting the capacity for higher speeds will be in place.
“So, will it be a game-changer? Not right away, but more of a slow steady tide coming in the next few years as other bits come into play”.
But is 5G harmful?
Most of the legitimate concern about 5G is with the use of much higher frequencies (over 24GHz). The concern stems from the fact that these frequencies haven’t really been mass deployed before, and there’s not a lot of testing what a huge network will do to a full-scale population. Much of the concern appears to be simple human nature with unknown technology, but really, the worst-case scenario is that the FR2 frequencies are not used. This isn’t a huge deal for yachts as we won’t be using them anyway.
Any concern further than this is pure conspiracy theories. This is just pure scare-mongering and should be at this stage ignored.
Should I buy 5G products now?
If you’re in the market for a cellular router for the boat, and you’re planning on using it for a significant period of time (perhaps 3-5 years) then yes absolutely you should be thinking of installing 5G compatible technology aboard. At the time of writing Peplink is looking for testers for the 5G version of its incredible HD4-MBX offering – which should be available for release early 2020. For those of you who prefer others to be guinea pigs, buy the current CAT18 LTEA-PRO version and upgrade just the modem module when it’s released instead!
With the rollout occurring mainly on the 3.5GHz – much higher than current 4G frequencies (generally up to 2.6GHz, but for most yachts more 700-900MHz) the focus on board has shifted to what cables and connectors are chosen so that when the yacht makes the shift to a 5G router, the hardware is in place to support it. Higher frequencies lose their power down coax cable faster than lower frequencies. This means that fatter and shorter cable length has become a higher priority. LMR400 is now the minimum requirement, where it was once the best option. For connectors the priority is now on getting the connection absolutely perfect – all of a sudden an air gap within the connector that wouldn’t make a difference at 900MHz is a 20% loss at 3.6GHz. And they’re tricky as hell to do up a mast on a windy day!
Without the right antenna, however, you may as well be using a bit of anchor chain to get the signal to the router. Promarine’s Protac 5311 has proven itself in all 4G bands for a long time as the most efficient antenna on the market. Its ability to carry 5GHz WIFI is perhaps less known – and yet, it’s good at that too, and well-suited for 3.5GHz. One of the leading 5G network equipment manufacturers is even using it as 5G reference antennas in all their laboratories.
Can my IT network handle the pace?
If you’re running Cat5e cable or above and gigabit switches, yes it probably can. Realistic speeds we are expecting at the 3.5GHz band might be 200Mbs – If you’ve got something like a Peplink Speedfusion service such as Horizon Hosting, and can bond 4 cellular connections, you’re looking at 700Mbs tops, so still well under the gigabit backbone around the boat. There are exceptions, of course, older switches or wifi hotspots might need to be upgraded, but if the boat is only several years old, it’s unlikely to be an issue. Do bear in mind this is nearly 100 times the average V-Sat speed – what exactly are you going to be doing with that much bandwidth aboard?
What are some boat-specific things I need to know?
For yachts, the big thing is that the millimeter band stuff just isn’t going to be any good for us. The range just isn’t good enough to have any effect on yachting connectivity. Even the first band to be rolled out – 3.5GHz – is only going to be good in built-up areas, meaning probably coverage in marinas but not at anchor. Alongside this is the fact that the headline-grabbing download figures – Gigabits per second – are only available on the really high frequencies, we aren’t expecting anywhere near that speed on the frequencies we’re looking at.
One other very boat-specific problem will be antenna placement in regards to V-Sat. Ka-band is a reasonably common term, but its definition is lesser-known, 26.5–40 GHz – so right at the start of 5G’s FR2 frequency band. With RF systems tuned to the same frequencies, interference and possible damage are very much within the realms of possibility.
Another item to keep on your watch list when looking at the 5G rollout from a boat is the rise of LEO satellites, their pricing models and performance. Depending on a bunch of factors (speed, cost, etc), this could rise to be a considerable competitor to cellular comms on boats.
As with all things on a boat, retrofitting 5G comms is going to be a trade-off between a number of competing aspects. In an ideal world, we would mount the modem close by the antennas, there would be 8 or more of them, they would be well separated, and have a 30mm thick cable running to each of them. That’s just not going to happen on most boats as cost, practicalities, and aesthetics come into play.
If I was a captain or ETO right now looking at future-proofing the boat, I would mount 5G capable antennas (The aforementioned Promarine 5311 being the best bet), run the thickest coax I could fit in the space and, if space allowed, spare coax as well. I would investigate where I could mount a router as close to the antennas as possible and, if in the market for a router, choose something like the Peplink HD4-MBX which has a swappable modem module to allow you to upgrade to 5G easily in the future.
So, in summary, we know 5G is coming, I don’t think 5G will disappoint, but truthfully do we really need it? In this story, the dragon is at the door, let’s hope it lives up to the hype.
Robert McAllister is the Operations Manager for Horizon Marine Electronics, the experts in Superyacht Technology, based in STP, Palma. He has a yachting background, an Engineering degree with Honors and has run Marine Electronic companies for the past 8 years.