5G. It’s coming. But when? And what exactly is it?
A staggering amount of people in the US think that 5G is just a better, faster version of Internet for their phones and Internet-capable devices.
5G is no technology at all; it’s simply the shortened name for the 5th Generation of mobile network that at some point will be ushered on to the scene and become the latest wave of telecommunications infrastructure reform. What that technology will actually be is still not completely defined as companies at home and abroad race to be the first to master a solution that can be successfully mass-produced.
What we do know is that 5G will be a wireless connection and that, in large part, is being built to serve the enormous amount of devices that require mobile Internet connections, such as the burgeoning Internet of Things (IoT). The most basic requirements of this endeavor are building a technology that provides:
- Faster data speeds
- Higher data capacity
- Better coverage
- Lower latency times
Before we dive into the current status of 5G and take a look ahead to the possible future it offers, let’s take a quick tour back over the previous evolutions of the mobile Internet technology.
A Brief History of 1G-4G LTE
1G: Mobile phones got their start in the 1980s in the US and Europe using analog radio signals. The first model made available for consumers was the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X.
2G: In Finland in 1991, the first 2G phones were built employing digital radio signals and the very first Subscriber Identity Module (SIM) cards. The technology was based on Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM).
3G: Based on Universal Mobile Telecommunications System (UMTS), 3G allowed far greater bandwidth than its 2G predecessor. This was the dawn of mobile TV, video conferencing and global positioning systems (GPS).
4G/LTE: First used in Sweden in 2009, 4G is the same technology as 3G with some improvements. 4G-LTE reduced latency, offered faster data uploads/downloads, and improved ability to handle applications.
US vs. China: The Race to 5G
China is the No. 1 economy in the world by GDP, at $23.19 trillion per year. The US places second at $19.42 trillion. In 2017, a study by Qualcomm indicated that 5G could garner more than $3.5 trillion in revenue and provide close to 22 million jobs by the year 2035 in the US. Companies such as Verizon and AT&T could boost GDP by $500 billion and add close to 3 million jobs as they push forward to be first on the 5G scene. China isn’t backing down in the race to 5G. A 2017 study by the China Academy of Information and Communications Technology predicts the country’s big three domestic network operators will spend the equivalent of $411 billion on 5G between 2020-2030. China is the biggest 4G market in the world with more than 840 million subscribers. The study says the country could have 588.3 million 5G subscribers as soon as 2022.
So, What’s the Holdup?
Part of the struggle for the US to get a 5G network up and running stems from FCC rules orchestrated during Barack Obama’s term as president. The FCC discouraged use of the 3.5 GHz band for development of permanent, usable 5G networks, instead favoring experimental use of the spectrum. This was done by limiting each license to three years with no guarantee of renewal, and dividing up the geographic licensing areas with geographic tracts. The FCC adopted a license area size that split the country into more than 74,000 parcels, many of them small, rural markets which would require more expensive and difficult to install infrastructure in areas with too few customers and too short a license period to justify the cost.
In October of 2017, the FCC, under direction from the White House, proposed to Congress to increase the license term from 3 to 10 years to give companies ample time to test and produce a 5G product. The FCC also wants to increase the area size of those license holders, which would drop the number from more than 74,000 to the more manageable range of between 416-3,144. Congress has yet to vote on the proposal.
But it’s not just politics holding back the new wave of mobile Internet technology.
Since 5G operates at higher frequencies, it will require its cell sites to be located much closer together than traditional networks in order to provide consistent coverage. In other words, if you’re a TV station cameraman taking images of a reporter standing in front of a shopping mall, you don’t have much to worry about. However, if you decide to keep rolling as the news van tracks a high-speed chase on the freeway, the 5G signal is likely going to cut in and out as you drop in and out of range of 5G cell sites.
Because of the higher frequency 5G inhabits, the signal might have difficulty penetrating some objects, like walls of buildings. We are conditioned to expect lack of signal rarely with 4G, typically only in elevators or dense buildings like schools or hospitals.
5G and the IoT
What will benefit the most from the emergence of 5G? The winning answer is the Internet of Things (IoT). There are currently more than 6.4 billion IoT devices online in the US, and that number will double in the next two years. Most of those devices are connected only to a central processor, not to each other. A lot of that has to do with there not being enough bandwidth to allow inter-IoT device communication. But if IoT devices could be wired to talk to each other about making decisions, or provide their human counterparts with information to make decisions, their value would go up astronomically.
Consumer Interest in 5G
In early August of 2017, Gartner released the results of a survey it had sent out to consumers about their willingness to pay an increased rate for 5G access. Out of those firms surveyed, 74% said they would be willing to pay more for access to 5G technology, even without knowing exactly what it will be capable of. Of that 74% , 44% said they would pay at least 10% more and 22% said they would pay at least 20% more. Ironically, only 8% of the responses believed that moving to 5G would save their firms money or help them generate more income. And, backing up the arguments of the benefits of 5G for IoT devices, communication with IoT devices was the surprise top choice for the top use of 5G deployment for their organizations, receiving 57% of the vote. This was followed by the need for accessing video and fixed wireless capabilities with slightly fewer than 50% of consumers listing it.
There’s no doubting that 5G is coming in the near future, but in what form and for what purpose remains cloudy. That future will depend on which company, or perhaps which country, develops the right technology to support the needs of the next generation of devices – and consumers.