What You Need to Know About 5G.
Imagine never having to log on to public WiFi again. You’d be surrounded by a cloud of connectivity instead—one that follows you when you leave your home, allowing for everything from simple conveniences such as the seamless streaming of music to vastly more complicated and high-stakes ideas like “smart” cities and driverless cars. That’s the big idea behind 5G (or fifth generation) mobile connectivity. It’s not just faster than the 4G systems we use now; eventually, it might even replace the wired connections that most homes and businesses run on. “5G will put fibre into your pocket,” Tim Baxter, CEO of Samsung Electronics North America, said at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Though many challenges still exist, it’s possible that at least some of that vision could become a reality very soon. Both Verizon and AT&T say they plan to roll out limited 5G networks this year, while Sprint and T-Mobile say they have 5G-related projects in the works, too. Samsung will be providing routers and other network hardware for Verizon’s launch. But what is 5G, how much faster is it, and why is it so crucial to the future of our increasingly connected world?
Matt Branda, director of 5G technical marketing for chipmaker Qualcomm, says every ten years or so the telecommunications industry runs out of ways to innovate existing wireless technology, so developers start designing a new system—labeled with a “G”—from the ground up. And that’s what’s happening now. “We’ve done a lot with 4G, but we’re pushing it to its limits at this point,” he says. “So now we’re looking at 5G and what it can do.” In addition to making mobile connectivity faster and more efficient, as previous generations have done, 5G could reduce the clutter of wired connections, too. In this vision of the future, instead of getting internet service from a cable coming out of the living room wall, you would get it from a router with an antenna equipped to receive a wireless signal from your service provider. And despite the lack of a wired connection, the internet speeds would be a lot faster.
When 5G launches, says Branda, the initial peak speeds are expected to be about five times faster than those of 4G (or LTE) connections, which right now can reach up to 1 Gbps. But don’t get too excited. Just like today’s peak speeds, those of 5G will be just that, peaks. They’d require perfect conditions, he says, and be more of an exception than the norm. And that’s okay because there currently aren’t any applications out there that require 5 Gbps speed. Branda notes that even 8K video streaming, which doesn’t yet exist, would require only 100 Mbps. What’s more important is that minimum speeds will increase, too, providing a much more consistent experience for the average person, he says. Also, 5G will ease the burden on 4G networks, letting them work faster and more efficiently.
But 5G has the potential to spark even more profound change. It could dramatically reduce latency—the speed at which a packet of data travels between two devices—from about 50 milliseconds to one. That’s a crucial development for applications that require immediate reactions, says Mark Hung, a vice president at the technology research firm Gartner. Think telemedicine or remote-controlled drones. “It’s what some have started to call the ‘tactile internet,’ because latency is so low it feels like you can touch the internet,” he says. And, finally, moving to 5G would allow telecommunications providers to utilise new parts of the wireless spectrum, Branda says, boosting capacity at a time when the current options are stretched to the limits, but demand continues to soar. “Companies spend billions of dollars on the spectrum because it’s very hard to come by,” he says. “That helps them provide consumers not only faster speeds but also truly unlimited data at better efficiency.”
The major telecom providers have been talking about 5G for years. But, until recently, there hasn’t been any agreement about what the technical specifications should be. That changed last month when 3GPP, the international wireless standards body, completed key parts of its 5G standard, allowing chip and hardware makers to start development. And, while 5G’s over-the-air nature may not require the miles of fibre-optic cable or huge towers that current systems do, the telecom companies are still on the hook for huge investments in the form of massive network revamps and upgrades, Hung says. Despite that, those companies say they’re getting closer to rolling out limited 5G service. For example, Verizon has been running trials in several markets over the past year and says it plans to begin offering 5G residential service. Starting in Sacramento, California, later this year. And it’s in home internet service, rather than mobile phones, that most Verizon customers will first see the shift to 5G. AT&T says it expects to have 5G mobile service up and running in a dozen markets by the end of this year. But it’s unlikely there will be any 5G phones commercially available to use it, at least not right away, Hung says. Qualcomm, one of the biggest suppliers of smartphone chipsets, will have its first 5G-compatible products on the market in the first half of 2019, Branda says. The first compatible phones are also expected sometime in 2019.
So, given all of that, when—if ever—are we going to see that beautiful, seamlessly connected world complete with a network of truly autonomous cars? That remains to be seen. Both Hung and Branda say the scenario remains ways down the road, assuming it does eventually become a reality. WiFi isn’t going away anytime soon. It will instead play a key role in helping 5G networks take hold and flourish, Hung says. And while many connected technologies will get a boost from 5G’s low latency, the driverless car models currently in the works won’t. As Hung notes, they’re not designed to use networks, but rather systems of cameras and sensors. Of course, that could change as the technology evolves, he says.
Eventually, autonomous cars could be in constant contact with each other and infrastructure such as stoplights. That would take the kind of near-instantaneous data transfer that 5G provides. As for Branda, he says that as a technologist, he likes to be optimistic. He thinks 5G has the potential to prompt a shift in consumer behaviour in the same way that the introduction of mobile phones made landlines a thing of the past for many people. “We’re moving in the same direction,” Branda says. “Mobile smartphones, mobile PCs, mobile headsets, numerous other mobile devices. We won’t even think about connecting again. I believe that vision is not too far away and 5G will be an enabler of it.”
Credit: Bree Fowler for Consumer Reports, 11 January 2018.