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Everybody wants speedy internet, so it’s no surprise that every major telecom in the world is working to make it even faster. Smartphones, watches, homes, and cars are increasingly requiring stable internet connections. In order to pipe in enough bandwidth for that precious wireless feed, we’re going to need an entirely new form of wireless signal—that’s where 5G comes in.
Similar to 4G and 3G before it, 5G is a wireless connection built specifically to keep up with the proliferation of devices that need a mobile internet connection. It’s not just your phone and your computer anymore, either. Home appliances, door locks, security cameras, cars, wearables, dog collars, and so many other inert devices are beginning to connect to the web. Technology researchers at Gartner estimate that 20.8 billion devices will be connected to the Internet by 2020. By comparison, there are currently an estimated 8.4 billion connected devices in the world. That’s going to be a lot more devices asking for a quick connection in the next couple of years.
What exactly is 5G?
The “G” in 5G stands for “generation.” Wireless phone technology technically started with 1G, and in the early 1990s, and it expanded to 2G when companies first started enabling people to send text messages between two cellular devices.
Eventually the world moved on to 3G, which gave people the ability to make phone calls, send text messages, and browse the internet. 4G enhanced many of the capabilities that were made possible with the third generation of wireless devices – the so-called “smartphones”. People could browse the web, send text messages, and make phone calls—and they could even download and upload large video files without any issues.
Then companies added LTE, short for “long term evolution,” to 4G connectivity. LTE became the fastest and most consistent variety of 4G compared to competing technologies like WiMax. The difference between WiMax and LTE is similar to the difference between Blu-Ray and HD DVDs: Both technologies achieved similar outcomes, but it was important to create a standard for everyone to use. LTE did just that, and it made 4G technology even faster.
5G will build on the foundation created by 4G LTE. It’s going to allow people send texts, make calls, and browse the web as always—and it will dramatically increase the speed at which data is transferred across the network. 5G will make it easier for people to download and upload Ultra HD and 3D video. It will also make room for the thousands of internet-connected devices entering our everyday world. Just imagine upgrading your data connection from an ordinary garden hose to a high volume fire hose. It’s that kind of difference.
But is 5G really that much faster than 4G?
Yes. Speeds will be significantly faster. Currently, 4G LTE transfer speeds top out at about one gigabit per second. That means it takes about an hour to download by current wifi a short HD movie in perfect conditions. The problem is, people rarely experience 4G’s maximum download speed because the signal can be disrupted by so many different things: buildings, microwaves, other wifi signals. The list goes on and on.
5G will increase download speeds up to 10 gigabits per second. That means a full HD movie can be downloaded in a matter of seconds. It will also reduce latency significantly (giving people faster load times). In short, it will give wireless broadband the capacity it needs to power thousands of connected devices that will reach our homes and workplaces.
Effectively, 5G will be about 100 times faster than your typical cellular connection.
It is expected that signal latency will be as low as a millisecond. To put this in perspective, the blink of an eye is between 300 and 400 milliseconds.
Other than speed, what’s the big deal?
It’s a technology so coveted, even President Donald Trump stepped in to block Broadcom’s bid to buy and take over Qualcomm, a company that will make the next-generation microchips. Broadcom is a Chinese technology company based in Singapore. Qualcomm is a U.S. chipmaker based in San Diego. Qualcomm makes the highly efficient chips used in most of the smartphones and tablets in the U.S.
Both industry leaders and elected officials have expressed national security concerns about having a Chinese company provide the core processing system for American wireless devices.
“Qualcomm’s acquisition by Broadcom at any price would damage American security and endanger the creative team that has made this technology jewel for the U.S,” says California Rep. Duncan Hunter, in an op-ed for the San Diego Tribune that was published March 3.
“During World War II, it would have been unthinkable to allow foreign acquisition of America’s steel industry,” Hunter, who represents San Diego county, added. “In today’s precarious security environment, where adversaries like China are actively stealing technology and intellectual property, the high-speed communications industry is equally as important.”
So, it is expected that this newest, fastest mobile network to replace the current 4G network in the next few years might require governmental protections.
Axios.com obtained what appears to be a National Security Council PowerPoint presentation shown to the Trump administration. It lays out a plan to put the government in charge of building — and paying for — a nationwide broadband network.
