5G is closer than you think, and it’s going to change entire industries
Mobile 5G, which is short for “fifth generation,” is about as nascent and nebulous a term as they come. It’s a wireless standard, like 4G before it, but one without a formal definition. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the governing engineering body behind mobile specs, isn’t expected to finalize 5G’s specs until November 2017; chip makers are far from settling on 5G hardware; and telecoms are just beginning to experiment with the standard.
But that’s not stopping forward-thinking firms from forging ahead. Carriers including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and others are testing 5G in cities around the country, and equipment vendors like Nokia, Qualcomm, and Intel are producing 5G prototypes that’ll eventually make their into smartphones, tablets, laptops, and more. Still, they’re not exactly in agreement about when 5G will arrive, and in even less agreement about what it’ll look like when it’s deployed.
To figure out what it’ll mean for the devices we use every day, we asked experts in the industry their take on 5G.
What is 5G?
5G is best understood in terms of its predecessors — 2G, 3G, and 4G. With the debut of 2G in the early ’90s, wireless phone technology expanded from a voice-based technology to one that supported text messaging. 3G carried data in addition to text messages and phone calls, and 4G LTE (Long-term Evolution) enhanced those capabilities with greater speeds and greater reliability.
5G brings about more improvements, but it’s also comprised of a suite of new technologies. Not every vendor agrees on what should be included in the final specifications, but the most popular contenders are small cells, millimeter waves, massive Multiple-input Multiple-output (MIMO), beamforming, and full duplex.
Small cells are miniature cell phone towers that can be placed in inconspicuous places like light poles and the roofs of buildings. They don’t require as much power as full-sized towers, and perform better when clustered together.
Small cells transmit data using millimeter waves, which get their name from their narrower-than average wavelength. They occupy frequencies in the 30 to 300 GHz range — high enough to avoid interference from surrounding signals, but too high to pass through physical barriers. In some cases, the leaves of trees are enough to interrupt a download.
Millimeter waves have limitations, but they’re a good fit for MIMO. MIMO is a wireless system that uses multiple radios to send and receive data simultaneously. The 4G LTE networks of today support a maximum of eight transmitters and four receivers, but 5G cell towers can theoretically support dozens.
More radios mean more interference, though, and that’s where beamforming comes in. At its most basic, beamforming uses algorithms to choreograph wireless signals’ movements and increase their strength by focusing them in a beam.
A 5G technology called full duplex helps boost the signal even further. Most current-gen cell towers and phones can’t transmit and receive data at the same time, but full duplex phones can route incoming and outgoing signals simultaneously, potentially doubling bandwidth.
5G in the real world
If preliminary tests are any indication, 5G will be fast. Really fast. The ITU’s latest draft specification calls for a minimum of 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station.
In wireless scenarios, that capacity will be split between all users on a cell tower. But carriers like AT&T still expect 5G to deliver impressive speed improvements. At the Brooklyn 5G Summit in New York, Dove Wolter, assistant vice president of radio technology and architecture at AT&T, said engineers had achieved speeds of up to 6 Gbps at AT&T’s 5G test site in Austin, Texas. That’s fast enough to download a 100GB 4K movie in two and a half minutes.
In many ways, it’ll seem more like Wi-Fi than a cellular technology.
The 5G draft spec also calls for extremely low latency (the amount of time it takes for data to be stored or retrieved). The ITU defines 5G as transfer with a minimum of 5ms (down from 4G LTE’s 20ms), a potential boon for video chat apps and multiplayer video games.
But 5G won’t provide nearly as much coverage as 4G LTE, or even 3G. In many ways, it’ll seem more like Wi-Fi than a cellular technology. Instead of beaming connectivity from tall cell towers, 5G transmitters will be positioned a closer to the ground. They won’t have the range of current-generation cellular, and they’ll be line-of-sight — if you step behind a barrier, canopy, or trimmed hedge, you’ll lose signal.
Because 5G’s high frequencies have correspondingly low wavelengths, they have difficulty penetrating solid objects like walls, windows, and even trees. The near-term result will be “pockets” of 5G deployed in heavily trafficked areas — think public parks, coffee shops, and airports.
“We’re talking densely populated urban centers in cities like New York and Chicago, Bassil El-Kadi, marketing director at Qualcomm, told Digital Trends. “You’ll see it first in spaces like convention centers and open-air parks.”
Jason Elliot, director of marketing and corporate affairs at Nokia, framed it in terms of city planning.
“[Operators] will have to be careful about how they plan,” he said. “If you look at a top-down map of Manhattan, you’ll see that the avenues generally have no trees, unlike the streets. If a carrier were to deploy 5G there, you’d probably get worse reception in the streets.”
5G hotspots will vary drastically in size, from a “sports stadium” to “entire neighborhoods.” Unsurprisingly, some areas perform better than others. “You’ll have faster and lower-latency ‘hotter spots’ within the hotspots.” Elliot said.
