5G holds the promise of a mobile-first experience with blazing-fast downloads and seamless streaming. 5G cellular service will be the first step. But 5G goes way beyond smartphones. It aims to transform wireless technology and deliver a new digital infrastructure for the world of connected everything. It will serve as the catalyst for mainstream adoption of autonomous vehicles, virtual reality, augmented reality, and smart cities. Some experts are lauding 5G as the next Industrial Revolution. But what exactly is 5G?
What Up, G?
Put simply, 1G brought us the first cell phones. 2G let us text. 3G got us online. And 4G boosted speed by roughly 10x. But in the data-hungry IoT world, 4G has reached a plateau.
5G―fifth-generation wireless technology―has the potential for nearly instantaneous data processing and transfer across billions of IoT devices. This zero-latency will be achieved through 5 new technologies working in tandem:
Today’s electronic devices use specific radio frequencies (under 6 GHz.) In the growing IoT, these frequencies are getting crowded. To satisfy consumer demand for speed, we need to create more bandwidth for everyone. This means broadcasting on shorter millimeter wavelengths (30-300 GHz), which have never before been used for mobile devices.
The catch? Millimeter waves don’t travel well through buildings. They can also be absorbed by trees, bushes, clouds, and rain. To address signal interference―manmade or natural―we will need a vast network of small cell towers.
Small Wireless Base Stations
Today’s cell towers are very large (100-200 feet tall) to broadcast signals over long distances. But high-frequency millimeter waves don’t travel far. Their coverage range is estimated at 300-600 feet. So we’ll need millions of smaller, lower-power base stations placed much closer together.
Small base stations would be especially useful in urban areas. As you move from building to building, your device would automatically switch to a different base station that’s in better range, so you could maintain a strong and consistent connection. While each base station would be only the size of a pizza box (or less than 4 feet tall if constructed vertically as a miniature tower), it could lead to some health and aesthetic concerns from residential and business consumers alike. Imagine a pizza box on every rooftop, lamp post, and utility pole.
MIMO means multiple input/multiple output. Today’s 4G towers have on average 12 ports for antennas that handle all cellular traffic. MIMO base stations would support about 100 ports each, greatly increasing network capacity.
The complication? Today’s antennas broadcast information in every direction simultaneously. All of those crossing signals will cause a lot of interference. But low-latency, high-efficiency 5G will break down data and send it in smaller sizes (packets) to streamline transmission times further. Enter beamforming.
Small MIMO base stations with smart antennas will be able to distinguish between various incoming radio waves and “beam” them back in an orderly fashion. Rather than broadcasting in every direction, a 5G base station could send a focused stream of data to a specific user.
Beamforming offers a level of precision that prevents interference and is more efficient―a single MIMO base station could handle more incoming/outgoing data steams simultaneously. A massive MIMO station could receive all signals, employ complex algorithms to triangulate where each signal is coming from, and plot an optimal transmission route back to each device.
Today’s cell towers can only transmit or receive at any one time. They are bound by the law of reciprocity: radio waves travel both forward and backward along the same frequency. So signals can only travel in one direction at a time. The solution has been to have the signals “take turns” or to put the signals on different frequencies.
5G researchers have been using silicon transistors to create high-speed switches that can re-route signals, which opens the door for semiconductor companies to help drive 5G innovation.
Can You Hear Me Now?
The kinks are still being worked out and will likely require additional new technologies to roll out 5G wireless technology on a global scale. What is clear: 5G is not just about making smartphones faster. It’s about building a smarter, more connected future that will require industry collaboration and governmental support like we’ve never seen before.
A global 5G network will hinge on new standards (for data security and privacy) combined with governmental deregulation (to open up more radio frequencies for consumer use). In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is already making relevant radio-frequency spectrum available and investing in small wireless base stations to roll out 5G services in select communities across the country.
Potentially, 5G’s biggest contribution could be that it unifies wireless, wireline, and satellite services under a common digital structure.
Last year at the Consumer Electronics Show, Qualcomm’s CEO Steve Mollenkopf stated in his keynote, “5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the automobile, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies.” Automotive infotainment systems will thrive on 5G’s extremely high data rate with very low latency. Healthcare could be transformed by 5G’s ability to seamlessly stream live video transmissions of surgeries.
It’s exciting to imagine AI and entire smart cities running on a 5G network. For now, it’ll be luxurious to live in a world where mobile calls never drop and HD movies download in less than a second.