Rob Chamberlin, Co-founder of DataXoom, talks about the future of wireless and how new 5G technology will change our world for the better
Over the past few decades we have seen enormous improvements in mobile data connectivity, and it’s about to get even faster. Verizon Wireless recently announced that it will begin field testing its new 5G network technology in 2016.
This is great news for consumers and businesses alike. The phenomenal speed and enhanced bandwidth of 5G means that users will soon experience lightning-fast downloads, hold ultra-real HD video chats on the move and perform other amazing feats with their tablets, smartphones, and other mobile devices.
Verizon predicts the network will be commercially available, on some level, in 2017, putting the company significantly ahead of its competitors, most of which estimate that their 5G networks will not be up and running until 2020. In this article I’ll examine the realities of this new 5G technology, and the effects it will have on both consumers and businesses.
Why are the other U.S. carriers so far behind on 5G?
There are several reasons many carriers do not expect their 5G networks to be ready until 2020. First of all, the need for 5G is not immediate. 4G networks were defined and standardized in 2008, but they did not come into widespread use until a few years later. Even today, many people do not have access to 4G or LTE networks. In fact, only 1 in 4 mobile users are currently able to connect to a 4G network when accessing the mobile internet. We still have years before these networks become overwhelmed and sluggish.
The second explanation for the industry’s slow adoption of 5G is an issue of international standardization. Experts in the field of mobile technology have yet to reach a consensus on what exactly constitutes “5G” technology, but experts predict that the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will likely define a 5G network as one that is “capable of transmitting data at up to 20 gigabits-per-second.”
The engineering challenges behind building and operating a 5G network are significant. Specifically, the wavelengths required to transfer data at such speeds exist at a very high frequency, which results in a 5G wireless signal weakening quickly after leaving a cellular base station. High frequency signals tend to have difficulty penetrating buildings; in some cases, even human bodies can interfere or block them. As a result, much of the early 5G testing has been done in airwave bands at such a high frequency and at such short range that carriers would have to deploy thousands of “small cells” in buildings just to broadcast the signal effectively.
For this reason, many view 5G technologies as complementary to existing 4G networks, not a replacement for 4G. Telecoms.com, for example, suggests that 5G will deliver “features and functionality that 4G either can’t provide, or deployed in areas where 5G provides a lower total cost of ownership.”
How fast will the 5G network really be?
When 4G first appeared, we experienced speeds up to 5 times faster than old 3G networks, and theoretical download speeds of up to 100Mbps, with an upload rate of 50Mbps. Not only is Verizon ahead of the game with its initial network testing, but the company’s early results also suggest that its 5G network blows these previous advances out of the water, providing speeds up to 40 times faster than 4G technology. Verizon also claims the network will be able to handle “exponentially more Internet-connected devices,” and that the live 5G network will have up to 50 times the capacity of its current network.
Although we are likely to see a huge difference in network speed and capacity once a 5G network is commercially launched, claims of data speeds up to “50 times faster” is perhaps pushing the envelope too far. The hermetically-sealed nature of the testing means that the “real world” commercial 5G network is unlikely to be as fast as Verizon’s initial results indicate. Most of the 5G testing has been conducted in isolated research labs outside of major cities, with minimal interference and very few competing connections.
Much like the fabled speeds of 4G, the figures postured are only possible under perfect conditions. It is as if Verizon has been driving a car through an empty city and taking an average of the time to get from Point A to Point B. When paying consumers do finally connect to the network, whether this occurs in 2017 or 2020, signal strength, network congestion, surrounding terrain, and even the material in our homes and offices could significantly slow down the anticipated network speeds.
However, it’s not only higher network speeds that will benefit users. As Business Insider’s Lisa Eadicicco argues, “The primary goal with 5G is to make it feel like the end user is always connected, regardless of whether or not you’re inside or outside, near a window or buried in a basement.”
We can be certain that when 5G networks are ultimately made available to the public, consumers will quickly ditch their old 4G and LTE devices for shiny, new 5G ones, eventually making old “4G only” technology obsolete.
What does 5G mean for businesses and the Internet of Things?
Businesses across the United States may choose to adopt this new 5G mobile technology as a way of decreasing operational costs, while also increasing connectedness with employees that travel often or work remotely. High-bandwidth services such as streaming video might be used in ways that are not practical in today’s wireless environment. It will be possible with 5G, for example, to download a feature-length HD movie video within seconds.
However, these new technologies will undoubtedly be more expensive, and businesses may still ultimately favor 3G or 4G networks, which are likely to become less expensive after the introduction of 5G technology .
Businesses too have a strong interest in the Internet of Things (IoT). Everything from smart meters, washing machines, connected homes, driverless cars, smart roads and sensors of all kinds will be transmitting data to each other over the network at all times. Gartner predicts that by 2020, 25 billion objects will be connected and online.
The growth of IoT, driven by billions of new wireless connections, is expected to boost the consumer-lead economy, as businesses find new ways of leveraging the new, ubiquitous network connectivity. In the same report, Gartner’s prediction is that IoT will “support total services spending of $69.5 billion in 2015,” rising to “$263 billion by 2020.”
This statistic demonstrates just how extensive wireless networks will need to be to cope with anticipated demand, and it is expected that 5G will be the “safety net” to help the IoT function and scale according to plan.
Regardless of how businesses react to the advent of this new technology, the introduction of high-speed 5G networks will certainly be an important milestone in the history of mobile data technology. Verizon clearly has the right idea by taking a fast-paced, aggressive approach to its development of what could be the world’s first 5G network.
5G network field testing comes as the IoT is on the verge of exploding in use and popularity, and at a time when urban populations all over the world are increasing. All those many billions of “things” communicating with each other, combined with new, improved 5G speeds and constant connectivity, will mean that the reality of the much-anticipated “smart city” is coming ever closer. If we see the commercial release of 5G technology in 2017, it will truly be a life-altering achievement for both Verizon and the entire U.S. wireless industry.
The views expressed are of the author.
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