What The Heck Is 5G Anyway, And Why Does It Matter?

Image courtesy of Ben Roffelsen Photography

Wireless companies like to throw around a lot of swanky-sounding terms to get you interested in their goods. The new hotness on everyone’s lips is 5G, which does not in fact exist yet. But it will, and the FCC today is going to vote on a proposal that will have a lot to do with getting it off the ground. So here’s everything you need to know about the future of your phone.

What is a G and why are there five of them?

The “G” in your phone speed — 2G, 3G, 4G, and so on — actually stands for “generation.” We’ve basically been through four major iterative developments in mobile communications tech so far.

The first generation of wireless tech let you make cell phone calls. 2G introduced basic data services, including text and picture messages. 3G was the first tech generation that made the mobile internet truly possible — it’s what we had when the iPhone launched and made smartphones a thing that everyone got. And 4G, using LTE tech in the U.S., is our current high-speed mobile broadband environment.

But of course, technology goes ever onwards and upwards, and the fourth generation of wireless connectivity will eventually hit its limits. So 5G is up next.

What does 5G do?

From the consumer perspective, 5G does basically the same things as 4G, just a lot — A LOT — faster and better.

The network will also be able to accommodate more devices, which is handy since the whole “internet of things” era is projected to bring literally billions of those devices online in the next decade.

Faster? Like how much faster?

Your current phone probably pulls peak speeds of around 100 Mbps, if you’re really lucky. The average connection speed you get is more like 10 – 20 Mbps, depending where you are and what network you’re on.

An early test of Verizon’s proposed 5G technology hit speeds of 3.77 Gbps, or nearly 3800 Mbps. In theory, the 5G network would top out at about 10 Gbps (10,000 Mbps), or about 10 times faster than Google Fiber and other gigabit land networks.

And that “faster” applies in two ways: one is your data speed and the other is something called latency. That’s the speed at which a packet of data travels between devices — and 5G is supposed to drop that time from about 50 milliseconds to about one. Yes, one.

Whoa.

Right? You can see why all the companies want in on this.

When can I get 5G on my phone? Can I have it now? Please?

No, you definitely cannot have it yet; hold your horses.

Verizon said late in 2015 that it planned to run some 5G tests in 2016, and demonstrated a proof-of-concept test in February.

AT&T also announced 5G tests, to take place this year in Texas.

Both companies have hinted at very limited commercial deployment of the tech in 2017, maybe, but haven’t said anything more specific.

Of course, this is hardly an American-only effort. 5G tests are also underway in China. There, mobile company Huawei‘s big test clocked in with an average speed of 1.34 Gbps and peaking at 3.6 Gbps, results similar to Verizon.

If you’re planning to go to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang‎, South Korea, you may be able to get a taste of the tech. Korean wireless carrier KT is planning to show off their 5G network tech at that event… and of course phone maker Samsung will be there to show off too.

How does it actually work? What’s taking so long?

This is where it gets a little bit tricky; there are a few different issues at play.

No Universal Agreement
Previous technology generations have been defined by sets of standards that the wireless industry worldwide more or less agrees on. But there isn’t yet any agreement about the particular technical specifications of 5G. Globally, it’s still a work in progress.

3GPP, a global consortium that handles these things, announced in 2015 that they hoped for a fully defined consensus by the end of 2020.

The final consensus not only has to figure out what a new network and new protocols should look like; it also has to establish, for example, how to make sure the network stays backwards compatible with your 4G phone.

Also, The Actual Science
Wireless phones have to transmit and receive. That’s it. Though you can use a phone offline as a pocket computer, everything it does with connectivity, from voice to video, is the act of sending and receiving a signal in the air.

How they do that is all down to the EM spectrum — which, as we’ve explained before, is what lies behind all wireless technology. It’s physics: you can send a signal from point A and receive it at point B if it’s using the same frequency on both ends. That’s how radio, TV, mobile phones, and WiFi (among other things) all work.

The FCC regulates and assigns segments of the spectrum to different industries and uses. Some segments are reserved for broadcast television, some for aviation, some for amateur (ham radio) use, and so on. Having all the industries and devices run through a specific clearinghouse (the FCC) minimizes interference and lets different industrie, devices, and technologies coexist.

The FCC can both gather and allocate stretches of the spectrum in “spectrum auctions,” which are exactly what they sound like. Companies sell their rights or the FCC sells rights to companies, depending on the auction and what it’s for. Since you can’t make new EM spectrum (the laws of the universe are what they are), you can only get extra by buying a share from somewhere else… or from developing technology that can access bands that were previously off-limits.

