For tech aficionados and industry insiders everywhere, the implementation of 5G, 5th generation wireless networks, can’t come soon enough.
In the United States, wireless companies have been teasing us with 4G technology since the late 2000s. It became the mobile-device default by 2013, with most major wireless carriers touting 4G LTE network’s package of benefits for their smartphones, from faster downloads and increased device capabilities to buffer-free streaming.
However, the majority of 4G devices fail to operate under the International Telecommunication Union Radiocommunication Sector’s 2008 4G LTE definition, which states 4G networks are those with peak downloading speeds of 100 megabits per second (Mbps). Most devices today don’t even come close to this, with the top 2018 mobile downloading speeds inconsistently hitting around 19 Mbps.
These lackluster performances, combined with saturated networks, variable commercial infrastructure and a future poised to need mobile-data transmission for far more devices than just cell phones, means many actively embrace the idea of 5G. But when is 5G coming, what can we expect from its rollout — and will 5G work to solve the problems all LTE generations before couldn’t?
How 5G Mobile Technology Works
To answer the question, “How does 5G technology work?” we need to peel back the operating systems, network designs and equipment that produce mobile wireless access as we know it today.
4G revolutionized the mobile market because it allowed smartphones to deliver on their advertised function. Things like wireless access from virtually anywhere, uninterrupted mobile searches, reduced lag times and video streaming and downloading became device expectations — not wishful exceptions. In other words, it was the first real LTE generation where the supporting technology made the tool work the way it was supposed to.
Naturally, people wanted more of a good thing. Though 5G technology is still very much in its early concept stages, it’s set to expand the speed, stability and connectivity of wireless data transmission — not only for that smartphone in your pocket, but for many, many more applications. So much so, in fact, specs assign 5G LTE data speeds near the 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) range — up to 100 times faster than current 4G’s standards, and almost 1,000 times faster than the actual average data speeds in the U.S.
However, there remains no set approach for the mobile industry to achieve a 5G service platform. We know 5G won’t necessarily look or “work” like its LTE ancestors — we’re just unsure how it will work. There are a number of different approaches wireless carriers can take.
1. 5G Approaches
Approaches to creating a complete, commercial 5G network vary widely.
Companies with skin in the game worldwide understand the 5G developmental basics:
- They need to access untapped radio frequencies to transmit faster, richer data
- They need equipment that can handle that frequency and its bolstered Gbps speeds
- They need the infrastructure to connect and support it, securely and reliably, around the clock.
However, how they intend to get there differs. In South Korea, for example, the country’s largest telecommunications company created the world’s fastest mobile data network by pooling its current LTE system with hyper-localized Wi-Fi hotspots. This cross-network marriage is leading some to think it could serve as the guiding inspiration behind a 4G to 5G LTE carrier conversion.
The most recent FIFA World Cup, hosted in Russia, brought 5G VR-streaming games to certain areas in Moscow through a partnership between the country’s tech mogul, MegaFon, and its government. That follows on the coattails of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, where South Korea borrowed Intel’s VR technology to allow viewers to stream real-time, 5G 360-degree images of sporting events through special glasses. The Russian government is also reportedly testing new wavelength frequencies for massive 5G network expansion in its capital city.
And in Scandinavia, where the world’s first 4G network commercially began, Finnish researchers have already beta-launched 5G networks within several test businesses. They’re using a new framework of frequencies and equipment under a banner project straightforwardly dubbed 5G Test Network Finland. If successful, their system might prove to be the one to copy for wider 5G adoption in other countries.
2. 5G Frequencies
The majority of 5G development today rests upon research into high-frequency millimeter waves, which are among the most promising solutions for mobile carriers to produce the data speeds and instantaneous connectivity 5G promises.
Currently, most residential and commercial devices — from our phones and smartwatches to TVs and GPS devices — run on frequency wavelengths that reach up to 30 gigahertz per second (GHz). The explosion of wireless devices in recent years has saturated this level of wavelengths, though, causing many carriers to regress in Mbps data speeds or cap them altogether.
Sitting on the spectrum between microwaves and infrared waves, millimeter wavelengths start operating at 30 GHz and can stretch up to 300 GHz — precisely in line with what’s necessary to match 5G speculations. They would rapidly increase data bandwidth and solve the transmission saturation that exists today.
And while it would free up a new layer of bandwidth, high-frequency waves cannot travel as far as their low-frequency cousins, and are easy to disrupt. Even small buildings pose barriers to these kinds of wavelengths. Mobile carriers will have to solve this problem to ensure 5G consistency and access.
High-frequency millimeter wavelength is a bit like the Wild West of the radio-frequency world — exciting and unexplored. Only satellites and some military systems currently operate in high frequency’s 30-300 GHz radio range. It offers a new meter for commercial and residential data transmission, one the market’s current — and growing — congestion has yet to tap.
3. 5G Equipment
5G equipment will have to address two significant hurdles.
First, it must be able to physically handle the transmission of exponentially faster and exponentially denser data. Mobile carriers must test and profitably produce semiconductor equipment that can handle these near-constant Gbps streams.
