I did my best to regale you all with the intricacies of 5G wireless evolution in class, but admittedly it’s scale and technicality makes it difficult to really dive into during a six-minute presentation. That being said, I want to recap a few things about 5G and dive deeper into some technical aspects of these innovations as well as the dramatic impact it’s sure to have on industry in the future.
To clear up a few things, the “G” in 5G, 4G, etc., simply stands for “generation”. The wireless network infrastructure generally gets updated once a decade to handle increased usage as well as implement innovative technologies previously unavailable. The first-generation wireless network (or 1G) brought us into the connected age with simple analog phone calling. 2G became available in the late 1980’s and brought improved audio calling, providing greater affordability and reliability than its predecessor leading to more widespread adoption. This wireless generation provided the ability to deliver text and picture messages for the first time, but at very low speeds. 3G wireless technology afforded the first taste of true mobile broadband and mobile computing, initiating the proliferation of apps and creating ~ the smartphone ~ as we know it today. 4G was introduced to expand on the bandwidth and downloading capabilities of 3G and to deal with increased adoption of mobile streaming services, video chat, and digital business that flourished. This technology made access to the internet everywhere a reality.
The key to 5G’s impact lies in it’s incredibly fast speed, increased capacity, and virtually negligible latency. 5G plans on promising almost unimaginable download speeds and a dramatic increase from what 4G offered. Expectations say that 5G infrastructure will provide ten times the bandwidth speed of 4G(LTE) with peak rates of 10 GB per second. To put this in perspective, a 4G(LTE) network would take six minutes to download a two-hour long 3D movie, while 5G networks would take only 3.6 seconds to do the same. With a dramatically increased capacity, the new networks will allow for 1 million connections per square kilometer finally giving the necessary room for things like autonomous vehicles, smart-cities, and the proliferation of the IOT (Internet of Things). The final piece to the puzzle is the low latency, or the time it takes between an action (call to a network) and its response. At less than a millisecond, communication between the network and devices on the network is almost instantaneous. It’s this reliability that will enable greater access to AR/VR as well as real-time communication between things like vehicles on the road, critical pieces of infrastructure, and even the devices in our home.
5G is an eventual reality, but full implementation and development of the necessary infrastructure for this type of network is difficult. Most estimate that the first true 5G capabilities will be available by 2020 in certain areas, but providers are racing to build out their networks and get to market. 4G infrastructure worked through large macro cell-towers that operated at low to mid band frequencies, < 1 GHz and < 6 GHz respectively. These frequencies describe the portion of the wireless spectrum that digital information is communicated through. Low-band spectrum (<1 GHz) is the primary range used for 4G(LTE) by US carriers because it provides wide coverage. The tradeoff at this level is slower bandwidth speed and limited capacity which is quickly being used up as we continue to connect more things to the internet. As frequency increases and you begin utilizing mid-band spectrum at < 6GHz, speeds increase but building penetration and coverage become an issue. Many 4G(LTE) networks are utilizing this portion of the spectrum and relying on it as a foundation to build upon as they rollout their 5G infrastructure.
The true power of 5G and what’s creating all of the excitement lies in its ability to operate at all low, mid, and high-band spectrum levels, finally opening up the opportunity of utilizing frequencies greater than 6GHz. While this provides the ultra-fast speed, increased capacity, and low latency promised, the coverage and building penetration at this level of the spectrum is poor. To combat this, 5G networks will rely on a large network of small-cells to deliver extremely fast coverage. These cells are low-power, short range wireless transmission systems that provide network coverage to small indoor and outdoor spaces. Large networks of these cells, just the size of a mini fridge, will mean broad coverage with many connection points instead of solely at a remote cell-tower.
There seems little doubt that 5G will have a substantial impact on almost all aspects of our society. The introduction of 5G and its advantages opens the doors to innovation in all fields and has exciting expectations for both economic and social impact. Reports estimate that that the shift to 5G will garner almost $275 billion in investment from American wireless companies. In addition, this transition is estimated to add 30 million new jobs and $500 billion to the economy.
While initially shocking, these numbers seem more believable when you look at how impactful this generation of wireless-connectivity will be across-industries. While there’s clearly some self-interest here, Qualcomm CEO was quoted as saying “5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the car, affecting entire economies and befitting entire societies.” The energy sector alone has the ability to add $1.8 trillion to the US economy through digital monitoring and analysis of the electrical grid. The Healthcare industry is poised for disruption as 5G’s reliability and latency makes possible remote patient monitoring and even remote surgery. The level of connectivity provided by this enhanced technology will allow doctors and patients to stay digitally connected virtually 24/7 generating an estimated savings of $305 billion in healthcare costs. Possible by the advent of autonomous cars, 5G is expected to bring down travel times by 40%, save almost 22,000 lives annually, and save $450 billion annually in transportation cost. A major piece of the puzzle enabling these savings, is the introduction of “smart cities” brought about by 5G. This idea involves a completely connected city infrastructure through specialized, low-power wireless sensors. Connected to critical pieces of infrastructure such as bridges, buildings, and roads, these sensors will provide up to date information on their health and safety. Even bus stops, traffic lights, and trash bins will be wirelessly connected to keep cities safer and running more efficient, resulting in an estimated $160 billion in benefits and savings.
Each generation of wireless infrastructure brought about major changes in business and enterprise, but to society as a whole as well. Our access to technology has continually shaped the way we interact with each other and the businesses/services offered to us. With exponential increases in speed and connectivity 5G’s impact will be no different, if not more impactful.