Those shortcomings will be enough to discourage carriers from doing away with 4G LTE anytime soon. “Most 5G devices will have 4G LTE radios. If a device moves out of a 5G coverage area, it’ll fall back to 4G,” El-Kadi said. “The LTE network will have to be there.”
For that reason, El-Kadi expects 4G LTE to advance alongside 5G. Sprint’s collaborating with Ericsson on gigabit 4G LTE connectivity, and T-Mobile said portions of its existing network reach gigabit speeds. “LTE networks will evolve,” El-Kadi said. “We expect to see 2Gbps speeds on 4G LTE in the next two to three years.”
You might be able to get 5G service to your house before your smartphone.
In February, Verizon announced that it would embark on customer trials of 5G technology in five U.S. cities — Ann Arbor, Mich., Atlanta, Ga., Bernardsville, N.J., Brockton, Mass., Dallas and Houston, Texas, Denver, Colo., Miami, Fla., Seattle, Wash., and Washington DC — later this year. In partnership with Samsung, Ericsson, Intel, and Qualcomm, it’ll install 5G Access Points in homes capable of delivering gigabit speeds to connected devices.
Verizon isn’t the only one. This year, AT&T will begin streaming DirecTV to residential customers — reportedly as part of a “quad play” bundle of television service, 5G home internet, wireless phone, and home phone.
That could be good news for consumer choice. According to the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Broadband Progress Report, 51 percent of Americans only have one option for 25Mbps or higher home Internet service.
The focus on home — or “fixed” — 5G service partially has to do with equipment footprint, El-Kadi said. Chip makers like Intel and Qualcomm, both of which unveiled “5G-ready” modems in early 2017, are making inroads, but they’ve got a long way to go.
“Fixed wireless is going to be easier to get done in a short timeframe,” El-Kadi said. “Battery life, processing, and other problems present a challenge.”
It won’t be cheap, and carriers are likely to pass at least some of the costs onto subscribers. Analysts at iGR project that building and deploying 5G networks will cost $48 billion in LTE network upgrades through 2019 and an additional $56 billion in new 5G build costs between 2017 and 2025. Cisco forecasts that increases in mobile data traffic will grow 57 percent by 2019, driving the cost of an average data plan from $51 to $119.
“Implementing 5G will be an expensive task,” Ian Gillot, president of iGR, said in the report. “Unlike previous wireless technologies, where costs were concentrated in the air interface, 5G will require significant investment in data centers [and] central offices […] The success of 5G will depend on the ability to support a wide range of low latency applications and services, as well as high bandwidth video content delivery.”
5G’s speed and reduced latency has the potential to transform entire industries.
Connected cars are one growth driver. Futurists predict that the self-driving vehicles of the future will exchange cloud management info, sensor data, and multimedia content with one another over low-latency networks. According to ABI Research, 67 million automotive 5G vehicle subscriptions will be active, three million of which will be low latency connections mainly deployed in autonomous cars.
According to Asha Keddy, general manager of mobile standards for advance tech at Intel, 5G will be the first network designed with the Internet of Things (IoT) in mind.
“These next-generation networks and standards will need to solve a more complex challenge of combining communications and computing together,” Keddy told Quartz in an interview ahead of the 2017 Mobile World Congress. “With 5G, we’ll see computing capabilities getting fused with communications everywhere, so trillions of things like wearable devices don’t have to worry about computing power because network can do any processing needed.”
Keddy envisions smartwatches and tablets that use location- and context-aware sensors to share data with someone on your calendar, and save energy while delivering location-based services. Eventually, everything from wearables to internet-connected things such as washing machines, smart meters, traffic cameras, and even trees with tiny sensors could be connected.
“There will be an underlay network with computing and communications, so not everything needs to go through backhaul because lots of capabilities will be available close to where [they’re] needed,” he said. “Even wireless charging will be integrated to help keep devices running.”
Virtual reality and augmented reality
5G could bring about advances in virtual reality and streaming video. Sprint recently demonstrated streaming wireless VR at the Copa America soccer tournament, and Huawei showed a demo of 360-degree video streamed live from a 5G network.
Remote storage and web apps stand to benefit from 5G.
“The cloud becomes an infinite extension of your phone’s storage,” El-Kadi said. “You never have to worry about running out of photo space.”
Google’s instant apps, the cloud-powered web applications that launch instantly from a mobile web browser, stand to benefit, too. With faster network speeds, you don’t have to worry about slow loading times.
How long will we have to wait?
Most carriers are targeting 2020 for widespread launch, after the ITU finalizes 5G’s technical specifications in March 2018. But others are confident they can deploy it sooner.
AT&T plans to expand residential and small business trials in the second half of this year, ahead of a “standards-based” rollout as soon as 2018. According to El-Kadi, 5G-compatible devices will begin to emerge in earnest this year.
“We expect to see eight to ten devices globally,” he said. Qualcomm expects networks to follow, some as soon as mid-2019. “We’re pulling in the schedule,” El-Kadi said. “It’s coming sooner than you think.”