One, two, three and to the four… From the first mobile phone to 4G LTE, the telecommunications industry has changed plenty in just a few decades. We’ve jumped four G’s, or generations, in about as long as it took for Snoop Dogg to become Snoop Lion. Now the market is poised to break into the fifth generation, which promises 100 to 1,000 times the speed of 4G LTE. That means you might be able to download a full-length movie in a matter of seconds. More important, 5G will enable a new wave of ultra-efficient, Internet-connected devices.But what is 5G really, what kind of benefits will it provide, and how long will we have to wait for its high-speed arrival?
First, know that 5G is in the very early stages right now — networking regulatory bodies haven’t even settled on a standard yet. The Federal Communications Commission is only now moving toward opening up the high frequencies that will be used in the next-generation technologies. But after interviews with numerous experts in the field and representatives of device and component makers, we have a good idea of what to expect, and when. Here’s everything you need to know about 5G.
What is 5G?
The term 5G stands for fifth generation. A generation refers to a set of requirements that determine what devices and networks qualify for the standard and will be compatible with each other. It also describes the technologies that power the new types of communication.
Second generation, or 2G, launched in 1991 as a set of standards that governed wireless telephone technology, without much concern for data transmission or the mobile Web. Third generation, 3G, focused on applications in voice telephony, mobile Internet, video calls and mobile TV. And 4G was designed to better support IP telephony (voice over IP), video conferencing and cloud computing, as well as video streaming and online gaming.
What Will 5G Be Capable of?
“You’ll be able to download a full-length feature movie in a matter of seconds as 5G evolves,” said Ted Rappaport, director of NYU Wireless, a research center at NYU’s Polytechnic School of Engineering. According to Rappaport, the fifth generation could offer speeds of up to 1,000 times that of 4G. In fact, we could see speeds of “10 gigabits per second or more, with one to several hundred of megabits per second at the edge of the cell (site),” Rappaport said.
But let’s not get too excited. Before 4G LTE was actually realized, the industry feverishly proclaimed speeds of up to 300 Mbps. When LTE launched, real-world speeds averaged only about 5 to 12 Mbps for downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps for uploads. According to Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions, a company that conducts network testing and analysis for carriers and operators worldwide, LTE speeds realistically range between 5 and 8 Mbps across a city. However, during our 2015 carrier testing, Verizon delivered an average of 24 Mbps down across six cites.T-Mobile’s network is also fairly speedy, hitting averages of 22.7 Mbps down and 13.2 Mbps up.
In addition to speed and throughput increases, 5G is also expected to enable more efficient communications between different devices, said Asha Keddy, vice president of standards and advanced technology at Intel.
For instance, a 5G-enabled smart-home hub pinging a sensor for status updates wouldn’t need huge throughput or for the signal to travel a long distance, but it will need a speedy response. Devices that are 5G-capable will be able to tap the right frequencies to send signals based on what kind of message is being sent.
How Will 5G Work?
Two words: millimeter waves. The FCC issued a Notice of Inquiry in October 2014 to look into opening up millimeter waves (high frequencies above 24 gigahertz) for use with 5G technologies. If these bands are leveraged, there could be immense improvements in speed and throughput.
Think of the bands of radio waves available to us as a triangular beaker filled with some water. Today’s telecommunications mostly takes place in the lower bands, toward the base of that beaker. Virtually no traffic (represented by the water in the beaker) is taking place above the 24-GHz mark right now, because those waves tended to have shorter ranges and worked within shorter distances. For example, AT&T’s 4G LTE network currently operates in the 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz bands.
Recent developments are changing all that, though. NYU researchers shook things up in May 2013 when they published a paper in IEEE Access, showing that it’s possible to use millimeter waves for long-distance transmissions. And in October 2014, Samsung demonstrated its ability to achieve a data transmission rate of 7.5 Gbps by tapping into a 28-GHz network. That rate translates to a 940 MB download in a second, although that’s under ideal conditions.
Once the viability of millimeter waves is determined and allowed by the FCC, the industry can start looking into the components, such as radios and processors, required to tap into those bands.