The report bore the subtitle “The Eisenhower National Highway System for the Information Age,” referencing a Dwight D. Eisenhower-era federal project that built the nation’s federally controlled system of roadways. The use of that title suggests this is viewed as a project on a similar scale for President Trump: Internet and mobile services could become like our highway system.
Mobile networks have, for the most part, been privately controlled since the broadband technology was created. Some cities already offer broadband internet access paid for by local governments, either directly or by some form of tax-based subsidy. But as this plan increases in support across the technology landscape, it would require the government taking over ongoing 5G development from the private companies currently developing the technology.
Those who understand how the American Interstate Highway system allowed the transfer of goods and services to vastly improve America’s post WWII economy, understand what a similar federal boost in this kind of technology would make for communications.
However, there is also a growing push-back from privacy advocates. After the Edward Snowden revelations about NSA spying and collection of communications data, almost any form of governmental control of the communications airways becomes suspect. Certainly, the government’s ability to collect and store private data about its citizens won’t change; it’ll only be faster and easier.
How does it work?
There are already huge consortiums of major global telecoms working to create worldwide standards around 5G. Although most of those standards haven’t been solidified, experts expect it to be backwards compatible (with 4G and 3G) in addition to having some interoperability across the world.
In their most basic form, cell phones are basically two-way radios. When you call someone, your phone converts your voice into an electrical signal. It transmits that electrical signal to the nearest cell tower using radio wave. The cell tower bounces the radio wave through a network of cell towers and eventually to your friend’s phone. The same thing is happening when you send other forms of data (like photos and video) across the network.
Typically when a new mobile wireless technology comes along (like 5G), it’s assigned a higher radio frequency. For instance, 4G occupied the frequency bands up to 20 MHz. In the case of 5G, it will likely sit on the frequency band up to 6GHz. The reason new wireless technologies occupy higher frequencies is because they typically aren’t in use and move information at a much faster speed. The problem is that higher frequency signals don’t travel as far as lower frequencies, so multiple boosting antennas will need to be used to boost signals anywhere 5G is offered.
When will 5G be available?
It’s already available in some test locations around the United States. Verizon announced that it has begun limited trials of 5G in Texas, Oregon, and New Jersey. Not to be left out, AT&T announced that it will begin testing 5G technology in its own labs before hosting fixed trials.
Although both Verizon and AT&T, the nation’s two biggest internet service providers, are already testing 5G, don’t expect to see it nest month. Most experts predict that 5G won’t be widely available until 2020.
But it will be well worth the wait. If there’s anything that everyone can agree on, it’s that speedy internet is a necessity in this day and age. And the importance of a quick connection is only going to increase. If we’re going to realize a vision of the future with billions of connected devices, then blazing fast internet is going to become a basic necessity—and 5G will help us get there.
But the real bottleneck isn’t the actual technology itself. After all, it’s just another way of broadcasting signals over a wireless spectrum. The problem revolves around the actual devices used to connect, transmit and receive those 5G signals. We don’t have the handsets in production yet, only testing devices.
And when the new 5G technology is rolled out many devices will need to be replaced or upgraded to handle the speedy connection. Remember the olden days of modems? Remember when new technology was released that increased your connection speed from 14.4kbps to 28.8kbps, then 56kbps? You didn’t automatically get the higher speed connection, you had to buy and install the faster modem or get a new computer. Moving to 5G will be like that.
That’s why the government wants to protect the technology and systems for allocating the 5G signal.
How about access?
To get broadband access, customers will place an antenna outside their homes that communicates via 5G with nearby cellular towers. The antenna captures the wireless signals and delivers those signals to a combination modem and Wi-Fi router inside users’ homes. This system is almost the same as current wired (cable or phone) access to Internet services into your home, except it is wireless and uses an antenna instead of a cable.
Wireless home internet service has potentially big benefits for consumers. Consumers typically have their choice of just one or two wired broadband providers. By contrast, they usually have far more choices when it comes to wireless providers. So, assuming wireless internet access can offer similar speed and reliability in the home as wired connections, it could bring with it more competition, which could lead to better prices and improved performance.
And adding wireless service to an area is typically less costly and less of a production than digging up streets or getting access to utility poles to string wires. That could allow wireless home internet providers to introduce service faster and more quickly expand it to additional customers.
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