5G stands for fifth generation, meaning it is the fifth generation of mobile connectivity. For a basic recap, 1G is mobile voice (this would be the brick phones popular with yuppies and 1980s villains in movies in the 1980s,) 2G is mobile voice and text (the smaller brick kind that killed pagers in the late 90s and early aughts), 3G is voice, text, and data (we can send photos!), and 4G LTE (we can watch YouTube and do all the other things!).
5G is the next Big Thing.
It is primed to replace 4G LTE standards and predicted to improve everything from machine to machine communications, mobile download speeds that will beat the pants off the fastest land-based ISP, driverless vehicles, and connect your smart home, smart phone, any other Internet of Things item, seamlessly and with no noticeable latency.
Phones are first order of business for the improvement as more consumers own one (or several) and they play such a prevalent role in our day-to-day lives.
What makes 5G so special?
The speed. As smart mobile devices increase in usage by consumers, the bands available to use get more crowded. This is a lot like trying to cram too many cars on a one lane road. As far as cellular use is concerned, this results in longer download times and an increase in dropped calls. A movie in high definition might take ten minutes to download at the fastest current 4G LTE speeds; 5G is projected to take less than a second!
How 5G works
In order to make 5G work, several technologies will be employed to ensure the fast, stable signal consumers need. These include millimeter waves, small cells, massive MIMO, full duplex, and beamforming.
In order to get the higher speeds necessary for 5G, the new infrastructure will support a higher frequency that is much faster but can only travel short distances (for the same reasons AM radio stations can be accessed much farther away from a broadcasting tower than an FM station).
So engineers are looking at using millimeter waves. Originally used in radar and satellite systems, millimeter waves are radio waves that operate at very high frequencies.
These are measured in lengths of millimeters, whereas the current ones operate in tens of centimeters. Cellular technology as we know it depends on radio frequencies that travel long distances. The downside to these is that 1) they have an even harder time penetrating building materials, and the waves are so small that rainy weather and plant cover interrupt the signal even more than current RF used in current cellular service.
Fortunately these can be fixed by using a technology already in service: small cells.
Small cells are basically miniature cell towers. They have the advantage of being portable, energy efficient, and portable, so they can be installed and moved to areas that need more coverage, such as for major sporting events with huge influxes of tourists. Another advantage is that they can be easily installed on existing structures, such as telephone and light poles, and added to buildings without being an eyesore.
They will also use take advantage of a new kind of antenna: massive MIMO.
Standing for multiple-input multiple output, MIMO means wireless systems that use more than two transmitters and receivers. Massive MIMO is this on an epic level: current 4G base stations use a dozen ports; 5G base stations will use up to one hundred. This means an over twenty times increase in a single base station’s capacity.
Lots of users and lots of data mean lots of interference. Beamforming solves this problem by acting like a traffic light. It works by finding the fastest path for data to be received, and reduces interference for massive MIMO. For millimeter waves, beamforming can strengthen the signal and make blockage by objects less of an issue.
This technology allows 5G transceivers to send and receive data concurrently, over the same frequency, which current base stations are incapable of doing. The technology was previously simply too cumbersome to employ, but new improvements to the transistors have finally made this technology able to be used.
What about 4G LTE?
Never fear, interoperability will be built-in. The companies working on 5G modems want to make sure the new technology will be seamless for consumers and providers, and product trials should ensure a fairly smooth transition between standards. That being said, no phone built this year will be 5G compatible, so save your money and don’t make any new phone purchases until next year if you can help it.
So what then do all of us, trapped in the banalities of the soon-to-be-passé 4G LTE technology, have to look forward to in the next coming year?
What to expect from 5G in 2018:
First things first. For the past three years, 5G has had a lot of hype and not a lot of execution, with various industry giants teasing about the possibilities and yet bringing nothing to the table, as some of the necessary technology to deliver such high speed connectivity with next to no lag was still in R&D being finessed.
As of last year’s Mobile World Congress, 5G standards hadn’t even been set in place yet, and no product on the market can even handle the speeds industry experts have been predicting. Now that has all changed.
Back in December 2017, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, which governs cellular standards, said that they had agreed on the first specification for 5G: it will cover 600 and 700 MHz bands and 50 Ghz millimeter-wave end of the spectrum. The 5G standard is officially set to be finalized in June of this 2018. This will then allow manufacturers of phones to create products that are actually compatible with the new standard.
As with any new product rollout, this causes a bit of a problem: AT&T had already made an official statement shortly before the MWC, announcing that 5G will become available in three American cities: Atlanta, Dallas, and Waco. This announcement led Sprint to claim they will have 5G available in six cities, including Dallas, L.A., and Chicago.
T-Mobile blew everyone out of the water by saying they will have 5G services available in 30 U.S. cities by the end of the year. Verizon has stayed mum on the matter, but is expected to stay competitive with its rivals.
Is this just marketing hype or what?
Essentially, yes. As far as consumers are concerned, 5G is still an ethereal unicorn. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will the infrastructure needed to support 5G services. While AT&T consumers in the testing market will be able to use a Wi-Fi hotspot to access 5G, the phones supporting 5G speeds for Sprint and T-Mobile won’t even be available to purchase until next year.
This sort of marketing hype should sound very familiar for anyone who had to wait for 4G supported infrastructure to roll out last time (and people in rural areas who are still waiting to this day).
Why the wait?
Building the infrastructure. All the technology we mentioned earlier has to be built, installed, tested, and perfected. You can’t travel on roads that don’t exist yet, and you can’t make calls over a nonexistent network.
Even though at the present moment cellular providers’ claims about 5G’s end of year availability may be mostly marketing hype, the 5G revolution stands to significantly change our lives. This will be what truly connects Internet of things smart devices and revolutionize things like smart homes, smart phones, driverless cars, AR, VR, smart cities, and about thousand other things that could listed. 5G has the potential to revolutionize almost literally everything. But like anything else, it will take work and time. 2020 is still the marker for the official 5G rollout. We think it’ll be worth the wait.