What is 5G?
The fifth generation of wireless networks, or 5G, has been nearly a decade in the making, and it’s finally becoming a reality. Promising dramatically faster speeds, instantaneous communication, and the ability to network everything, 5G has incredible potential.
We’ve all been through the various generations of networks with 1G phones that only allowed users a phone call in the early 90’s. As cell phone technology expanded capabilities 2G came to life and allowed both phone conversations and texting. Then came 3G which gave cell phone users the opportunity to make phone calls, text and browse the internet. 4G LTE being the current network most of us are using is an enhanced version of 3G.
Now we’re hearing about the next big thing, 5G. 5G networks will achieve much higher data rates than any previous networks up to 10Gbs. These higher data rates once implemented, will change the way we live our lives. 5G is the fifth generation of wireless networking technology. The high speeds you enjoy on your phone today are powered by 4G, which has been the prevailing technology that last five to eight years. Globally, most people see maximum 4G speeds of about 16.9 megabits per second (Mbps), according to Open Signal. 5G promises to deliver Gigabit speeds (>1Gbps).
What 5G Will Mean to You
Where 4G allows you to stream your favorite YouTube videos in full HD, 5G will make it possible to stream 4K HDR content and to download an eight gigabyte HD movie in six seconds versus the seven minutes it would take over 4G or more than an hour on 3G according to Bonnie Cha, Recode.net. She goes on to say that 5G will be much more than just faster data speeds on your mobile devices. It also opens the door to a lot of different consumer and industrial applications and uses – some of which seem unbelievable now because they’re so futuristic.
These fast speeds will allow remote surgery where the surgeon is in another country. It will allow driverless cars to communicate or “talk” to one another in traffic. To do this, the faster 5G speed will create something that is called ultrareliable low latency. Low latency for mobile broadband is 4 milliseconds. For example, Ulrich Dropmann, head of industry environment networks at Nokia, gave a scenario where you might be cruising in your driverless car when, unbeknownst to you, a crash has just occurred up the road. With 5G, sensors placed along the road, they would be able to instantly relay that information back to your car (this is where having low latency is important), so it could brake earlier and avoid another accident.
We’ve all heard about or been involved in sitting in our cars at a red light and the light turns green. You take your foot off the break but your car remains stopped, sensing that another vehicle is approaching the intersection too fast and appears will run the red light. Your car responds by applying the breaks keeping you safe as the other car blast through the intersection. This happened because your car was talking to the other car wirelessly via 5G.
Other areas where 5G will have a big impact include driverless or automated cars, fleet asset tracking and management, sensors, drones, smartwatches, healthcare monitoring, and of course mobile devices. Once the networks are up and running, it will be up to the carriers, equipment makers, and developers to put them to use. You can be sure they are already thinking up myriad ways to charge users to access those networks.
When Will 5G Arrive?
It’s already here according to Verizon. On Oct 1, 2018 Verizon launched what they claim is the country’s first 5G network. Unfortunately, it’s not being used as one might think.
Verizon is using technology that doesn’t conform to the 5G NR standard set by 3GPP, the industry standards body. Instead, it uses Verizon’s proprietary 5G TF standard. Verizon plans to transition from 5G TF to 5G NR as soon as it can.
Further, Verizon’s 5G service is fixed and only available in small parts of four markets (Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.) Fixed 5G serves as a fiber or cable replacement. It is beamed from towers to your business or home, where special equipment receives the signal and provides internet inside. This is not for mobile devices, such as phones, laptops, or cars. Verizon’s mobile 5G service will get off the ground in 2019.
AT&T plans to launch mobile 5G in as many as 19 markets by the end of the year. The company has indicated that its first 5G device will be a mobile hotspot, able to connect multiple devices to the network at once. Mobile hotspots are popular with business users who need on-the-go connectivity for laptops, tablets, and other gear. AT&T will launch 5G-equipped phones during the early months of 2019.
T-Mobile says it will offer 5G mobile service to an unknown number of markets during the first half of the year and reach the entire country at some point in 2020.
Sprint will begin rolling out its mobile 5G network in May, the company announced at Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2019. The first cities to get Sprint’s 5G mobile network will be Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City, though Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, and the District of Columbia will likely follow soon after.
Sprint also mentioned that Google Fi customers would get access to Sprint’s 5G network, which is great news for those that use Fi.
Sprint may soon merge with T-Mobile, but the company is hardly holding back when it comes to innovation. It’s still hard at work on 5G, and plans to roll out the next generation of cellular connectivity to its customers. In fact, the company recently announced that its doubling its quarterly investment to $1.4 billion — largely because of the deployment of 5G. That’s great news to anyone currently on Sprint — and it could end up being good news for T-Mobile customers, too.
