Faithful readers of this space may recall that in September mention was made of “the next stop in a long journey” — 5G. Don’t look now but in a mere few months equipment manufacturers will begin delivering the latest and greatest mobile devices incorporating a “standard” that isn’t scheduled to be formalized until 2018 at the earliest. And “true” 5G devices won’t be available until probably 2020. But as we tech consumers are too well aware, that won’t stop behemoths like Verizon and AT&T from marketing “5G” products that are non-standardized and, well, non-5G. Fortunately “5G” mobile devices are expected to be compatible with legacy wireless technologies dating back to 3G, which means the consumers will have the option to keep the SmartPhone they know and love. Your intrepid author knows people who were perfectly happy with their 2G cellphone. Too bad; U.S. carriers are decommissioning their 2G networks and repurposing spectrum currently used for 2G to 3G and 4G.
The 5th Generation mobile networks/wireless systems protocols are overseen by the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance (NGMN) which evaluates likely technologies for the next evolution of wireless networks. NGMN seeks to assure the commercial viability of future wireless broadband networks and products with user-friendly trials and strategized tech applications. The alliance bolsters standards organizations with a cogent view of how the needs of mobile operators and device users can best be served.
As noted previously in our article on LTE, patent royalties, licensing fees and IPRs worth billions of dollars hang in the balance to the company that defines the 5G standard. It’s why Ericsson will start selling “5G” network equipment in 2017 in an attempt to get a leg up on competing original equipment manufacturers (OEMs). Expect the Big 4 MNOs (Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint) to weigh in on mobile device specs as well.
A Brief Historical Progression of 1G to 5G
1G analog cellular technology rolled out in the early 1980s and was used until the arrival of 2G — the first digital technology — in the early 1990s. 2G itself is now obsolete, as noted above. AT&T is scheduled to turn down its 2G GSM network at the end of December 2016. Verizon will follow suit in December 2019 by shutting down its CDMA 1X network; T-Mobile reportedly will end 2G network service in 2020. Due to the prolific use of 2G networks by electronic security industries — including smart vending machines, public trash cans and water meters operating on M2M modules which have long service lives and transfer small amounts of data at relatively low speeds — Sprint is supposedly reserving a small portion of its network for this application. But one day these devices too will be replaced with ones compatible with LTE and 5G.
Two competing standards vied for 2G supremacy — IS-95, which uses Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA) and the Global System for Mobile communication (GSM), which opts for Time Division Multiple Access (TDMA). In the late 1990s GSM became the basis for 3G mobile telephony standards (IMT-2000), delivering voice and circuit-switched data at < 14.4 Kbps speeds. However, mobile multimedia applications demand packet-switched data with more efficient bandwidth use at much higher speeds. Thus two branches of 3G technology emerged: 3GPP and 3GPP2. These vying technologies, which despite the similarity in names are not compatible with each other, spawned a slew of protocols with increasingly faster connection speeds. 3GPP’s High Speed Packet Access (HSPA), derived from the WCDMA standard, is used by AT&T/Cricket and T-Mobile/MetroPCS. 3GPP2’s Evolution Data Optimized (EV-DO) is favored by Verizon/Total Wireless and Sprint/Boost Mobile.
Like “5G” will be marketed to consumers before standards are formalized, so was 4G. Competing standards such as WiMAX, Ultra Mobile Broadband (UMB) and LTE were touted as “4G.” UMB is part of 3GPP2’s technology development while LTE is similarly evolved from 3GPP’s efforts. As we know, LTE (due in large part to Verizon) emerged supreme as the de facto 4G standard and appears to be on the inside track for emerging as the upcoming 5G standard although UMB is making its case for 5G too.
Here is another of the YouTube videos from the “Demystifying 5G” series produced by highly respected test and measurement equipment manufacturer Rohde & Schwarz explaining the recent FCC decision opening additions spectrum for 5G:
As readers are no doubt aware, the proliferation of computing devices, particularly mobile ones, has exploded during the past few years. Forecasts indicate that over 20 billion devices will connect with the Internet by 2020, up from a “mere” ~6.5 billion in 2016. And of course many of them will demand blazingly fast connection speeds.
One tech wag has compared 4G to 5G as “a garden hose to a fire hose.” That’s a bit premature since a 5G standard has yet to be formalized but one gets the idea. While details await to be specified, 5G will have the broadband capability to stream 4K Ultra High Definition (UHD) and 3D video. Whereas 4G allows at most 1 Gbps, 5G is planned to max out at 10 gigs per second.
How fast is 10 Gbps? A full-length HD movie can be downloaded in just a few seconds at 10 Gbps. This speed will necessitate new and more efficient use of beamforming, orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) and multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) antennas since the higher frequencies to be used don’t transmit across distances as far as lower frequencies do. On the other hand, upper frequency bands aren’t nearly as congested as 2.4 GHz bands are, meaning much faster connection speeds.
Incredibly, 5G is also envisioned to have the flexibility to utilize low frequency bandwidths repurposed from analog TV channels as well as seamlessly integrating Wi-Fi across a cellular network, just as LTE-U or Unlicensed integrates with Wi-Fi today. The network architecture of 5G looks to differ greatly from previous wireless generations in that cells will be substantially smaller due to the use of high frequency bandwidth and the need for network capacity expansion.
Other improvements 5G promises over previous generations is the capability for a prodigious wireless sensor network with perhaps as many as a million simultaneous connections. Too, 5G will deliver extremely low latencies — as in less than a millisecond — and lower power consumption. In particular the low latency of 5G is critical for its usage in automated drive vehicles where virtually instantaneous communication between cars, the roadway and surrounding environs is required. Even cloud-based virtual reality (VR) applications are possible.
In this CNET vid, Verizon’s Adam Koeppe explains 5G:
Once 5G comes into widespread use, look for telcos like Verizon and AT&T to scrap DSL as fixed wireless applications to the home supersede copper delivery of voice and data services. Instead of video-ready access devices (VRADs) at the curb, telcos can deploy 5G wireless towers in neighborhoods at a much lower cost delivering far superior speeds across similar distances compared to VDSL.