Everything you need to know about 5G technology (non-technical)

There’s been a lot of talk about the next “revolutionary” wave in telecom networks starting to roll out, aptly dubbed “5G”, or “5th Generation” of cellular network standards. For those who are already able to stream on their phone with ease, though, this begs the questions?—?what’s the big deal and why should I care?

This article will hopefully clarify what 5G technology actually is and how it’ll affect far more than just our ability to watch cat videos on the train. I’ll cover the basic vocabulary, technological concepts, and discuss how/when it’ll actually be implemented.

Let’s start with the basics. What is 5G and why is it any better than the status quo?

To understand 5G and its relevance, we first need to examine its predecessors (with each iteration rather uncreatively named 1G, 2G, 3G, 4G) and how it built off of them:

  1. Introduced in the 1980s, 1G was the first mode for mass wireless communication, allowing us to make simple calls between mobile phones. The data transfer speed was about 0.01 MB per second.
  2. 2G was introduced a decade later in 1991, offering greater security through its use of digital encryption, as opposed to analog signals, and greater speed (3.1 MB per second). It also allowed for regular, text-only SMS messages to be sent.
  3. 3G came out in 1998 and made way for the eventual smartphone revolution, offering higher speeds (14.4 MB per second) and bridging mobile devices to the Internet.
  4. The current standard, 4G/LTE, was released in 2008. The most notable change here was the incredible jump in speed to 300 MB per second, allowing users to engage in activities like high-definition media streaming.

That brings us to 5G. It offers the same fundamental features as its predecessors (SMS messaging, cellular voice calls, and internet connectivity), largely built upon the core of 4G LTE technology. There are four notable changes here, though: bandwidth, which is expected to reach up to 1 GB per second, decreased latency times (less than a millisecond), energy efficiency, and greater network capacity.

The relevance of the speed is pretty self-explanatory, but to put that number in perspective, a full 1080p HD movie is typically between 2 GB to 3 GB. For potential applications like self-driving cars (discussed below) which generate up to petabytes (1 million GB) of data at a time, this is a game-changer.

Relatedly, the lowering of latency, which is a delay in the actual process of transferring data, is also a pretty big deal. No matter how large the data packets you can transfer at a given moment (bandwidth) are, the speed is rate-limited by the actual rate at which the information gets from point A to B (latency). This is why currently even on high-bandwidth internet, your Netflix app might still pause and load to process more data. Reread this paragraph if you didn’t understand it?—?latency is going to come up a lot in just a bit!

Energy efficiency is relatively straightforward. 5G will consume less power on devices, meaning longer battery lives, and perhaps by extension, less carbon waste from charging devices less often.

As for greater network capacity, this is quite possible the most important change of all. With the rapid expansion of the Internet of Things, more and more devices are being designed for use on cellular networks, meaning that we need an infrastructural change to accommodate this (and future) demand.

OK, so 5G includes some pretty big technological improvements. I’m still not seeing how this will affect my day-to-day life, though.

This is a fair statement, and a sentiment I shared at first as well. The core logic likely underlying such a claim, though, is the fallacy that cellular networks exist primarily to be used by cell phones. While 5G certainly will allow for a much quicker user experience in that regard, there are also several very different technologies it will altogether revolutionize. Below are brief explanations on some of the most exciting (in my opinion):

  • Self-driving cars: 5G’s low latency (in tandem with powerful edge-computing algorithms) would allow autonomous vehicles to respond quickly to any sudden environmental shifts, while also potentially communicating with nearby vehicles to optimize traffic and route times. To clarify, edge computing essentially designates a significant portion of computational activity to the car itself, rather constantly relaying information back and forth all the way between the car and a remote server (thus placing less burden on the cellular networks). 4G networks even then aren’t able to handle such high-speed, high-volume transfers of information, nor send data with low enough latency to keep passengers safe.
  • Virtual and augmented reality: Virtual reality is the placement of a user (typically with a headset) in a completely simulated, digital world. Augmented reality is the placement of digital constructs on top of a live feed of the real world. In both cases, the user is interacting in real-time with their environment. When this is being done without the need for cellular connection (ex: the landscape for the VR world is downloaded locally, or the AR object layered on the world is pre-configured) that’s not an issue. When the user needs to interact in real-time with the digital environment over a cellular connection, though (ex: Facebook’s virtual reality world), it’s only with the low latency of 5G that there can be a seamless, responsive experience.
  • Tactile internet: This is essentially real-time, haptic feedback on a machine, is perhaps the most interesting prospect. In surgery, for example, a surgeon could in theory control robotic equipment to perform the surgery with, which allows him/her to make much more precise movements than just the human hand. With tactile internet then, the device they’re using will be able to buzz/move/etc. at certain positions so that the doctor controlling the equipment can feel what the machine “feels”, such as the firmness of a bone or pumping of blood through an artery. This allows them to benefit from the senses of a human, while using the precision of a machine. To be able to simulate what something feels like over the internet in response to real world events, though, requires a (perceived) instantaneous transfer of information, which only the low-latency of 5G can allow. It’s possible the same technology could even be used for remotely performed surgeries.
  • Smart cities: Here, it’s a general combination of 5G’s core capabilities (high-speed, low latency, larger capacity) that creates the possibility of smart cities. The smart city is basically applying IoT capabilities to every function/service in a city, ranging from the power grid to public transportation. For example, (self-driving) buses could target locations with the highest population density at any given moment (as determined by connected security cameras), eradicating the need for constant, permanent bus stops as the system evolves. Everything connected to the internet is suddenly optimized to interact with the rest of the city.