Possible Delays of 5G
If one can cut through all the noise surrounding 5G, one will find that despite the fanfare about 5G trials rolling out this year and the industry attacks on cities’ ability to control a messy 5G infrastructure, the technology is nowhere near real implementation. Today’s networks rely on 200 foot towers to broadcast large areas with signal from approximately 25,000 towers spread around the U.S. There will be far more 5G cell sites covering a smaller area. 5G signals can’t travel nearly as far as they can over the frequencies used for 4G. To accomplish reliable 5G connections even more sites will be necessary to connect many times more devices demanding data but will take a considerable amount of time be installed.
“5G deployment is not imminent at all,” said Doug Dawson, owner of CCG Consulting. “Giant companies like Verizon and AT&T are trying to stir up their stockholders” by announcing the deployment, he said. But most cities will not see the deployment of the technology in 2019.
“Nobody is going to go straight to the 5G standard, last year they finally started using the [full] 4G” set of rules, he said. “We will start seeing some radios as soon as next year with a little bit of 5G in them, but they will just be improved 4G. It takes them about seven years on average to implement the standards.”
When the industry hit the third generation of cellphones, the big players in telecommunications decided that they would create basic rules to gain consistency across cell phones and signals for consumers no matter where they were. To achieve worldwide buy-in on 3G standards, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was formed.
“The goal of 3GPP was to develop a worldwide standard so that people could buy devices that would work all over the world,” said Eric Lampland, founder and principal consultant of Lookout Point Communications in Minnesota.
Without those guidelines, you could buy a cellphone, but it wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere.
This past December, the 3GPP announced its first 5G standards to the public during an industry meeting in Europe.
“After the 3GPP group passed its standards, the standards move to a group within the United Nations called the International Telecommunication Union, [which will] finally pass a standard for the whole world,” Lampland said.
The ITU has said it hopes to publish its standards by 2020.
And while the 3GPP group has managed to get the ball rolling, there is still a lot of work for the telecommunications companies to do. First and foremost is the deployment of infrastructure that will support the higher frequencies that will be used by 5G technology.
The goal of the actual 5G standard is to be able to deliver 50 MB cellphone coverage everywhere,” Dawson said. “And herein lies the problem with the 5G frequency — they will not travel as far as the 4G frequencies and will require multiple input and output antennas to boost the signal.”
These fast speeds should allow driverless cars to “talk” to one another in traffic and allow cell users to use virtual reality. To do this, the faster 5G speed will create something that is called ultrareliable low latency, Lapland said. Low latency for mobile broadband is 4 milliseconds.
The target for ultra-low latency is 1 millisecond. For technologies like virtual reality, too much latency from the eye to the brain can cause nausea.
Another impediment to wide deployment is the factor that higher frequency radio phones use millimeter wave technology, which does not travel over the long distances that 4G traveled. These short waves need more antennas to carry within a block, a downtown or a neighborhood. The fact that cities could have antennas strung up everywhere has inspired a battle between cities and telecoms that want to deploy their hardware everywhere. At least 30 state legislatures have passed legislation in favor of the telecom industry and stripped their cities of the ability to control deployment of 5G infrastructure and the costs that it could cause.
In March, the FCC has jumped on the bandwagon seeking to change regulations that would streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure for 5G.
Dawson says this action on the part of the FCC would cause more conflict than goodwill.
“The telecom act of 1996 gave cities and states the right to do this themselves,” said Dawson. “It would take an act of Congress to pass a rule to do that, but this Congress is in the pocket of the big telecom companies.”
Other impediments to quick deployment of 5G include the manufacture of phones that will be able to handle several frequencies simultaneously.
“The cell of the future will have something like five different frequencies,” all jammed together which will require a separate antenna, Dawson said. “But, if you slice together more signals you will have a problem with batteries [draining rapidly].”
He suggests that the technology of cell phones will have to be reimagined quickly to be useful.
Another barrier to deployment is the status of critical infrastructure like fiber.
“Demand for bandwidth is exploding, and we are developing last-mile technologies to deliver the needed bandwidth, but we are largely ignoring the backhaul network needed to feed customer demand,” he wrote in a blog post.
Some of these existing networks are almost 30 years old, he said. Even if they were adequate for the speeds required by 5G, how long will we be able to rely on them? Fibers tend to lose capacity over time. Bad fibers can cause regular outages for these systems.
When Will We Really Get 5G?
Again, it’s too soon to say for sure, but don’t count on it to be what it is expected to be in the next couple of years. The most optimistic targets would see the first commercial network up and running by 2020, but even that may be too optimistic. As with LTE, it will take years for the network to become widespread.