5G is finally coming. The fifth generation of wireless broadband technology, set to revolutionize mobile networking with superfast speeds, high bandwidth, and ultra-low latency, will start rolling out in earnest throughout 2019-2020, representing the next phase of mobile telecoms standards. Actual release dates vary by carrier in the US, but here’s a glimpse of what’s already available and what we can expect in the coming months:
(Image source: lifewire.com)
Elsewhere, in the UK, EE – the largest mobile operator in the country – will be the first company to roll out 5G coverage, and is due to flick the 5G switch to “on” on May 30. Only a handful of major cities – including London, Birmingham, Manchester and Edinburgh – will receive coverage by this date, with EE hoping to achieve full distribution by 2022. The rest of the EU is taking things a little slower, though Swisscom and Ericsson in Switzerland have activated 5G for the first time, and there are other 5G-enabled areas now live around the world, including in China, Japan and Australia.
Yes, 5G really is coming – slowly. Estimates say that by 2023, up to 32% of North American mobile connections will be on a 5G network, while Ericsson predicts that 1.5 billion users – 40% of the global population – will have access to a 5G network by 2024.
(Image source: ericsson.com)
But what is 5G? What are the implications, the controversies and conspiracies, how will it change our lives, and how does it stack up against current 4G networks?
How Does 5G Work?
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first. 5G uses radio waves or radio frequency (RF) energy to transmit and receive data. With the demanding requirements being placed on the fifth generation of mobile communications, a wholly new radio interface and radio access network has been developed – the 5G New Radio (5G NR).
5G NR is key to enabling the new communications system to work. It utilizes much higher radio frequencies (28 ghz compared to just 700-2,500 mhz for 4G) to transfer much, much more data over the air faster with reduced congestion and lower latency. The advantage of higher radio frequencies is that they are able to support much higher signal bandwidths – hence higher data throughput rates.
The new interface also means that more devices can be used within the same geographic area. This is important – mobile communications are still rapidly increasing, and as more and more IoT-enabled devices emerge on the market, this trend will only accelerate in the future.
5G also relies on another technology called Massive Multiple Input Multiple Output (Massive MIMO). Simply put, Massive MIMO allows the transmitting and receiving of more than one data signal simultaneously over the same radio channel. To enable this, the Massive MIMO system will have many more antennas than standard MIMO networks tend to use (about two to four). While there’s no “official” figure for what constitutes a Massive MIMO, we’re talking about dozens if not hundreds of antennas here, deployed onto cell towers, utility poles, lampposts, buildings, and other public and private structures. Naturally, the more antennas a transmitter or a receiver is equipped with, the more possible signal paths there are, and the better the performance to be expected. In addition, the greater number of antennas means the Massive MIMO network will be far more resistant to interference and jams than current systems, which only use a handful of antennas.
(Image source: ni.com)
Massive MIMO networks will also use beamforming technology. Beamforming is essentially a traffic-signaling system for cellular base stations that identifies the most efficient data-delivery route to a particular user, while reducing interference for other nearby users in the process.
5G Vs 4G – What Improvements Can We Expect?
So that’s the “in a nutshell” version of how 5G works – but what will be the consequences if it does? What improvements can we expect over previous generations, and how will it change our professional and private lives?
Faster Download Speeds
5G is lightning fast compared to 4G. More than 1,000 times faster, in fact. The minimum expectation for download speeds is 10 gbps – though 50 gbps may be possible, and 1 tbps has been achieved in a test environment. This is great news for consumers of online video content – which today is most of us (video traffic is forecast to make up 82% of all internet traffic by 2022). Compared to 3G, the fourth generation of mobile networking enabled previously impossible video streaming quality, which has led to more people using handheld devices to watch movies and even live TV while on the go. However, with more video streaming on handheld devices, there is increased network congestion, often resulting in mobile users not even being able to access their web browser during rush hour, let alone catch up on the latest episode of their favorite show on Netflix.
5G promises to put an end to these frustrations. Users should be able to download an entire HD film in under 10 seconds – not 10 minutes, as is often the case with 4G.