These are just a few example, but as you may have noticed, 5G’s low latency is the key to unlocking quite a few capabilities. It’s crazy to think that these revolutionary technologies, all of which we’ve been discussing for decades, have been limited primarily by data speeds, rather than a product development issue itself. Speaking more broadly, we now have the opportunity to create entire industries that were once stuff of science fiction. The ability to quickly transfer information will rarely again serve as a bottleneck for innovation.

Often, we connect to cellular networks when we just don’t have access to WiFi or ethernet. In a world with 5G though, that 5G service becomes the preferred default (speaking from a technological standpoint?—?pricing/general implementation is a whole different ball game, as discussed below).

It sounds like 5G is going to be everywhere. What resources do telecom companies need so that they can offer it?

Offering 5G will soon enough be a baseline expectation, meaning that those who can’t keep up will be left behind. As I’ll explain below, though, keeping up isn’t such an easy task. There’s two core resources to discuss here: spectrum and fiber.

Spectrum is a collection of all the frequencies (of the electromagnetic spectrum) at which wireless signals can be deployed between a wireless tower and the device being used. It exists in three main forms: unlicensed, licensed, and shared.

  • Unlicensed spectrum is pretty straightforward, and it’s what we typically expect. It consists frequencies that anyone can use, like a WiFi connection (in this case, the spectrum is between a device router and a router, rather than a tower). There’s not really a limit on the use here, as its freely available and locally hosted.
  • Licensed spectrum, however, isn’t as easy to get ahold of. The government holds a highly competitive auctioning process so that companies (such as AT&T, Verizon, etc.) can own certain frequencies across the country for their cellular networks. Companies bid based on frequencies and locations that they’d like to own, both of which are variables that depend entirely on the specific company’s intentions (different frequencies are optimized for different applications/technologies). It may seem odd that the government is essentially putting the country’s airwaves for sale, but if spectrum wasn’t sold on a per-company basis, multiple companies using the same frequencies in the same area would for all practical purposes destroy the signals being sent.
  • Shared spectrum allows third-parties that don’t own specific frequencies of spectrum to use the frequencies for their own purposes. Despite the competitive process to get spectrum, there are places at which as little as no purchased spectrum is being used. This allows those with spectrum licenses to generate passive income, while also optimizing the use of resources by creating opportunities for other businesses (who, for example, may be smaller and couldn’t compete in the spectrum bidding war).

The FCC has announced that the 5G spectrum auction begins on November 14, 2018, and we can expect the bids to get astronomically high, as spectrum is generally regarded to be a relatively rare resource. Mobile spectrum alone is estimated to be worth $500 billion. Some believe more spectrum will be made available as the technology to communicate over more frequencies is developed, but at least for now, availability is scarce. The market will only get more competitive in the meanwhile.

The other key component telecom companies will need in order to offer 5G is fiber. Fiber is shorthand for fiber-optic technology, which transmits information by sending pulses of light through wires made of optical fiber. It’s essentially wired internet, and it’s incredibly fast (as in, equal to the speed of 5G). This may seem a bit confusing, as I’ve been going on endlessly about the power of 5G as a wireless connectivity service, so requiring fiber optic cables sounds like it’s going against what we’re trying to do with wireless technology.

This is actually quite a prominent and dangerous misconception about 5G. It turns out that to reach the speeds that 5G requires, the signals need to be at very high frequencies (meaning that the spectrum companies bid on in a few months are significantly higher frequencies than what we use for technologies like 4G).

With a quick flashback to high school physics, you may remember that a higher frequency indicates a shorter wavelength. In this case, it means that 5G signals can only travel up to about 100 meters during the day with absolutely no obstruction (such as the walls of a house), and significantly less with obstruction.

