What is 5G and why should you care?

There are three major components to evaluate whenever you talk about network speed: latency, download speed, and upload speed. For most of us, that translates into “how fast does it load” when talking about web pages or other content, or “how high is the resolution” when streaming video. We’ve already gone through quite a few iterations of wireless systems, “5G” is arguably the fifth generation of mobile networks and is the “the next major phase of mobile telecommunications standards beyond the current 4G/IMT-Advanced standards”.

The Past

Over the years there have been many standards for data speeds, some more widespread than others. Standards like EV-DO, UMTS, WiMax, iBurst, and HYPERMAN have all had some level of adoption, but for GSM users around the world, we’re more familiar with GRPS, EDGE, HSPA/HSPA+, and ultimately LTE.

h6300iPAQCompared to today’s speeds, the 0.06-0.08 Mbps download speeds of GPRS and 1.6 Mbps download speeds of EDGE networks seem horribly, painfully slow. When they first came out, however, they were liberating. We could get and send email and surf basic web pages from our phones (from our PHONES!). No, it wasn’t all that fast, but most of us were still using dial-up modems to connect to the Internet at home, so it wasn’t all that bad.

As time progressed, our home Internet connections got faster, emails got more voluminous, websites increased in complexity, and images used more megapixels (and eventually “Ultrapixels” for you HTC folks). Social networks became a “thing”, and we started watching videos from the ‘Net instead of over the airwaves. Our mobile networks had to grow both in capacity and in speed.

HSPA and LTE enabled us to unlock the potential of our mobile devices; and our tablets, phablets, and phones started to replace our laptop and desktop computers. We still fall back on yesterday’s slower data technologies when we stray too far into the countryside (which I’ll talk about in more detail tomorrow), but around town we have the speed we need virtually everywhere we go – but that’s about to change.

What is 5G?

sprint-lteThe Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance defines a 5G network as one that fulfills the following requirements:

  • Data rates of several tens of Mb/s (for tens of thousands of users)
  • 1 Gbit/s to be offered (for tens of workers on the same office floor simultaneously)
  • Several hundreds of thousands of simultaneous connections to be supported (for “massive sensor deployments”, for the Internet of Things)
  • Spectral efficiency should be significantly enhanced compared to 4G
  • Coverage should be improved
  • Signalling efficiency enhanced
  • Latency should be significantly reduced compared to LTE

That’s a whole lot of requirements, and they may change as the standard(s) roll forward. Of that list, three major areas of progress must be made for a network to be considered anywhere close to “5G”:

  1. It should be capable of delivering a 1Gbps downlink to start with, and multi-gigabits in future
  2. Latency must be brought under one millisecond
  3. It should be “more energy efficient” than its predecessors

Some of the ways 5G may accomplish these lofty goals are through Software Defined Networks on the backend, hyper-targeted antenna arrays for narrower signal beams, and even millimetre wave frequencies. Which of these will be utilized still remains to be seen.

Why is 5G important?

I just got back from a long-overdue vacation. We have big families out here in Utah, so we took two cars with four people in each. My wife, mother-in-law, and eldest daughter all had their phones in one car (with my youngest daughter content to watch movies on the in-vehicle DVD player). In my car my eldest son and I had our phones, and my two other boys each had their tablets. That’s a lot of technology, and a lot of connected devices, all in one family. We spent a lot of time in the middle of nowhere, but we also landed in some very crowded places (Disneyland among them). Phones and tablets were very important for a variety of reasons in each place and situation along the way.

nestAs more people use mobile networks, those networks must expand to accommodate them or speeds (and ultimately user experiences) are going to suffer. As more people cram into smaller spaces (whether in office building, crowded freeways, or theme parks), bandwidth must be better utilized to provide services to all of them. And that’s just the people.

The Internet of Things is already here – and it’s only going to get bigger. In an era when card readers, scales, thermostats, door sensors, smoke detectors, switches, cars, and even lightbulbs are connected to the web, ensuring that these devices can reliably connect to a network is becoming more important every passing day. Currently, many of these devices connect to a local WiFi network, but going forward, deploying and maintaining a dedicated WLAN may become prohibitive, especially when a cellular carrier’s network already encompasses most of the places most of us are. Imagine what kind of data plan you’re going to need to connect your sprinkler system to your T-Mobile account, for example.

LTE goes a long way to addressing the bandwidth requirement that we need, but it’s still too power hungry and has latencies too high to address the types of devices that the IoT is going to unleash upon us. If everything goes according to plan, most of us should be on some sort of 5G connection by 2020 – which is a lot closer than it seems. Although I’m not eager to replace all of my connected devices with new ones that support 5G, the need is real, and we’ll probably start seeing the initial ripples of 5G coming to devices in the very near future.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.