5G Networks, as Explained Using a Coffee Shop Metaphor (Plus What You Need to Know in 2019)

5G. So buzzy, yet so misunderstood — from the tech that powers it, to the carriers that supply it, to the politics behind it. The first thing you need to know for 2019: how to understand, and therefore explain, the next wave in wireless technology.

Let’s go on a coffee run.

5G explained using a coffee shop metaphor

Coffee shops. At this point, you can’t live without them. But coffee shops in cities look different from coffee shops in suburban areas.

In the ‘burbs, you’ve got your big coffee shops. You know, the ones with couches, lounge chairs, community tables, and plenty of those precious outlets. So spacious, so cozy, so familiar.

The catch: they’re not close. If there was a cappuccino at the end of every cul de sac we’d all be better off, but alas, we must take our cars some distance to get to the local coffee shop.

In cities, there are coffee shops on every corner. They’re always in walking distance, and they match the fast-paced lifestyle of a city-dweller. They’re designed not to provide space and comfort — like our suburban shops — but to enable consumers to get in and get out.

Okay, let’s break it down.

Your coffee is your data, bouncing back and forth between your workplace and the coffee shop. The roads are the spectrum, or the wireless waves carrying your data between your device (or workplace) and the cellular access points (the coffee shops). Big coffee shops are your cell towers — those big metal structures that can connect an entire urban area — that transmit 4G. Small coffee shops are small cells, or smoke alarm-sized cellular access points, that are equipped to transmit 5G.

Let’s get technical: millimeter waves, small cells, and wireless tech

Physically, the only difference between 4G and 5G is in wavelength (and therefore frequency).

5G is powered by millimeter wave technology (24GHz to 90GHz — see below). They are called millimeter waves because they vary in length from 1 to 10 mm, compared to the radio waves that serve today’s smartphones, which measure tens of centimeters in length.

The advantage of millimeter wave tech is in how quickly it can move data — 10 gigabits (or 1250 megabytes) per second, which is an estimated 600x faster than 4G.

Think about this: let’s say you have a Fornite Update or a photo album that’s 1GB. 1GB is 1000MB. To ~squad up~ or view hundreds of photos of your nephew, it takes less than one second. It’s the technology that promises to enable significant changes in how everyone interacts with wireless (think telemedicine, streaming to VR headsets, smart cities, etc).

For those curious about why shorter wavelengths deliver data faster, read this. TL;DR — the size and shape of waves are altered to represent a binary code (see FM and AM wave examples here). Computers think in binary (1s and 0s) and transmit data in the same way. On each cycle of a wave, the height can be modified to represent either a 1 (high) or a 0 (low). One cycle gives us the opportunity to pass one bit of data, so we can transmit data faster if we have more cycles in a given time. The pattern at which wave heights are altered as they’re sent from transmitter to receiver translates to alphanumeric, audio, video or other types of data. So more waves at a higher frequency means you can deliver that “pattern,” or binary code, faster.

So more data — or coffee — more quickly. What’s the tradeoff?

Let’s jump back to our coffee shop scenario. City streets are crowded. There’s lots of distractions and interference, or things that might knock your coffee from your hand. Good thing there’s a coffee shop on every corner. That’s why we have small cells, or millimeter wave access points. Waves at the 5G end of the spectrum are easily interrupted — by trees, rain, and even fog. And it makes sense. Getting closer to the middle of the spectrum means you’re getting closer to visible light, which can’t go through trees either.

These waves (frequently) need to hop from one access point to the next, at closer range, to get to their end destination without dying en route. So while 4G requires two or three modern cell phone towers (big coffee shops), 5G requires between 15 and 20 small cells (small coffee shops) to cover a small city.

Things that will START to happen in 2019

Again, 600x faster than 4G. 5G means everything gets faster — Netflix faster, Warcraft faster, download literally everything faster — which is fine, but doesn’t really change much for society. It’s just more of the same, right?

Wrong! As WIRED’s Susan Crawford put it:

A hundred years ago, it was hard to imagine that domestic electricity could be good for anything beyond powering a few light bulbs in the front hall. That is, until refrigerators, washer-dryers, air-conditioners, and other high-capacity uses for electrical connections became popular and widely available.

Some are calling 5G a “revolution” for this reason. There are “other high-capacity uses” for 5G connections that will be become widely adopted that we simply don’t see yet.

Life might look something like this 360º image — no drastic visual changes, but some serious changes in how we communicate, interact, educate, and navigate cities (PS: ISL built that linked 360º experience, and we’re quite proud of it. First and last plug, I promise).

The real promise of 5G is in the reduced network latency.

CNET described it best:

Latency is the time it takes to get a response to information sent — for example, the lag between the moment you try to shoot a space invader and the moment the internet server hosting the game tells your app whether you succeeded.

This. This has bigger implications for society as a whole. For things like self-driving cars and delivery drones to exist — things that require insanely fast response times from databases, information, and algorithms that are preventing them from, you know, killing people — we need the lowest of latencies.

Things that will ACTUALLY happen in 2019

You probably saw this coming: That reality, the one with drones and Waymo and sub-second movie downloads, ain’t happening in 2019. At best, we might start to see the full advantages of 5G tech toward the end.

In the meantime, carriers are using “mid-band” frequencies, which are at the higher end of the current 4G LTE range (between one and six GHz). It’s the same frequency utilized by wifi routers. No, it’s not quite as fast as millimeter wave technology, but it’s more reliable with our current infrastructure (i.e. cell towers, not small cells).

