On the hardware side, Qualcomm and Samsung have both announced 5G-ready products, with Apple waiting until 2020 so all the kinks can get worked out.
So today, we are going to do a bit of a deep dive into what 5G is, why it’s important, what it means at a technical level, and how users and companies are hoping to leverage it.
A quick trip down mobile generation lane
Mobile phone networks are measured in generations, or “G’s”. Since this system started, we’ve had seven generations: 1, 2, 3, 3.5, 4, 4.5, and now 5.
Now for some rapid-fire history.
1979: Japan launches the first automated cellular network (read — the first real cell network with towers and everything). This is 1G.
1991: 2G launches in Finland. This was the first digital cell network, fully encrypted, capable of carrying data more efficiently, and it let different data be sent over the network (e.g. text messages).
1998: 3G is introduced. This is essentially an upgrade of the 2G network. To be called 3G, network providers have to meet speed standards of 0.2 Mbits/second. This is also the generation that started to standardize the underlying infrastructure for the modern internet. 3G provided speeds that were fast and reliable enough for technology like video conferencing and streaming video to be a reality(ish) for the first time.
2008: 3.5G is introduced. It’s faster than 3G, with better speed and capacity. The timing here is critical — remember that the first iPhone, which is generally what people consider the start of Web 2.0, was unveiled in 2007. 3.5G is the underlying infrastructure that made the iPhone a runaway success by making it possible for users to do things on a smartphone that previously could only be done on a computer connected with an ethernet cable.
2009-2013: 4G is introduced (sort of). 3.5 and 4G tend to blend together, but technically, 2009 saw the released of a network branded “4G”. 4G networks technically require up to 1GB per second, but that wasn’t a reality until ~2013 with 4G LTE (or 4.5G). For reference, this is the speed and reliability needed for streaming HDTV, online gaming, 3D TV, and for video conferencing that actually works.
So that’s the evolution of mobile generations.
Generally speaking, a new generation is introduced every 10 years or so. It’s also important to remember what separates the generations. It’s not just faster speed, but a fundamental shift in how the technology is delivered
What is 5G technology?
The technical specs of 5G are still to be released (March 2019) and won’t be submitted to the ITU (the organization who defines the generations officially) until 2020.
That said, 5G networks are being designed to target:
“high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity, and massive device connectivity.”
Basically, it means that cell networks will be enormously faster (up to 10GB, up from 3GB with 4G LTE), with lower latency (down to 1 millisecond) and capable of transmitting far more data at once (e.g. with lots of different users). It also usually means:
90% reduced energy usage
Capable of carrying 100 times more devices
Image Source: Gemalto
It’s a little bit like upgrading the road network. 4 and 4.5G networks are like two-lane highway. They’re good at moving cars, but it’s easy for them to get backed up with traffic.
5G is like an 8-lane expressway, capable of moving far more cars, far faster, than even multiple highways.
The core difference between 5G and other generations is that other generations have used longer, larger frequencies, whereas 5G is planning on using much higher frequencies (called millimetre frequencies).
The benefit of high frequencies is that they are, as noted, a whole lot faster with enormous capacity.
However, there are good reasons they haven’t been used before.
High frequencies tend to get blocked by things like buildings or are prone to flaming out when the weather packs in. They also don’t travel as far, meaning they need to ping a tower more often.
In order for higher frequencies to work, you need dozens or hundreds of essentially tiny cell towers, mounted on things like telephone poles or rooftops.
Until recently, there wasn’t a huge demand for this. But as we’ll see, there are a number of specific use cases driving the adoption of widespread, high-speed, low latency networks that in turn is driving the adoption of 5G.
5G technology also comes equipped with other technical innovations, specifically something called network slicing. This is when you can segment a network, same as when a multi-tenant host segments a server into different clients.
It allows a single mobile network to be used in lots of different ways. For instance, a self-driving car might be segmented to a higher-calibre section of the network, and something like a smart toaster segmented to a very low-calibre section.
5G use cases
While being able to stream directly to your phone the latest episode Silicon Valley is important, that’s not usually the use case people talk about with 5G.
There are five specific use cases where we see (a) 5G making and big impact and (b) that are unable or unlikely to happen on existing 4G networks.
1.IoT / smart cities
The internet of things (IoT) is beginning to become a reality, but for it to really take off it needs 5G.
First, the sheer amount of data that a true “internet of things” generates is staggering, and right now the existing networks aren’t robust enough to get the data where it needs to go. Some companies are getting around the problem with edge computing, which will help ease the burden of sending data back to a central location to actually do anything with it.
However, that will only go so far. Eventually, for the IoT to really take off, it’s going to need a network that can carry the vast amount of data that devices collect carry either raw data or data analysis where it needs to go.
Image Source: Sidewalk Labs
And the same goes for smart cities — while Google’s Sidewalk Labs is beginning to kick things off, for smart cities to work effectively, we need to be able to move a lot more data, a lot faster, than we can right now.
