- Incredibly fast Internet
- Huge amounts of data
- Necessary to connect the IoT
- The challenge: an entirely new infrastructure
The future of wireless is blazingly fast. It’s 5G, the connectivity of the future. And it’s fast because it needs to be. We live on our mobiles, but they’re not just phones. They’re portable entertainment, personal assistants, and the hub of our connected world. They’re a knot in the tie that binds us to the people we love. But we’re often frustrated by their limitations, by slow connections, dropped Skype calls, and buffering video. Soon, these issues may be a thing of the past; like unravelling tape cassettes or social interaction before texting, something our kids won’t understand.
5G promises data speeds in the tens of megabits per second. No more buffering, no more slow connections, no more lagging teleconferencing. It will provide data transmission as fast as the best hard-wired connections. That sounds impossible, but it’s not. And it’s something we need.
5G and the Internet of Things
The developers of 5G aren’t just thinking about your mobile addiction to Netflix or YouTube; they know we need this kind of speed to support the growing connectivity of the things in our lives, too. The next several decades will bring an expansion of the Internet of Things (IoT), enabling incredible improvements in our daily lives. Would you like your medicine cabinet to know you’re running out of your prescription and have it refilled and delivered? Or have your car drive you to work while you sip your coffee and read the news? Have your medical team monitor your heart rate and adjust your arrhythmia? To make this happen, these devices will require fast, unlimited and wide-range connection. Driverless cars can’t be buffering in traffic. And your medical implants can’t drop a call from your doctor or lag behind her commands. Given emerging tech, 5G isn’t a novelty—it’s a necessity.
What is 5G and what will it do better than 4G LTE?
Simply put, it’s just a name for a new telecommunications system based on high frequency transmission. It will begin to replace the current low-frequency system by 2020. It offers vastly increased speed and data transmission. It will also provide lower latency—basically, faster perceived speeds by better managing data flow. Expect it to replace home Internet sooner than mobile, however.
Wireless really isn’t wireless
5G will require complete reworking of our mobile networks, including the ‘last mile’ problem of hard wiring the system of transmitters. While we call our mobile system ‘wireless,’ that’s somewhat of a misnomer. Every cell tower transmitting a wireless signal is hard wired with fibre optic cable carrying all that data to it. This unseen network of cables is called ‘backhaul,’ and it’s what gives us the illusion that we’re really free of a physical connection. But behind this illusion are the real, physical cables carrying information, and without them, the system can’t function.
The problem of ‘backhaul’
The ‘backhaul’ is the biggest challenge facing 5G. Currently, our mobiles use low frequencies to transmit data. The plans for 5G, however, move to the other end of the spectrum, to the higher frequencies previously reserved for satellites. This has a clear advantage: higher frequencies carry more data. Pure and simple, they are better carriers for the bandwidth we need. High frequency waves ‘vibrate’ faster than low frequency waves; each ‘vibration’ is a chance to carry information. What the future needs simply can’t happen on the current frequencies we use for our mobile devices.
But these high frequencies also have a clear disadvantage: compared to low frequency waves, their range is short and limited to line-of-sight. Their rapid vibration doesn’t allow them to penetrate much of anything. Even human bodies stop them dead in their tracks.
Low frequency waves, by contrast, travel well through most things, allowing the mobile system you’re familiar with: a network of geographically dispersed towers.
5G can’t use normal cell towers
Satellite communication uses high-frequency waves because of the huge amounts of data they deliver. But geosynchronous orbits mean that they can maintain line-of-sight and there’s not much but air between the transmitter and the receiver. By contrast, in Manhattan or Dubai, there’s an awful lot of steel and concrete in the way of the signal from traditional wireless towers, and the current system is built around the penetrating advantages of low frequencies. 4G only requires a few strategically located transmitters offering broad, umbrella-like coverage. The low frequency waves penetrate walls and cars, people and buildings, allowing wireless connectivity to blanket an urban environment.
There are limitations, of course, and enough material will block a low frequency signal. This is why you lose service in a subway tunnel, for instance. The problem for 5G is that its high frequencies are limited in range because of their inability to penetrate even the flimsiest barriers. You might have noticed this if you’ve ever tried to use a GPS under a tree, for instance. High frequencies are blocked by almost anything, even heavy cloud cover. This means that 5G transmitters will need to be very, very close and in direct sight. And this weakness presents a considerable challenge: we’ll need tiny transmitters pretty much everywhere to make this system work.
A staggering new infrastructure
New York City, for instance, has several hundred 4G cell phone towers to handle its mind-boggling volume of traffic. But on a 5G system, it would require millions upon millions of transmitters—and anywhere you couldn’t see such a tiny ‘tower,’ you wouldn’t have service. Most importantly, as you’ve probably guessed, they’ll all need to be connected to that invisible backhaul. This is the ‘last mile’ problem brought to its keenest point. We’re not talking about wiring a few hundred towers, but pretty much every building, every house, and every street in Manhattan. The scope of the problem is immense, which is why insiders expect 5G to arrive first in homes and then only later on city streets and in public places.
To make 5G wireless work as 4G does now, we’ll need to build an entirely new infrastructure of wired connections. And that’s going to be expensive. Experts suggest that new forms of contracts will emerge in the process, as mobile companies try to share the expense with businesses that demand 5G for their customers and co-workers.
But make no mistake—5G is the future of wireless Internet. And it’s coming soon because we want and need it to. As our connectivity increases, our demands on the wireless Internet will strain 4G to the breaking point, and it’s simply not possible to network the IoT of the next twenty years without a disruptive change in the way we send and receive wireless data.