Why Low-Latency Is So Important.

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Consumer interest in 5G technology has been fueled by the arrival of glamorous, speedy handsets such as Apple’s iPhone 12, with 5G networks now rolled out to many towns and cities across the country. But the ‘point’ of 5G won’t simply be delivering ultra-fast uploads and downloads to the phones in consumers’ hands; it also unlocks the potential of emerging technology such as the internet of things (IoT) and smart cities. 

It all comes down to latency. In layman’s terms, it is a measure of the time it takes a device to send a message and get a response; and it is a key to services that require real-time inputs, and unlocks capabilities that would not have been possible via the 4G network.

5G isn’t just about a faster network – it’s about integrating an entire ecosystem of technologies to meet the service needs of the ‘connected everything’ age. 5G will empower even more pervasive use of connected devices in both personal and professional environments. Latency is going to be central to this, along with an open-source approach.

While the speeds tend to be the aspect of 5G highlighted in consumer reporting, latency is the factor that makes 5G so useful for emerging technology in the industry, transport and even medicine. For telecom companies hoping to upgrade their services, a reliable low-latency framework will be essential. 

 Low latency is a key enabler behind many of the advanced services offered via 5G networks, from autonomous vehicles to telemedicine. Low latency is also important in the effective delivery of technologies such as augmented reality, VR and cloud gaming services. By ensuring that input lag is put down to a minimum, then experiences can be delivered in a smooth and frictionless way to the end-user. 

Open source, SDN and 5G

 As professionals build towards this in the telco space, open-source is going to be key to delivering and upgrading 5G networks to deal with these technologies. For decades, the telecoms industry was dominated by proprietary businesses and operating models. As market pressures evolved, however, providers were forced to find new, innovative solutions. It has resulted in telcos embracing open-source principles in recent years – an approach that transformed the computer industry from transactions to supercomputing, smartwatches and wearables, and then to a wireless network infrastructure supporting each one.

The success of 5G rests on software-defined networking (SDN), whose main concept is to decouple the infrastructure of wireless networks from expensive, closed hardware and shift it to an intelligent software layer running on top of commodity hardware. 5G and open-source have become an attractive combination for telecoms, with major operators worldwide pioneering new technologies and use cases. For example, open source is already a major part of 5G networks in Britain, with BT’s 5G core relying on Canonical technology, and platforms such as OpenStack and Kubernetes used widely in 5G networks. 

As an approach, it also promotes third-party app development and greater community involvement, which allows operators to add value and differentiate from the competition beyond the traditional measures of coverage and subscription costs. It’s fair to say that the future of mobile connectivity is software-defined. 

Internet of things

Open-source software is key to 5G and IoT developments in particular, because the software can power the automation of mission-critical functions required to support the high speeds and low latency of 5G, as well as the huge number of endpoints in IoT. An open, software-defined model will help operators meet the growing need for faster, more flexible, and more secure systems. It is a case of adaptation and survival. 

As demand for low-latency networks grows, cloud-native approaches and software-defined infrastructure will enable telecom companies to upgrade their networks to keep pace.

Real-time kernels offer another way to keep up with the latest trends in emerging technology.  A real-time kernel is optimised to deliver low latency and to respond consistently to requests.   It guarantees ultra-low latency and is used in contexts where near-real-time responses are a non-negotiable requirement, such as industrial automation and robotics. It’s also enabling OpenRAN vendors to use SDKs like Intel FlexRAN to build their solutions on top of hardware dedicated to this use-case.

Reshaping our cities

Ultra-low latency is essential in use cases such as smart factories (which report their performance in real-time) and intelligent transport systems as well as remote surgery, assisted by AR. In such cases, even a tiny delay caused by latency can lead to real-world consequences, such as patient suffering harm. Across a wider scale, low latency and 5G could reshape the cities we live in. Smart cities use sensors embedded in objects such as bus stops, rubbish bins and buildings to harvest data such as traffic information. 

Low-latency 5G will be key to allowing large numbers of such devices to connect in near real-time, offering information which will help everything from local government to longer-range planning. It’s no exaggeration to say that 5G has the potential to change the way we live, Telecom companies just need to embrace its potential. 

By: Canonical’s Maciej Mazur on why low-latency unlocks the potential of 5G.

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