(Image source: digitaltrends.com)
Latency is the delay before a transfer of data begins following an instruction. The time this takes is measured in milliseconds. The average latency time with 4G networks is around 50 milliseconds, though this varies from carrier to carrier. 5G technology is estimated to be 60 to 120 times faster than 4G latencies in ideal conditions – so well under 1 millisecond will be possible, though an average of around 10 milliseconds is expected.
Low latency is one of 5G’s most promising and important attributes, as it is highly suitable for critical applications that require rapid responsiveness. It will prove vital for self-driving cars, for example, where super-quick communications need to be made to trigger potentially life-saving reactions – such as to brake or swerve to avoid an obstacle, another car, or pedestrian.
(Image source: 5g.co.uk)
Spectral Efficiency and Traffic Capacity
Spectral efficiency is to do with the amount of information that can fit in a given channel bandwidth. Since 5G will operate with much larger bandwidths compared to 4G, a 3X greater efficiency will be possible. This will result in 100 times higher traffic capacity, and 100 times greater network efficiency.
(Image source: digitaltrends.com)
Arguably, 5G’s biggest impact will be felt across the Internet of Things (IoT). 4G lacks the speed, flexibility and capacity necessary to support the fast-growing array of connected devices that are being deployed across homes and businesses around the world. IoT applications need to collect, transmit, process, and analyze massive amounts of data from vast numbers of devices and sensors. But, to do so, a super-efficient network is required. With its high speeds, low latency, and large capacity, 5G has the potential to finally enable IoT to live up to its long-promised potential.
And it’s not just smart home devices and mobile wearables we’re talking about here. The long-anticipated smart city may finally become a reality with the technology. From vehicle-to-vehicle communication to smart traffic lights and smart energy grids, 5G can make it all a reality because it will be possible to have many more devices working reliably, securely, and uninterrupted in the same area. Whereas 4G can support about 4,000 devices per square kilometer, 5G has the capacity for around one million. Smart streetlights and sensors will monitor air quality, parking spaces, traffic flow, trash collection, water use and sewers, while public transport scheduling, crime detection and reporting will also be vastly improved.
Other use cases for 5G in industry include haptic applications – i.e. where genuinely tactile sensations can be shared live over great distances – meaning machine and robotics operators will be able to “feel” and “touch” the things they are working with even if they are hundreds or thousands of miles away. Such haptic applications could be used in factories, mines, and even for remote surgery.
As the backbone supporting network for autonomous vehicles, the haulage industry will likely be completely overhauled. Driverless trucks motoring goods around highways all over the world will soon become a reality with 5G, while public transport operators – including buses and taxicabs – will be able to unleash fleets of self-driving vehicles on the roads.
It will also be possible to enable more machines to go wireless for more flexible and autonomous operations. The Boliden Aitik mine in Sweden, for example, uses 5G-enabled automation for drilling and blasting, which has reduced costs by 1%, saving the company €2.5 million annually. Meanwhile, the Worcestershire 5G Consortium reports that manufacturers can achieve 1% to 2% productivity gains through better-managed production lines via 5G-powered wireless factories.
In all, GSMA predicts that 5G will add $2.2 trillion to the global economy over the next 15 years as countries around the globe increasingly benefit from improvements in productivity and efficiency.
“The arrival of 5G forms a major part of the world’s move towards an era of Intelligent Connectivity, which alongside developments in the Internet of Things, big data and artificial intelligence, is poised to be a key driver of economic growth over the coming years,” said Director General of the GSMA, Mats Granryd. “While 5G will transform businesses and provide an array of exciting new services, mobile technology is also helping to close the connectivity gap. We will connect more than a billion new people to the mobile internet over the next few years, spurring adoption of mobile-based tools and solutions in areas such as agriculture, education and healthcare, which will improve livelihoods of people around the world.”
5G Technology Dangers
For consumers, businesses and governments alike, these really are exciting times indeed. But there are some who are concerned about certain 5G technology dangers they believe may put public health at risk and are demanding proof that the technology will be safe – with some health advocates even calling for the rollout to be suspended until health investigations are made and such proof can be provided.