Second, companies must build this equipment to proper size and scale. Because high-frequency millimeter waves don’t travel far and are prone to disruptions, equipment must find a way to solve these wavelength’s top physical barriers, like free space and atmospheric path loss to physical impediments like buildings, trees and mountains. Wave receivers must then be geographically close enough to allow smooth, instantaneous 5G access outside of just an area hotspot.
Current explorations into millimeter wave technology have produced the following promising equipment.
- Backhaul design antennas: Many predict antennas will be the equipment backbone behind 5G networks. These aren’t the antennas of today, however. 5G-transmitting antennas will be highly directional and layered. They’ll be specially tuned for the 30-300 GHz range, as well as hold the ability to catch, receive, schedule and direct routing and reuse data flows in situ. Industry insiders call this process “backhaul design,” and it will be fundamental for 5G antennas to continually connect at the necessary speeds and reliability they must achieve.
- Fiber cell towers: The next generation of cell phone towers will be geared toward the expanding 5G network. They’ll play home base to the incredible data signal requests of the not-too-distant future, serving as the backbone to the army of antennas throughout 5G service areas.
- Small cells: Small cells are wireless nodes that help data travel better across small distances. They work to fill in the coverage holes of a network reliant on high-frequency wavelengths, built into localized areas to increase bandwidth and network reliability.
- Millimeter wave amplifiers: Since millimeter waves can hold vast swaths of data, but cannot travel far, amplifiers in heavy “traffic” zones or remote regions can help frequencies travel where they need to.
All this equipment must be manufactured, installed and dispersed consistently across a city — indeed, a whole country — to build the kind of infrastructure necessary for a 5G mobile world.
Differences Between 5G and 4G Technology
In addition to the massive increases in speed and quality, 5G networks stand to improve several other technical and performance metrics.
- Latency: Generally speaking, latency is the lag time it takes to process data. In the mobile world, latency most often gets deployed when something is not processing correctly, either from network delays, router issues, seek times, hard drive rotational speeds or other technical hangups. 5G networks will see minimal latency, if any.
- Data direction: Today’s army of 4G towers littering the land take in and fire out data in all directions. Combined with their oversaturation, it leads to higher rates of latency and wasted power, as their waves beam out data in general, imprecise swaths. In contrast, 5G’s smaller wavelengths and higher radio frequencies require precision direction, or steerable antennas. These more accurately capture and direct data to hundreds of individual devices simultaneously, without heaps of chaotic traffic.
- Data proration: Most 4G networks can’t adjust data streams based on what a device is requesting or how it’s using the information. With 5G technology, systems can read their directional flows and modify data powering accordingly. For simpler devices and mobile activity, companies can lower data power, then raise it again for higher-powered activities like streaming a movie in HD.
- Connectivity: Given the ever-increasing amount of mobile devices that make up our day — and the evolving technology powering them — routers have become more and more jammed. A single home in the United States could have numerous smartphones, tablets, televisions, desktops, laptops, gaming consoles, VR gear, wireless security and surveillance systems — even smart cars nowadays — all pulling from the same router. With 5G, that won’t be an issue.
When Is 5G Rolling Out?
The short answer? In 2020, at the earliest.
The long answer? Well, that depends upon the advancing work of mobile carriers, network bandwidth researchers, tech giants and wireless infrastructure as we know it.
The Federal Communications Commission signaled a promising leap forward for 5G rollout in June 2018, when it voted to dedicate resources to freeing up unlicensed spectrums necessary for 5G. That means more infrastructure funding and development for those all-important low- and mid-band airwaves 5G networks require to run.
Still, no regulatory standard exists to define 5G on a commercial operating basis. Spurred by global and domestic competition, the race to 5G will likely mean carriers testing and tweaking their 5G platforms with patented technologies — ideally, with the most consumer-friendly system agnostics possible. The fewer phones, TVs, consoles and cars the average person has to re-purchase, the more successful 5G’s functional adoption will be.
When Is 5G Going to Be Released?
It depends on the mobile carrier. The U.S.’ top four providers each announced separate timelines as to when their customers can expect 5G-system affordances.
- T-Mobile has stated it will build 5G networks in 30 cities in 2018, including major metropolitan areas like Los Angeles, New York City and Dallas — many of which are already underway.
- Verizon already boasts a step-by-step, detailed plan to replace home broadband with 5G by 2020. In 2017, it deployed fixed 5G network tests in dozens of cities.
- AT&T ran four major 5G test trials in Texas and the Midwest in 2017. It plans to expand its 5G network reach to 12 cities across the country by the end of 2018.
- Sprint will be bringing 5G to roughly a dozen cities by 2019. However, as talk of a Sprint/T-Mobile merger ramps up, those dates are likely to change.
Regardless of carrier or company, it is likely you’ll hear more in-depth conversations around 5G-equipped towers and antennas within the next two to three years. By the early 2020s, the United States should be shifting into a widespread adoption phase — one in which 5G powers an “Internet of Things” and catapulting the world as we know it into the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
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