5G is coming this year. Or maybe not. In the race to 5G, or fifth generation wireless, companies are starting to promise the impossible, which will result in a lot of confusion over the next few years.Because there isn’t any official definition of 5G yet, all the players in the wireless world, from chipset makers to carriers, are jockeying to define 5G and establish themselves as 5G leaders.
1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G
The G in 5G means it’s a generation of wireless technology. While most generations have technically been defined by their data transmission speeds, each has also been marked by a break in encoding methods, or “air interfaces,” which make it incompatible with the previous generation.
1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second. 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward, and they are now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds.
Okay, So What’s ‘Real’ 5G?
5G is a new network system that has much higher speeds and capacity, and much lower latency, than existing cellular systems. The technologies to be used in 5G are still being defined, but there are many details on which everyone agrees.
5G networks will use a type of encoding called OFDM, which is similar to the encoding that LTE uses. The air interface will be designed for much lower latency and greater flexibility than LTE, though.
The new networks will predominantly use very high frequencies that can transmit huge amounts of data, but only a few blocks at a time. The standard will work all the way from low frequencies to high, but it gets the most benefit over 4G at higher frequencies. 5G may also transmit data over the unlicensed frequencies currently used for Wi-Fi, without conflicting with existing Wi-Fi networks. That’s similar to a technology T-Mobile is launching this year called LTE-U.
5G networks are much more likely to be networks of small cells, even down to the size of home routers, than to be huge towers radiating great distances. Some of that is because of the nature of the frequencies used, but a lot of that is to expand network capacity.
So 5G networks need to be much smarter than previous systems, as they’re juggling many more, smaller cells that can change size and shape. But even with existing macro cells, Qualcomm says 5G will be able to boost capacity by four times over current systems by leveraging wider bandwidths and advanced antenna technologies.
The goal is to have far higher speeds available, and far higher capacity per sector, at far lower latency than 4G. The standards bodies involved are aiming at 20Gbps speeds and 1ms latency, at which point very interesting things begin to happen.
Is 5G for Phones, Cars, or Homes?
Driverless cars may need 5G to really kick into action. The first generation of driverless cars will be self-contained, but future generations will interact with other cars and smart roads to improve safety and manage traffic. Basically, everything on the road will be talking
To do this, you need extremely low latencies. While the cars are all exchanging very small packets of information, they need to do so almost instantly. That’s where 5G’s sub-1 millisecond latency comes into play, when a packet of data shoots directly between two cars, or bounces from a car to a small cell on a lamppost to another car. (One light-millisecond is about 186 miles, so most of that 1ms latency is still processing time.)
Another aspect of 5G is that it will connect many more devices. Right now, 4G modules are expensive, power-consuming, and demand complicated service plans, so much of the Internet of Things has stuck with either Wi-Fi and other home technologies for consumers, or 2G for businesses. 5G networks will accept small, inexpensive, low-power devices, so they’ll connect a lot of smaller objects and different kinds of ambient sensors to the internet.
So what about phones? The biggest change 5G may bring is in virtual and augmented reality. As phones transform into devices meant to be used with VR headsets, the very low latency and consistent speeds of 5G will give you an internet-augmented world, if and when you want it. The small cell aspects of 5G may also help with in-building coverage, as 5G encourages every home router to become a cell site.
When Is 5G Happening?
The first official 5G launches will come in 2018, with broad deployment in 2019. The schedule was previously set for 2019-2020, but carriers and equipment manufacturers figured out an accelerated schedule earlier this year.