“We the undersigned, more than 180 scientists and doctors from 35 countries, recommend a moratorium on the roll-out of the fifth generation, 5G, for telecommunication until potential hazards for human health and the environment have been fully investigated by scientists independent from industry. 5G will substantially increase exposure to radiofrequency electromagnetic fields (RF-EMF) on top of the 2G, 3G, 4G, Wi-Fi, etc. for telecommunications already in place. RF-EMF has been proven to be harmful for humans and the environment.”
Such concerns aren’t new – as veteran consumer tech commentator Simon Rockman points out in Forbes, anxieties over mobile phone use and radiofrequency radiation exposure increasing the risks of cancer have been prevalent for as long as there have been mobile phones, and yet any credible evidence that they actually cause ill effect is extremely limited. The fact is that the radiation that cellphones give off is at the extremely low end of the electromagnetic spectrum, does not ionize atoms, and so does not damage cell DNA which can result in cancer.
The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and US National Toxicology Program (NTP) have not classified RF radiation as cancer-causing. However, the US Food and Drug Association (FDA) recently told Digital Trends that while it continues to believe that the current safety limits for cellphone radiofrequency energy exposure remain acceptable for protecting the public health, it will continue to review “many sources of scientific and medical evidence related to the possibility of adverse health effects […] in both humans and animals and will continue to do so as new scientific data are published.”
In short, though there is still more research to be done on the subject, there seems to be no current evidence to suggest that 5G will pose a health risk.
Aside from 5G dangers concerning public health, there is the 5G conspiracy theory that the technology is designed to reduce the number of people on the planet and control those who remain.
No, it’s not – but it’s worth noting that such theories come from both the extreme right and extreme left of the political spectrum. Those on the left see the technology being used to create a fascist state where our every move is monitored as governments do anything to keep big business happy. Meanwhile, there are those on the far right claiming that it’s a tool for the socialists.
And of course, we now have the Huawei controversy. In May 2019, Us President Donald Trump signed an executive order that gives the government the authority to block transactions that involve information or communications technology that “pose an unacceptable risk to the national security of the United States.”
Though Huawei isn’t actually named in the policy, it’s no secret that the order is levelled squarely in the Chinese telecoms equipment maker’s direction. The US has long-accused Huawei of being closely linked with China’s ruling communist party, and government officials have previously alleged that the company’s equipment could be used by Beijing for espionage. Huawei not only denies these claims, but also says that enforcing a trade ban on the company will put the US behind in 5G rollout and development.
“Huawei is the unparalleled leader in 5G. We are ready and willing to engage with the US government and come up with effective measures to ensure product security,” a spokesperson for the company told CNBC. “Restricting Huawei from doing business in the US will not make the US more secure or stronger; instead, this will only serve to limit the US to inferior yet more expensive alternatives, leaving the US lagging behind in 5G deployment, and eventually harming the interests of US companies and consumers.”
The alternative plan is for Nokia, Ericsson, or other Western telecoms firms to build the core of the network, though it’s safe to say that whatever happens, delays in 5G deployment are all but inevitable in light of the order.
It’s so close yet still so far. 5G is coming, and is indeed already here in parts of the world. Marking massive improvements over 4G, the fifth generation of wireless broadband technology will change our lives and businesses beyond all recognition. From driverless cars to smart cities, remote control robots and countless other applications, new solutions are on their way, but it’s still going to take time before the real benefits are felt. What we can’t expect is a “big bang” moment when all of a sudden 5G is here and 4G is relegated to a supporting role. Rather, it will be a gradual, evolutionary process. Apple, for instance, is reportedly not going to release a 5G capable iPhone until next year, though Android may put out a few handsets in 2019. But, unless you live in an area that will get early 5G coverage, it’s not likely to make much of a difference to your daily life at these early stages in any case. It will do one day soon, of course – but it will probably be sometime around 2022-23 until “mass market adoption” becomes a term we can finally associate with 5G.