If You Think 5G Is All About Faster Network Speeds, You're Wrong
You can already reach for your phone, ask Google a question, and receive the answer within seconds.
The forthcoming generation of wireless technology will be even faster, but it's not just about sheer speed.
The next major network upgrade will solve one of the most aggravating problems we experience today - searching for a reliable, fast connection.
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.
Part of the reason we'll need such strong connectivity is because 5G will be about powering much more than just smartphones- it'll be designed to connect smartwatches, fitness bands, and smart household gadgets like the Nest Learning Thermostat among others.
First, what is 5G?
The term 5G refers to the true next generation of wireless networks. Since 4G rolled on a widespread scale over the past few years, we've seen numerous advancements, including LTE, LTE Advanced, and Verizon's XLTE, which essentially means the carrier is using more bandwidth.
All of these improvements build on the same core requirements and are categorized under the 4G umbrella. But 5G will be the real successor to 4G, and it will be founded on a different set of requirements than today's existing network technology.
It's important to understand the differences between these networks because your phone's performance greatly depends on the type of network you're connected to. It's more than just a little symbol that sits in the upper righthand corner of your phone.
The jump from 3G to 4G represented a massive improvement in high speed downloads. It would be nearly impossible to use a service like Netflix with a 3G connection, which is one example of why 4G-level speeds became necessary for consumers within the past few years.
So what will 5G bring, and what will we need it for in the future? Those questions are hard to address at this stage since it's so early, but industry analysts are already making projections.
Speed isn't the most important thing
There's a common misconception that 5G simply means super fast data speeds. That's because the early testing we've seen so far has emphasized how much faster 5G will be than today's existing technology.MIT Technology Review reported.
To put that in perspective, a relatively speedy LTE connection today transfers data at about 60 megabits per second, which translates to roughly 0.05 gigabits.
A gigabit connection is much faster than any data speeds you've experienced with your smartphone yet. Google claims that even at a rate of one gigabit per second, you can download a full HD movie in less than two minutes.
Next-generation wireless networks will certainly be faster than our connections today, but that's the least important priority for 5G, says Tod Sizer, vice president of the Wireless Research Program at Alcatel-Lucent Bell Labs.
"If you say speed is the real thing we need to improve in 5G, you're missing the point," Sizer told Business Insider in an interview. "The end user doesn't really care about speed. They care about what the application [they're using] needs."
One of the biggest improvements we'll see in 5G is the flexibility to support many different types of devices. In addition to connecting to phones and tablets, 5G will need to support wearable devices like fitness trackers and smartwatches, smart home gadgets like the Nest Learning Thermostat, and all sorts of sensors.
"Being able to support a hundred thousand machines in a given area is what we're designing for today," Sizer said. "We do believe that in the future every person will have 10 to 100 machines they need to work for them."
"In the future every person will have 10 to 100 machines they need to work for them."
That's part of why it's so hard to confirm the requirements for what type of technology will go into 5G. It's hard to figure out the data capacity necessary to power all of these devices.
"[It's] not just in terms of supporting more data, but in terms of supporting more usage," Peter Jarich, vice president, consumer and infrastructure at Current Analysis, told Business Insider. "And that becomes the real challenge. That's an answer we don't know yet, what capacity is needed."
Improving end-to-end performance will be another big focus when it come to 5G, Sizer said. End-to-end performance refers to how well the cellular radio in your smartphone can maintain connections with the servers it retrieves information from.
Poor end-to-end performance isn't very noticeable while you're sending a text message or viewing a web page, but it can be really shows when you're making a video call through Skype or watching Netflix, Sizer said. If you experience latency and lag when streaming video, it's likely due to a weak end-to-end connection.
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For example, an email application sends a bunch of tiny requests back and forth from the host service's servers to check for new emails.
These requests, although small, end up chipping away at your phone's battery life over time. Part of what Sizer's team is researching at Bell Labs involves finding a better way to handle these requests.
"There are a lot of applications that have all these little messages," Sizer said. "If I can take care of these little messages, I can dramatically improve the life of tablets."
Don't expect to see 5G for another 10 years
Part of the reason it's difficult to understand exactly what 5G will offer is because it hasn't even been defined. The International Telecommunication Union hasn't revealed the specific requirements and the types of technology that will be incorporated into 5G just yet.
Nailing down the correct specifications and setting up infrastructure to deploy these networks is a slow, gradual process, Jarich explained.
The task involves defining the requirements for 5G and the technology that goes into meeting those requirements, such as achieving a certain speed benchmark and deciding which components and antennas should be added to smartphones to meet those benchmarks.
It typically takes 10 years to get a next-generation network up-and-running. Sizer and Jarich say that initial 5G deployment will probably start in 2020, and we'll see widespread adoption by 2025.
"In order to deploy a wireless network it requires a massive investment of money and effort," Sizer said. "It takes time to recoup that investment, which is usually several billion dollars or euros for wireless networks."
Earlier this year, Korea's Yonhap News Agency reported that South Korea would invest $1.49 billion into building a 5G network for the country. At the end of 2013, the European Commission kicked off a partnership that would involve the European Union investing $963 million in 5G research.
It usually requires billions of dollars to get a new wireless network fully deployed, and the cost of building 5G shouldn't be any different than years past, Sizer said. Back in 2012, AT&T invested $14 billion to expand its LTE footprint to 300 million people by the end of 2014. That's $14 billion one carrier spent building up LTE over the course of three years - imagine how much each carrier could spend creating 5G networks over a span of 10 years.
Both Sizer and Jarich agree that the ultimate goal of 5G is to make it feel like you're never without an internet connection, whether you're underground or in a remote area. But that doesn't mean wired broadband will become obsolete just yet, Jarich said. There simply isn't enough spectrum available to handle internet traffic without some help from wired connections.
But 5G will do its best to try.
"Those people who were born in the year 2000, they've never known a world where they had to share a phone with their sister, where they couldn't get access to any information they wanted simply by reaching into their pocket.," Sizer said. "And so it's for these folks who have never known a world where they weren't always connected, that we're designing the next generation."