5G: Something Is Happening, But We Don’t Know What It Is

As our annual sojourn to the crowded and exhausting CES creeps closer like an appointment for a root canal, we might foretell here what we expect to see at the annual electronics gathering. But instead, we’d like to look ahead at a more distant future, one five years-plus hence in which commercial deployments utilizing the 5G standard are expected to start rolling out in major urban centers.

5G is, or will be, the next generation standard for cellular networks, the successor to 4G LTE. The technological leaps promised by its proponents are nothing short of transformational.

How much of an improvement? 4G LTE was 10 times as speedy as 3G, and LTE’s top peak speeds hover between 50-100Mbps. 5G’s top peak speeds are expected to range between 20-30Gbps—that’s GIGAbits, not megabits, potentially rendering 5G transmissions light years ahead of today’s cellular transmissions.

The implications of this geometric wireless speed increase are staggering. It may be relatively easy to imagine extensions of current applications. What’s hard to imagine are the unintended consequences the next generation of cellular transmissions could bring. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we know something is happening but we don’t know what it is.

About 5G

Here are some 5G basics (for a more compressive view, we recommend “5G Reimagined: A North American Perspective,” a white paper released last month by ATIS, the Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions, a non-profit communications standards organization working with ANSI and 3GPP on North American 5G development):

  • 5G will use/reuse not only existing cellular frequencies but will also be able to make use of spectrum from 6GHz to 30GHz. These higher frequencies, which have shorter propagation properties, can be used to service confined high density environments such as office buildings, arenas and stadiums.
  • 5G offers far more spectral efficiency than current versions of the transmission standard. This can result in more users being accommodated in the same frequencies, and significant latency improvements. Standard proponents believe the efficiency gains may be used for more reliable and faster data movement for applications such as multi-player online gaming, more reliable service for Internet of Things (IoT) devices, and more reliable communications between self-driving cars.
  • Early trials are likely to begin in 2017, driven by large events such as the Olympics and the World Cup and by carriers servicing high-density urban centers that would benefit from 5G’s higher spectral efficiency, enhanced reliability and low latency characteristics.
  • First commercial and consumer deployments of 5G are likely by 2020. Much like early versions of the standard, 5G deployments would slowly ripple from dense urban environments to suburban to rural, living side-by-side with 4G LTE for the foreseeable future.

Endless variations

Considering its exponential speed and efficiency improvements, 5G will likely considerably close the performance gap between wired and cellular transmissions, which would provide much-needed relief to current clogged point-to-point networks overloaded with video and other bandwidth-hungry data.

That closing gap, of course, has the potential to change the fortunes of all communications providers. Much of that depends upon much more than technical performance. Business models and R&D commitments by all communications providers—wired and wireless—will play a significant role in who will dominate media delivery.

If transmitting data over cellular networks is eventually significantly faster than by wired transmissions, the balance of power in the media-delivery game could also shift significantly.

As the 5G standard gets closer to commercial viability at the same time that IoT, medical communications and transportation technologies are evolving, hardware is likely to change radically as well. It’s not hard to imagine that new applications and technology will result in entirely new form factors. Today, the smartphone is the main device in this picture. Tomorrow the devices will likely look and feel different, and in some cases, we may not even be aware of their existence.

We won’t see the yet-to-be imagined devices at our annual trek to CES in a few weeks, but we’ll be looking for them in the next few years.