LOOK AT THE top corner of your phone screen. Right now, it probably reads 4G LTE, and you’re probably fine with that. But soon—and we’re talking years, not months—your phone will say 5G there instead.
The mobile industry is buzzing about this next generation of high-speed wireless service, and you can expect the chatter to get even louder at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona next week. But don’t believe the hype—the shift to 5G won’t happen quickly. The carriers have to upgrade their massive infrastructures, for one. Also, 5G is about more than just shuttling GBs to and from your iPhone more quickly. The 5G revolution will cast a much wider net. It’s an information conduit being built to connect self-driving cars, VR headsets, delivery drones, and billions of interconnected devices inside the home.
The 5G Basics
In some ways, 5G is pretty much what you’d think it is: faster than 4G, but not as fast as teleportation. There’s no hard definition yet, and no hardware standards to build upon—even as the major carriers have been busy testing and touting their own technologies.
The only point of agreement among the carriers is the vague outline. 5G will be crazy fast, crazy stable, and crazy versatile. 10Gbps speeds won’t be unheard of. It’ll replace home Wi-Fi networks in many cases, offering faster speeds and better coverage.
“Basically, 5G will provide a wider pipeline and faster lanes,” says Verizon spokesman Marc Tracey. By faster, think about speeds that are ten times faster than 4G LTE; you’ll be able to download Lord of the Rings in seconds, and enjoy a live VR experience streamed to your headset from across the country with very little lag. 5G will also offer lower latency in network communications—picture a transit corridor filled with autonomous cars and drones reacting to wireless signals instantly in life-or-death situations.
How Does 5G Work?
The 5G networks being planned right now will operate in a high-frequency band of the wireless spectrum—between 30 GHz and 300 GHz, in what’s known as the millimeter wave spectrum. These millimeter waves can transfer heaps of data at very high speeds, but they don’t travel as far as the lower-frequency waves used in 4G networks. High-frequency millimeter waves also have difficulty getting around walls, buildings, and other obstacles.
On a lower-frequency network like 4G LTE, the antennas can be farther apart, and obstacles aren’t a big issue. When the 5G networks are built, the carriers will have to use more antennas—many more—to get the same coverage as our current networks. You’ll see mini-antennas basically everywhere.
That’s partly why some 5G participants, like Qualcomm and Intel, are experimenting also in the sub-6 GHz range, as a way to supplement fickle millimeter wave signals with something more stable. Like everything else 5G, that’s still very much in the earliest of days.
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