When Can I Expect 5G?
You can expect public demonstrations by the year 2018. That’s because South Korea has stated that it will showcase its 5G technology during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang; it aims to commercialize 5G by December 2020.
The Japanese government has also declared its intention to show off 5G capability for practical mobile phone use at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.
America looks set to meet a similar timeline, following the FCC’s Notice of Inquiry last October. Telecommunications standards authority 3GPP held a workshop in September 2015 to discuss 5G standards. The workshop produced a two-phase schedule for work to be done on the specification, with “Phase 2 to be completed by Dec 2019.”But determining what 5G will really look like won’t really happen until the middle of 2016, Kevin Flynn, 3GPP’s marketing and communications officer told us a year ago.
The FCC’s looking to push things along. Tom Wheeler, chairman of the regulatory body, wants to open up high-band spectrum for developing 5G applications. The FCC will vote on the proposal in July if all goes according to plan.
So when can the rest of us expect to see 5G? When we talked to Eduardo Esteves, vice president of product management at Qualcomm in 2015, he told us deployment was a few years out. “Early 2020 or 2021 is really when we’re going to start seeing initial commercial deployment of 5G,” he said at the time — a timeframe that looks to be on schedule a year later.
Verizon’s chief information and technology architect Roger Gurnani told CNET that he expects the carrier to have “some level of commercial deployment” start by 2017. That’s three years ahead of the anticipated schedule, and could put America in the lead, globally. Verizon said it will begin sandbox tests in San Francisco and Massachusetts in 2016.
Be wary of Gurnani’s claim, however. As AT&T’s chief of Mobility Glenn Lurie told CNET, “We as an industry have been really good at overpromising and underdelivering when it comes to new technology.” Lurie doesn’t think AT&T is ready to deliver a projected timeline yet. “We’re not at a point to be making promises or commitments to customers as to what 5G is,” he said.
The FCC’s Wheeler echoed that concern this June when he proposed opening up spectrum for 5G development. “If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way,” he said.
What Will Happen to 4G?
Just as 3G continues to exist today in our 4G-rich landscape, 4G will hang around as 5G takes over and even see continued development. While the industry works on bringing 5G to the masses, carriers and other players will continue to develop existing 4G LTE networks on a parallel track.
Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile’s vice president for engineering, who’s also part of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said, “Whatever we develop for 5G, it will certainly incorporate all of what we’ve done for 4G, and work seamlessly with 4G.”
But beyond 4G, older technologies like 3G and 2G will start to go away and won’t be compatible with 5G.
3GPP’s current definition of LTE states that the highest theoretical peak data rate the technology can achieve is 75 Mbps up and 300 Mbps down. LTE-Advanced sees that rate increased to 1.5 Gbps up and 3 Gbps down, using carrier aggregation (CA), a method of increasing data speeds and capacity by combining bands of spectrum to form wider channels.
In a roundtable discussion with reporters in December 2014, Mike Haberman, Verizon’s president of network support, said that the company was testing carrier aggregation on its network to ensure it can work properly. Verizon is expected to execute the technology by mid-2015, according to FierceWireless. AT&T has already deployed carrier aggregation, while Sprint is planning year-end implementation. T-Mobile is also expected to follow.
Where Will I Be Able to Get 5G?
In addition to Korea and Japan, countries such as Germany and the U.K. have promised to bring 5G to their residents. Finland’s already building a 5G test network in the city of Oulu. The U.S. is also expected to be part of the first wave of countries to deploy next-gen mobile broadband.
While standards have been similar globally in the past, spectrums and bands used by each nation have been different. For 4G LTE alone, some European operators used 2.6 GHz for their networks, while China used 2.5 GHz and Japan rides on 2.1 GHz. Many Southeast Asian markets are using 1.8 GHz. This means your 4G LTE phone won’t necessarily support LTE networks worldwide.
That will hopefully be different with 5G. Kris Rinne, chairwoman for the board of governors of 4G Americas, told us that alliances such as 3GPP and 4G Americas are working on standardizing the spectrums and standards across international borders for easier global access.