Why dive into 5G if it’s not ready?

China! Why else?

China’s already crushing us in the race to build the right infrastructure to support it (remember: small cells), which means they’ll crush us in the race to implement technology that requires always-connected low latency data streams (e.g. autonomous cars and delivery drones).

In other words, if the US doesn’t act soon, we won’t reap all the economic benefits that come with leading a new, widely-adopted technology.

So why not build Rome in a day? Let’s just pass federal legislation that expedites the development of 5G infrastructure. Let’s erect those little boxes on metal poles in every neighborhood, for every major city, tomorrow. Easy, right?

Wrong. We tried. And Failed.

Okay, so if we can’t beat them, let’s join them! The US should just use Huawei’s (China’s only dominant tech company) 5G compatible telecom equipment. Again, nope! According to the current administration, we’d rather be 2nd in the race to 5G than vulnerable to cyber security threats.

So while it hasn’t happened yet, it’s going to happen in major cities soon. Below is a map of Montgomery County, Maryland, with markers representing all wireless antennas and towers. The squares are carrier towers. Those clusters of mostly red and pink circles? Those are proposed sites of Verizon and T-Mobile small cells. Explore for yourself here.

The case for increased government regulation

It might be a good thing that we failed to create broad-stroke federal regulation so quickly. To roll out this paradigm-shifting technology quickly, we’d need to give a lot of leeway to the AT&Ts and Verizons of the world. And while we all *sarcastic voice* trust and adore our beloved carriers, there’s reason to believe they would ignore and alienate communities seen as “less profitable,” those being low income or rural parts of the country.

According to one Brookings research report:

As efforts to advance the new technology become more prominent among legislators, communications providers, and even some citizen groups, U.S. policymakers must work diligently to identify and support 5G network deployment and adoption nationwide, especially in ways that bring exponential benefit to Americans in need. Without these actions, certain populations will remain relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide, failing to realize the power and potential of existing and emerging technologies.

Also, shouldn’t we address the 10% of Americans who still lack access to high-speed broadband services first?

Finally, there are very real security concerns. In other words, without proper oversight, carriers will overlook cyber security as they rush to market, leaving us super duper vulnerable to hackers. See Germany and France.

In 2019, history will repeat itself: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint are back to their old antics

As a matter of fact, it already has!

Verizon and T-Mobile recently went after AT&T for marketing its latest wireless technology as “5G E” when it doesn’t use the company’s 5G network or comply with 5G standards. It’s an advanced LTE network. Basically: it’s the same tech, just slightly faster. And as many of you know, Sprint sued AT&T over it, claiming “false advertising” and “deceptive acts.”

True, AT&T mislabeled a product to sell more stuff. But their accusers are equally guilty of this historically (T-Mobile) and more recently (Verizon). This of course hasn’t stopped AT&T from marketing 5G E (with very very solid commercials, might I add… they’re still lying, though).

The year of the half-baked hardware

Remember the HTC Thunderbolt? Probably not. It was the first 4G phone from Verizon, released in 2011. Here’s something to jog your memory:

Amid much hype and excitement, the phone’s release was underwhelming, bordering on embarrassing. It prompted one HTC employee to apologize for its existence, and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to claim it as the worst gadget he’s ever purchased. It was buggy, hot, slow, and had a form factor reminiscent of a palm pilot.

But why? To put it simply, the guts of the phone — that being the computer (the thing that processes what you do in apps) and the modem (the thing that connects those apps to the internet, specifically the 4G part of the spectrum) were separate devices. This takes up space, which means less room for battery and sleek design. Add a rushed timeline on top of it to support an outdated operating system and boom! A recipe for failure.

Today, our phones have what’s known as a SoC, or a “System on a Chip.” It’s a single, tiny device that acts as a computer and a modem (note: in some devices, like newer iPhones, the modem is still separate). It took years to develop since the birth of 4G (and the Thunderbolt), but now we can have phones that connect to 4G networks, support big batteries, and ensure a sleek, comfortable form factor.

And now, we’re back at square one.

Not only will the first wave of 5G phones have separate chips and 5G modems, but they’ll require not one but up to four antennas. Why? Remember how sensitive the signal is to blockage? It’s to account for whichever antennas aren’t covered by your hands.

This is repeating history too. We had the same issue with the iPhone 4.

It’s estimated that the first generation of 5G phones (see: 5G Moto Mod and Huawei’s foldable 5G phone) will require three times as much internal area as a 4G phone. Also, with the ancillary modem and additional antennas, consumers will eat the cost of the extra hardware (upwards of $300).

To sum it up

The hype around 5G isn’t slowing down. Its adoption is inevitable, and 2019 will be a pivotal year in making it a reality. It’s important we understand what it means and how it works so we can hold companies and government accountable, and implement the next wave of wireless communications tech fairly, ethically, and — within reason — quickly.

This is just one of thousands of posts about 5G, and there will be thousands more. I hope that unlike others, this acts as an expectation-setter for 2019, and an explainer that you, your mother, your grandmother, and maybe even your kid could grasp.

As always, HMU if you want to keep the conversation going: js@isl.co

Special thanks to ISL’s own Jeremy Carbaugh for editing and providing insight.

Josh Strupp is the marketing lead at full service digital agency ISL. Here is his website.