5G is often touted as the next generation of mobile broadband—a massive upgrade that's sweeping our nation—but what is it, and how does it affect the way we use our phones?
The Birth of the 5th Generation Wireless
5G is replacing 4G LTE connection, a term you've probably heard of and seen on your smartphone screen.
The results are faster download, and upload speeds and latency will also considerably decrease, a term used to indicate the amount of time it takes for devices, like your smartphone, to communicate within a wireless network.
To translate the effects into something more tangible, 5G, the 5th generation of wireless communication, implements networks that are a hundred times speedier, support a hundred times the amount of devices on these wireless networks, and with latency five times lower.
If you're wondering how 5G is any different than, say, the days of 2G or 3G—prepare to be surprised.
Back in the day, there was the first generation, 1G. Think clunky car phones, the 80s, and handheld mobiles produced by Motorola that were fatter than bricks. The second-generation wireless, 2G, gifted us with texting, the third, the ability to surf the net on our mobiles at the speeds used by desktop computers. By the time we reached the fourth-generation wireless, brand new economies could be built on mobile apps like Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. As our hunger for wireless connectivity grew, we knew we needed more. We had the technological prowess to do it, and so 5G was born.
5G and Our Interconnected Future
5G embraces the Internet of Things (IoT). That's part of its creation. The Internet of Things revels in the idea that if something's got an on/off switch, then it can be connected to the internet. Your coffee maker, washing machine, headphones, the lights in your house, your garage door can all join in arms to be a part of the IoT, to be interconnected on an enormous network of devices that include your things and everyone else's things. For 1G and even 3G, the IoT was just a pipe dream.
But it's more than your coffee maker waking up and pouring you a hot cuppa with the touch of an Internet app. The capabilities of 5G promise an even bigger future with efficient cities working to the tune of interconnected traffic lights, smart, self-driving vehicles, revolutionized health care with robotized procedures, and education, all thanks to the technological power of 5G.
With 5G comes the promises of things like augmented reality and virtual reality, the stuff of science fiction, now emerging as part of our very real future. AR and VR have virtually limitless applications. Going beyond their entertainment value, AR and VR are instrumental in things like physical therapy, medicine, science, and immersive computing. This is all thanks to the massive downgrade in latency that 5G gives us—which is a good thing. The less lag time, the better quality of AR and VR.
Low latency is so effective in 5G form that it has its own component, ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC). URLLC will fundamentally revolutionize healthcare with precision surgery, remote surgeries, and vast, progressive movements in telemedicine and remote recoveries.
Autonomous vehicles are a given with 5G and will be integrated on our streets and within our throngs of traffic soon enough, blessed with their abilities to communicate with other cars on the road. The idea is futuristic and cool, but imagine how many accidents a robot-car can prevent instead of having a careless human behind the wheel? Automatic brakes, sensitive sensors, performance gauges, detectors for road conditions and traffic updates, all to keep us safer.
That's one part that's really cool.
Innovation, Expansion, and Enhancement
So, how's it done? How have we taken this giant leap from the already progressive 4G to the astoundingly impressive 5G? It hasn't come easily. Implementing 5G has been a demanding process that fundamentally redesigns the already-in-place architecture that gave life to the previous generations before it. Specifically, this meant replacing the large, looming cell towers you see along the road with smaller ones, placed more closely together.
These smaller cell towers will produce a higher frequency than their larger, 4G transmitter counterparts.
The signals they carry contain much more data at faster speeds. The current 4G LTE transmitters are spaced farther apart than what's planned for their 5G replacement, who require spacing, for some cases, that's just a block apart. That's because the 5G transmitters have more bandwidth but a shorter range. To boil it down in a numbers sense, America is looking at 800,000 new 5G cell towers by 2025 if we want to be competitive in this fifth-generation wireless.
Additionally, these cell towers will need to be connected by fiber-optic lines. For some existing networks, the current fiber-based wire-line spanning across communities will meet the requirements of 5G, which saves a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort on behalf of cable companies. For other companies, they'll need to invest billions in the technology, the small cell towers, and the fiber-optic wire-line tech that links them together in order to keep up with the demands of 5G.
It may seem like a lot of work and manpower—and it is—but according to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, "it takes roughly one or two hours to install a small cell on a utility pole." Of course, such an upgrade like 5G could touch communities of all kinds, from cities to dense urban centers to sprawling rural farmlands. "But," Chairman Pai continued, "it can routinely take more than two years to get the approval to install that antenna."
This complex expansion of 5G will require more than physical labor of installing small cells, stringing fiber-optic wire-line, and constructing towers to support the expansive 5G bandwidth. 5G will need the cooperation of companies, networks, and industries in telecommunications to establish these new technologies to connect people and things in ways only dreamt of.
When Will I See 5G?
By now, you know that 5G won't happen everywhere overnight, but the question remains, when will you see it in your town? Every carrier has a different 5G game plan, and so deployment will differ depending on which carrier you have and where you live.
It was a race to see who would be the first carrier to provide 5G service. It almost doesn't matter because, at this point, many cities have 5G from multiple carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile. It's not just the U.S., either. Internationally, 5G is expanding in places like China, Japan, and South Korea as the first to implement commercialized 5G. Most importantly, you'll need a device that supports 5G. Again, this will depend on your carrier. As of this year, most carriers have smartphones and devices that have 5G service or have grand plans in the making to produce one.
Competition is the driving force behind 5G, and carriers are ferocious in their efforts to build 5G-enabled devices and networks across the nation. For you, it's great news. Faster speeds and greater interconnectivity are just the immediate benefits; it's the technologically advanced future that's the real promise of 5G.