Smart cities and IoT devices will also generate a huge number of devices that require super long battery life. And since battery technology is (for now) relatively stagnant, 5G is one solution because it’s much more efficient, requiring about 90% less battery power.
2. Medical device technology
Of course, technology is already being used in healthcare, both from a consumer tracking perspective (think Apple’s Health App) and by doctors (think iPads in emergency rooms).
However, healthcare remains an industry where being there in person is still the primary method of care. That is, you still have to go to a hospital, whereas you don’t have to go to a store.
There is no healthcare Amazon.
That becomes less of a limitation with the low latency 5G promises. Just like 4G provided video conferencing and enabled remote teams, 5G will enable telemedicine to become far more commonplace. For example, a specialist could remote into to a rural medical practice to offer their expertise in a patient consultation.
Combined with AR / VR technology (more on that in a minute), the possibility of the doctor remotely doing the examination herself increases significantly. The “final frontier” of remote medicine, surgery, is even on the table as a possibility, bringing top-tier surgical care to far more people.
Finally, with 5G, we can expect to see the same massive data needs that IoT demands as doctors, not only track more aggressively (and digitally) but as new technology like smart pills adds to the volume of data generated.
3. Autonomous cars
Autonomous cars are currently in the works, with one fatality already but we’re going to need a 5G network to achieve the dream of truly self-driving vehicles.
Specifically, we need to low latency promised by 5G networks, plus the dense network coverage, to direct and control autonomous cars, feed them the data they need to continue to improve, and generally make them a reality.
And, of course, just like the IoT and hospitals, a fleet of self-driving cars is essentially an enormous pile of data waiting to be sent, analysed, and processed, again requiring the enormous capacity of 5G.
4. Remote control machinery
Remember Avatar, when huge mining equipment is driven from a central office, with all machines being operated remotely?
Well, that’s not really possible right now. But with a 5G network with < 1-millisecond latency means that it might be in the future.
And since heavy industrial machinery like mining, logging, container ships, oil platforms, and more all tend to be located way out of the way and dangerous work environments, 5G could make enormously reduce the need for on-site users.
What’s more, with strictly remote workers, increased use of automation, and better robotics, the possibility of mining even more remote locations (e.g. the sea floor, or in space) becomes more likely.
5. Widely adopted VR
Finally, VR and AR. Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality are both staples of science fiction, but both are currently struggling to find a foothold in the mainstream. While some of this is a challenge of the technology itself, part of the limitation is what you do with it — that is, connected functionality is currently difficult due to the enormous broadband needs of a VR experience.
So for VR and AR to be used both for fun (e.g. massive multiple online games, MMOs), and for business (e.g. remote operating rooms), we need to be able to move far more data, with lower latency and more reliability than we can on 4G networks. For that functionality, 5G might be the solution.
The challenge of 5G networks
5G networks are not easy to build. While the theory is reasonably straightforward — higher frequencies are less crowded and carry more data — the reality of that is extremely challenging. That’s part of the reason we went through six generations of relatively large, low-frequency cell networks — low frequencies are a lot easier to work with.
So the significant challenges to 5G are the fundamental limitation of high-frequency networks:
They don’t go very far
They tend to get blocked by buildings
They’re prone to failing in bad weather
The problem is that the existing infrastructure is mostly macro-level. That is, it’s based on a few very large cell towers, usually not very centrally located. Low frequency transmissions can make the jump between towers whereas high-frequency ounces cannot.
That means two things.
First, 5G networks are being built out with a combination of frequencies, both high and low, to at least mitigate this problem. It means when possible, your phone will run on a 5G high-frequency network with all the benefits outlined above. But when it can’t, it’ll switch over to a low-frequency one.
However, for a lot of the 5G use cases, this isn’t a good enough solution. For example, a surgeon in the middle of a remote appendix removal surgery can’t suddenly get lag spikes as it moves from high to low.
Which is why carriers are building out a vast network of micro-level cell towers — smaller towers that are much closer together. However, this work is expensive and time-consuming, meaning 5G requires significant up-front capital.
These smaller towers also solve the problem of being blocked by buildings and failing in bad weather, but a truly “coast to coast” 5G network is a long way off.
What we expect to happen is that 5G networks start in cities before expanding slowly into more and more rural areas.
5G isn’t a pipedream. The idea of a network that 200 times faster, with latency so low that cars can communicate as an ad hoc network to avoid crashing, and capable of carrying the vast data requirements of IoT devices will soon be here.
Not only is the timing right, but the demand for this technology has reached a point that it’s worth network providers’ time and money to invest in the required hardware to make it happen.
In the US, Korea, China, the UK, and some Scandinavian countries, 5G can be expected to happen sooner rather than later. And for the rest of the world, it will happen eventually.
Of course, there will always be a place for low-frequency networks. However, over time, we can expect to see more and more switch over to 5G as both business requirements and consumer needs bow to the inevitable march of progress.