(If you’re really interested in the nitty gritty, you can look at some county-level maps of which mobile carrier has access to what spectrum, where.)

The FCC currently has spectrum allocated in four “AWS” (Advanced Wireless Services) bands for wireless carriers to use, as well as a couple of other stretches of spectrum.

What FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is now proposing, and the FCC is about to vote on, is a plan to allocate a fat wad of spectrum to developing 5G technologies. But in addition to some chunks of spectrum in the low- and mid-bands, Wheeler is also proposing to set aside high-frequency spectrum — previously unused for anything much — for 5G… whatever form that may finally take.

Why hasn’t anyone used these frequencies before?

There are definite technological obstacles to getting decent use out of the high-frequency spectrum, but industry is now at the point where, it seems, we can work around them. Or, as Wheeler put it in remarks (PDF) in June, “5G will use much higher-frequency bands than previously thought viable.”

There are definite advantages to the set of airwaves Wheeler is proposing to let industry play with: it’s available, it’s plentiful, and data can go fast through it.

But there are also distinct disadvantages: The millimeter-wave signals travel in straight, narrow lines, and they don’t spread as far as signals on other frequencies. Also the signals have trouble penetrating physical obstacles, like buildings.

You can see why this would present challenges in an actual environment, particularly an urban one. If a signal can only travel in line-of-sight from point to point, it takes a drastic re-thinking of what the idea of a “cell network” looks like in order to keep those signals moving.

A whole bunch of different ideas for how to combat that are floating around. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has suggested (PDF) “the wireless equivalent of LEED certification” for buildings that have 5G support built in to them from the start, which would help with new construction.

Facebook (yes, that Facebook) is also already well underway with a tech to make 5G viable: their Terragraph system, which they just announced a few months ago. Terragraph is meant specifically to work as a system of street-level nodes that would bounce high-frequency signals around things like buildings and people — explicitly what 5G networks need.

And then there’s even more dynamic stuff, like AT&T’s “flying COW” drones. Though those are just now in early testing for LTE networks, it’s possible that later versions of that or similar technology would also help keep both urban and rural 5G networks connected.

In addition to all that, you can’t make data go super fast out of a cell tower if the backbone infrastructure the tower is connected to doesn’t work worth a damn. Gigabit wireless service requires backhaul — the links in the middle that consumers don’t see — that can support it in order to work. That’s also where the FCC’s proposed changes to business data services come in: improving connections (and regulations about connections) in the first and middle mile is part of making the last mile — the part that connects to a consumer — actually work.

So if this will be 10 times faster than my home internet connection… why am I paying for a home connection too?

That is a really good question, and something to keep in mind as all this continues to evolve.

Cable companies like Comcast have been claiming for a few years now that wireless broadband is competitive with their service. Right now it’s not, for reasons of both speed and cost. But at some point it absolutely is going to be, and 5G deployment — whenever it comes — may well mark that tipping point.

AT&T and Verizon, of course, own both wireline and wireless businesses. If they lose business from one end only to gain it in the other, that’s still a net win for their balance sheets. But what of the Comcasts and Charters of the world?

Comcast is planning ahead. In an investor call this spring, the company confirmed that it plans to bid in the incentive auction to get some juicy wireless spectrum of it own.

Comcast’s CFO also pointed out in that call that the wire-based company has a lot of valuable assets you need to make an all-wireless future tick: it has the backhaul capacity, as well as rights-of-way and access rights in municipalities all over the country. The same applies to Charter, especially since it now owns all of Time Warner Cable’s and Bright House’s assets.

Earlier business deals also created agreements between Verizon and both Charter and Comcast that would let the cable companies use Verizon’s network in order to launch their own wireless brands, which they may someday choose to do.

Meanwhile, cable and fiber operators are looking toward next-generation tech to significantly speed up their broadband connections without having to run new networks.

The new DOCSIS 3.1 standard allows cable companies to use their existing lines to deliver speeds that would compete with 5G. Comcast recently began tests of this speedier service, and plans to deploy it in a handful of cities this year.

Fiber services are right there, too: they’re looking toward a tech called NG-PON2 to upgrade their existing networks to reach those same 10Gbps speeds, or possibly even higher. Verizon has run an experiment on that tech in Massachusetts.

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