As a result, to make 5G a reality, we’re going to need to set up millions of “stations” (which are essentially antennas sending out the 5G signal) all across the country, in places ranging from our neighborhoods to our highway. These stations are built upon fiber optic cable, which can carry the massive volumes of information that we want for hundreds of miles with pretty much no degradation. Because of how easily the signals can be interrupted, we may even end up bringing stations into our houses at some point as well. Essentially, the underground, wired fiber brings all the data to the 5G stations that will be everywhere, and from these stations, the “5G part” happens when the signal is wirelessly transmitted to our device.

To clarify, the reason 5G is so fast isn’t just because it’s right next to the stations. The waves themselves can carry far more information than 4G could, and the actual process of transmitting the information doesn’t have nearly as high of a latency. The technology is more powerful (though I concede you could make a valid argument saying the distance constraint actually nullifies this claim), but it also happens to have constraints.

It seems like spectrum has been mostly dealt with. What about fiber, though? Doesn’t requiring millions of stations render 5G useless?

It’s certainly not useless (or I wouldn’t be writing this much about it). However, it’s definitely not something we’re going to see in mass market applications for a while.

In order to actually make 5G accessible to the average consumer, we’re going to first need fiber laid across pretty much the entire country. Right now, it exists primarily just in large cities (and even then, there’s no station present for 5G). Stations can just be added to existing infrastructure like lamp posts, but this effort is still an undertaking will cost up to $150 billion and take around five years, as per a Deloitte estimate. The current situation also means that 5G technologies will first come to urban areas, then suburban, and likely much later, rural as well.

While companies, such as AT&T, have already begun preparing 5G networks for deployment, it’s important to remember this isn’t true 5G. As explained by 3GPP, the organization which writes the standards, “5G will remain a marketing & industry term that companies will use as they see fit” until the standards are published (which was only this past December). Case in point: AT&T’s supposed 5G network essentially just leverages 4G LTE technology.

How are policymakers preparing us for this future?

This has actually become quite a big issue that’s manifested itself several times in the past year alone. 5G is for all intents and purposes an arms race between two countries: the United States and China. That said, given the current situation, most seem to agree that China has pretty much already won.

Sure, part of the reason both countries are taking 5G so seriously is because of its direct application to technologies like self-driving cars and their economic implications. What’s really on their mind, though, is artificial intelligence. Once 5G networks are operational, that’s worlds more of data being generated, processed, and transferred. Artificial intelligence algorithms are taught and improved based on data, meaning that they get better when they’re fed more data (so long as its useful data). Whichever country can implement a true 5G network first is essentially going to end up light years ahead of the other in artificial intelligence because of this advantage, which in turn pretty much guarantees geopolitical dominance for eternity (or at least, a really long time).

This calls into question how exactly China is currently ahead. The most apparent way is from an infrastructure standpoint. With regards to the millions of local stations that I mentioned need to be created for 5G to be operational, it’s estimated that China has built over 350,000, while the United States has only built about 30,000.

Less obvious, but equally important, is the spectrum distribution process. The highly competitive spectrum auctioning process among numerous cellular carriers in the US leaves a dent in the wallets of the participants, meaning their ability to actually invest in technology development after they buy the rights to it is hurt quite badly. In China, on the other hand, there’s only a few major players, all of which are government owned. This means that they can still invest heavily in developing 5G stations across the country after their auctions because it’s ultimately the Chinese government that’s footing the bill.

Some have suggested that the US should change their spectrum auction process to basically turn the entire network into a shared spectrum, which is allocated by a non-carrier third party. The Trump administration seems to be quite open to this “nationalized” 5G network concept, though details about how to pay for things like building the stations aren’t known (and there also hasn’t been any talk of cancelling the auction yet).

This race is why the Trump administration blocked Broadcom (a Chinese company) from purchasing Qualcomm (a US company), as Qualcomm is generally regarded to be America’s 5G leader alongside Intel. Some policy experts also believe it’s the real reason behind the recent tariffs placed on Chinese imports, with a supposed intention of stunting China’s massive investment in the technology.

Overall, the situation isn’t going too well here for America. China’s network is expected to roll out in early 2019, while the timeline in the United States still remains quite unclear. Heavier investment is needed to compete.

Alright, so 3,000+ words later, what are the major takeaways here?

5G allows us to develop all sorts of fantastical new technologies, but it’s several years away from being a reality. Geopolitically speaking, it’s crucial to develop a full-fledged 5G network as soon as possible, which is why we need policymakers to take more action in this domain.

I’ll conclude with a quote from the World Economic Forum for some final perspective: “Economists estimate the global economic impact of 5G in new goods and services will reach $12 trillion by 2035 as 5G moves mobile technology from connecting people to people and information, towards connecting people to everything.”

It may not be here tomorrow, but there’s no doubt about it: 5G is the future.

Sources: NBC, Wired, CNN, Deloitte, World Economic Forum, Cisco, 5G.co 1, 5G.co 2, Spectrum Futures, Network World, Axios, Forbes.

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