What is 5G and what does it mean to consumers?
To be quite clear, the term 5G is simply a marketing term to represent the fifth-generation of wireless technology used in cellular networks. However, the various cellular providers have created a fair bit of confusion about what 5G is, when it is coming and how things will change once it arrives. In fact, there are three distinct types of 5G technology that have been developed over the years and each brings with it different promises and challenges. Let us take a closer look at this technology and shed some light on the ambiguous idea of 5G.
Many cellular devices today, especially those on AT&T and T-Mobile, may be displaying 5G or 5GE and customers may be thinking they got a free upgrade to a faster network without purchasing a new device. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Low-band 5G or 5G Evolution (5GE) leverages much of the same spectrum that we have come to enjoy from 4G LTE. Because of the heavy overlap with the LTE spectrum, the low-band 5G performance physically cannot be much better than it was the day before the phone started displaying 5GE. So, for those who are underwhelmed by the difference between LTE and 5GE, there is a reason — they are essentially the same thing!
This is where things start to get interesting. 5G mid-band is the type of 5G that is most widely deployed and where users can enjoy a material increase in performance. But, not just any device can access this new spectrum of cellular network that opens the door to faster speeds. Users will need a piece of hardware with a radio designed for these frequencies, such as Samsung’s Galaxy 5G smartphones. AT&T and T-Mobile have both started launching 5G mid-band across the United States. So, those who have the right device in the right part of the country could see download speeds between 100-400 megabits per second, which is an exciting improvement upon the roughly 30 megabits per second that we’ve come to expect from 4G LTE.
Much has been written of the countless possibilities that 5G will bring to bear, from virtual doctors to driverless cars to smart cities, and 5G millimeter wave is typically what is going to bring those possibilities to life. 5G mmW marks an impressive step forward in cellular communications, boasting speeds of over one gigabit per second. That is up to 50X faster than today’s LTE speeds and, with latency dropping by an order of magnitude, it certainly lends itself to new areas of innovation.
Like everything else though, there are tradeoffs and 5G mmW is no exception. Most noticeably, millimeter waves, with their extremely high frequency, have difficulty penetrating walls and windows or any physical object, for that matter. In order to realize peak performance for a mmW, a device will need direct line-of-site to an access point or repeater. This is a significant drawback as it will make providing mmW connections indoors quite difficult and ostensibly require blanketing an urban area with access points on every corner to achieve uninterrupted connection. Of course, this will come at a significant cost.
Today, true 5G mmW is only available in a very small set of cities and, again, users must be in-sight of an access point to experience the speeds promised.
So, now what?
First things first: while smartphones may be displaying 5GE, the consumer is not really experiencing 5G. In fact, the customer won’t be able to experience 5G mid-band or 5G mmW unless they have a 5G-capable device, and that comes at a price premium.
5G mid-band is being launched across the US as we speak and there is reason to be excited. The increased bandwidth and speeds can allow for a more mobile and productive lifestyle.
As we look into the future of ridesharing and public transportation that allow us to multi-task while in transit, 5G mid-band can help us better handle steaming videos, large files, video conferences, and other bandwidth intensive activities.
Also, as our mobile devices become more powerful and their connectivity becomes stronger, we can envision a world where we leave our laptops on the shelf at home and connect with only our phones. They may just become the only device we need to be productive when connected to a docking station with monitors, a mouse and keyboard at the office.
5G mmW promises even more with speeds and latency that was previously only achievable through a direct copper or fiber connection. For buildings in which fiber ISP connections would be cost prohibitive or impossible, a 5G mmW receiver can provide next-generation connectivity, perhaps helping traditional cellular carriers transform into more general Internet Service Providers.
What will this mean for industries around the world? We cannot be certain, but one could imagine rural farm centers with ultra-fast connectivity for their connected machinery allowing them to take advantage of real-time IoT data and machine learning without the need to make costly fiber infrastructure runs. Medical centers, hospitals and clinics could enjoy the same ultra-fast connectivity in facilities where traditional ISPs have not yet made high-bandwidth Internet access available, at a price that is cost effective.
Of course, lower latency could indeed help self-driving vehicles communicate with one another and the traffic signals near them in order to augment their reliance on computer vision.
What can be said for certain, though, is the broader applicability and more practical use cases of the technology will become clearer in the coming months as carriers continue to roll out more coverage and work to overcome the line-of-sight requirements of the ever-so-hyped 5G mmW connectivity.