5G: What's In Store for You
This next-generation mobile technology could be an enabler that changes the way we watch TV, get our news, and communicate with each other.
For those of us who remember the comic strip Dick Tracy, today's smart watches may still seem pretty dumb. On Jan. 13, 1946, cartoonist Chester Gould introduced the two-way wrist radio into the comic strip for use by Tracy and his police squad, and the gadget quickly became one of the strip's most recognizable features. Not satisfied with the status quo, Tracy upgraded to a two-way wrist TV in 1964 (video conferencing on demand anyone?).
Granted, Gould may not have fully thought out the actual technology behind these devices, but the point is that we have dreamed, desired, and thought of reliable, lightweight two-way wireless communications devices for who knows how long. And we have pretty much accomplished the goal of two-way wireless communications with our smartphones and other smart devices thanks to modern cellular, wireless, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and other wireless communications technologies... except, of course, when they don't work due to issues like poor service, low-quality audio, garbled voice, freeze-frame video, and no reception.
But such problems may soon be a thing of the past. Emerging 5G technology promises to bring 50 times the throughput of today's 4G Long-Term Evolution (LTE) networks, millisecond latency, and enough bandwidth to connect and power the billions of Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices coming our way. (Please note: This is intended as an introduction to a new technology that has the capacity to change the course of communications technology, not as a technology primer. I use the terms "cellular," "wireless," "Wi-Fi," "Bluetooth," "Internet," and "radio" interchangeably. I am well aware of the differences of each technology, however as you will see as this article unfolds, it really doesn't make a whole lot of difference, as most of these in their current forms will soon be outdated.)
Gartner estimates that 6.4 billion connected devices will be in use worldwide this year, and predicts that number to grow to 20.8 billion devices by 2020. With projections such as these, it should come as no surprise that every major telecom manufacturer in the world is working to make and provide even faster smartphones, watches, and other wireless devices. It should also be noted that most carriers worldwide have either stopped or will soon stop investing in and supporting old analog copper-wired infrastructure.
To have enough bandwidth for IoT connectivity, we are going to need a new, more reliable wireless infrastructure much different from today's. The new infrastructure has to be capable of supporting existing verticals, be quickly configurable for different and new use cases (think of it like class of servicem ), be able to deliver and distribute high-quality signals and guaranteed quality with little or no latency, and support self-diagnosing, auto rerouting, and possible self-healing.
Say hello to 5G.
What Exactly Is 5G?
5G stands for the "fifth generation" of modern mobile phone services. These date back to the early 1990s, with what today we could call "1G." Second-generation, or 2G, technology brought the ability to do two-way text messaging, while 3G gave us the ability to make phone calls, send text messages, and browse the Internet. The next generation, 4G, improved on many of these capabilities, but did require a complete infrastructure upgrade. This infrastructure upgrade allowed for faster speeds for more Internet browsing, upload and download of larger audio and video files, and even live video chats (not video conferencing).
Married to 4G, LTE permitted even faster connectivity, faster browsing speeds, highly reliable connectivity, and new UC mobile-type applications.
Building on the 4G LTE foundation, 5G will significantly increase the speed and reliability at which data can be exchanged across the network. In addition to supporting the expected millions of daily connections without slowing down the network, the 5G network will support devices capable of uploading and downloading ultra HD, 3D video, and multipoint collaborative enterprise applications.
How Fast Is 5G?
4G LTE transfer speeds top out at about one gigabit per second, which admittedly is pretty fast. However, due to inherent latency, network configuration limitations, signal disruptions, carrier distribution, legal and other restrictions, the average end user rarely gets to experience 4G's maximum speeds.
With 5G, download speeds will increase to up to 10 Gbps. Providing your device is capable, you should be able to download a full HD movie in seconds, with little latency. It will provide the kind of wireless broadband capacity that broadcast networks, social media companies and Internet giants like Google and Amazon want so they can reach into our homes and workplaces. In short, 5G could be an enabler that changes the way we watch TV, get our news, and communicate with each other.
What's Behind the Curtain?
While 5G holds the promise of providing bandwidth for many different types of applications from many different types of suppliers, carriers are most heavily invested in 5G, and with good reason; it is their future.
Cell phones are basically two-way radios (remember Dick Tracy?). Your phone converts your voice into an electrical radio signal for transmission to the nearest cell tower. The cell tower routes your call to the number you dialed. 5G is assigned a higher radio frequency, most likely up to the 6-GHz frequency band. New wireless technologies are assigned higher frequencies because they typically aren't in use and can handle more information at faster speeds. The downside side is higher-frequency signals don't travel as far as lower-frequency signals, so the carriers will probably need to deploy more multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) antennas to boost signals anywhere they offer 5G.
Other technologies, including the visible light communication technology called Light Fidelity (Li-Fi), may provide alternative signal paths.
The Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN) Alliance defines the following requirements for 5G networks:
- Data rates of tens of megabits per second for tens of thousands of users
- 1 Gbps simultaneously to many workers on the same office floor
- Several hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections for massive wireless sensor networks
- Spectral efficiency significantly enhanced compared to 4G
- Coverage improved
- Signaling efficiency enhanced
- Latency reduced significantly compared to LTE
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved the spectrum for 5G advances on July 14, in a 5-0 vote, in so doing seeking to create an environment that will encourage technologies to flourish and to lead the world into the generation of 5G. While telecom consortiums are still working on 5G standards, experts expect 5G to be backwards compatible with 4G and 3G and provide interoperability. (That said, one of the biggest carriers -- Verizon -- is not part of one of the major consortiums and may roll out its own version of 5G.
How Real Is 5G?
5G already is available in some test locations around the U.S. In February, for example, Verizon announced that it has begun limited trials of 5G in Texas, Oregon, and New Jersey, and AT&T has said that also began testing 5G technology. However, experts, including those with the NGMN, don't expect 5G to be widely available until 2020.
As with any new technology, nothing will be certain with 5G until all the testing is finished, pricing is set, and user adoption takes root. And we have to remember that carriers are infamous for over-promising and under-delivering.
Questions to consider include:
- Will 5G and non-5G networks be compatible?
- Will 5G roll out over a period of the next five years, as predicted?
- Will consumers be willing to ditch their beloved 4G LTE Androids and iPhones and buy 5G-compatible ones?
- How much will 5G services cost?
- How secure will 5G network be?
- What are the security risks for advanced remote apps and services?
While sources suggest that a new generation of 5G standards may be introduced in the early 2020s, debate continues as to whether or not 5G can actually live up to and deliver what it promises.
- New mobile generations are typically assigned new frequency bands and wider spectral bandwidth per frequency channel (1G up to 30 kHz, 2G up to 200 kHz, 3G up to 5 MHz, and 4G up to 20 MHz), but skeptics argue that there is little room for larger channel bandwidths and new frequency bands suitable for land-mobile radio.
- The higher frequencies would overlap with K-band transmissions of communication satellites.
- From a user point of view, the major difference between 4G and 5G must be something other than faster speed (increased peak bit rate). For example, other considerations are the ability to support a higher number of simultaneously connected devices, higher system spectral efficiency (data volume per area unit), lower battery consumption, lower outage probability (better coverage), high bit rates in larger portions of the coverage area, lower latencies, and more supported devices, while offering lower infrastructure deployment costs, higher versatility and scalability, and higher reliability of communication. Those are the objectives in several research papers and projects.
Among naysayers, one particular concern is that carriers will control 5G, barring the way for other types of service providers and startups to enter the market and provide lower-cost competing services. Still, certainly a lot of research time, effort, and money has gone into developing 5G technology, and it indeed does look very promising.
"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.