As technologies continue to improve and shape how we interact with the world on a daily basis, there is a constant need to improve wireless internet access. Autonomous vehicles, smart homes and cities, and personal entertainment comprise only a small part of the IoT that require network connectivity to function. To meet the demand, 5G — the next generation of mobile connectivity is arriving.
What is 5G?
5G is a combination of new technologies paired with fiber optic connections to deliver incredibly fast upload and download speeds with reduced latency. To demonstrate how much faster 5G is than the previous generations of mobile internet, this recent Qualcomm test covers the difference between early 5G implementation and what we’re currently accustomed to. In San Francisco, the average user jumped from 71 Mbps up to 1.4 Gbps. With this speed, streaming 8K video and using VR platforms at home wouldn’t be an issue. Autonomous vehicles would communicate with each other almost instantly, making them safer on the roads. Upon widespread availability, it’s likely we’ll see speeds as high as 4 Gbps.
It’s difficult to imagine the entirety of future applications, however, 5G will be the foundation for making it all possible. The transition to 5G will require building an extensive infrastructure. Current initiatives from telecom providers indicate that the use of 5G networks will be available towards the end of 2018 in select cities, but it won’t be until the early 2020’s that the benefits will become more widespread.
How does it work?
Fiber cable — The entire backbone of the 5G network relies on using fiber optic cable as its connective infrastructure. Copper cable isn’t capable of transmitting data at the needed rate, therefore a massive deployment of fiber will be necessary.
Data delivery between data centers and the end user is primarily done through fiber cable. Typically a cell tower bridges the gap between a wireless user and the network.
Mobile service providers have long prepared for the transition to 5G by strengthening their fiber cable networks. Last year Verizon acquired XO Communications for their fiber network in 40 major cities. The AT&T-Time Warner merger was approved, which was a huge win for AT&T in expanding their network reach.
Millimeter waves — Our current 4G LTE network uses low-frequency radio waves to transmit data. These frequencies range between 3Hz-6GHz and are limited in the quantity of data they can transfer. The amount of devices that use these frequencies is continually increasing and taking more bandwidth. As a result, the entire network experiences slower speeds and becomes less reliable.
To combat those issues, 5G is utilizing shorter millimeter waves with much higher frequencies to create more bandwidth. Expanding into the uncongested territory of 24 GHz — 300 GHz has freed up space and allowed for the rapid transfer of data. However, their use presents its own challenge.
Millimeter waves are unable to pass through structures and different obstacles. As long as a device stays in the direct line of sight of a receiver, the connection will be maintained.
Small cells — Cell towers have an effective radius of 30–40 miles, and at that distance, there is bound to be a few obstructions between your device and the tower’s signal., A small cell network solves this problem to prevent losing your connection. Small cells are radio access nodes placed at frequent intervals to boost the signal of a large tower to a device. Their shorter range calls for this equipment to be installed by the thousands.
Small cells are cheaper to build and maintain, while consuming far less energy than cell towers. Some small cells connect directly to fiber cable and others relay data back to larger towers. Both methods allow for a reliable and fast connection.
In the race to build 5G infrastructure, mobile carriers AT&T and Verizon have partnered with the city of San Jose to install their small cells. Mayor Sam Liccardo is using the opportunity to start a few smart city initiatives. Together they’ll develop solutions to improve parking space management, traffic flow, and intersection safety.
This video provides a visual representation of how the 5G framework works and a few additional technologies that could be used to handle more traffic:
What to expect
As we transition into the fifth generation of mobile connectivity, we can expect many changes. Small cells will be a familiar sight around town. You’ll eventually need a new cell phone and WiFi router to unlock the speeds of 5G. But don’t worry too much about that, you’ve still got some time before it will be necessary.
We won’t know the entirety of what’s possible until this technology has been around for a while and is thoroughly established. However, the benefits we can foresee, such as remote surgery, fully autonomous vehicles, blockchain applications, drones making deliveries, and of course, a high-speed internet connection, are worth getting excited about.