5G, which promises blistering download speeds, is coming soon

Patrolling the congested halls of Barcelona's Mobile World Congress, you couldn't help but run into some sign of “5G,”  the full-throttle Internet aspirations for smartphone manufacturers, chipmakers, network operators, and government regulators.

But what precisely is 5G and when will it impact our everyday lives? The quick takeaway is that 5G, or the next generation of mobile technology, is all about blistering speeds on the smartphones in our pockets. But it’s also technology likely to have a broad bearing on society at large, touching everything from remote medicine to the Internet of Things.

“These are the kind of disruptions that happen once in a decade," says Hiroshi Lockheimer, senior vice president for Android, Chrome OS & Play at Google.

"Today no one ever questions why 4G should exist. Even if it’s just Gmail, or browsing the Web, you want to use 4G to do it. And I think that’s how it’s going to be with 5G. It’s faster, lower latency—why wouldn’t you want that?”

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When it arrives

Despite early trials such as Verizon's plan to launch 5G in 11 pilot U.S. markets mid-year, much of the infrastructure is still being built out, and the industry standards and technical specifications that ultimately define 5G have yet to be hammered out. Security must be baked in.

5G becomes real for the average person toward the end of the decade, or when the first devices start to roll out: fixed hotspots in the 2019 timeframe, smartphones a year later, says Glenn Laxdal, who heads networking products for Ericsson in North America.

Ericsson predicts that in North America about a third of the smartphone base, some 100 million subscribers, will be 5G-enabled by 2022. Globally, about 500 million subscribers will have 5G-capable smartphones.

The GMSA, the organization that puts on the annual mobile industry conference called Mobile World Congress, forecasts that commercial 5G networks  will provide coverage to a third of the world’s population by 2025. 5G connections are forecast to reach 1.1 billion by that year, or about one in eight mobile connections worldwide at that time.

But there will be pockets of 5G activity before then, some of it proving ground for the technology: Samsung and KT, for example, have long planned to make 5G available for the Winter Olympics next year in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Which phones will use it

There’s already plenty of hype around handsets that can handle top speeds. At MWC, China’s ZTE bragged about having the world’s first Gigabit Phone. On close inspection, however, it’s not a product at all, but rather a prototype under glass, with no announcement of a launch date.

Aymar de Lencquesaing, president of Motorola Mobility, now part of Lenovo, says, “I’ll go out on a limb; we will be first to market with 5G.”  He is speaking specifically of phones coming later this year that will support 1-gigabit per second data speeds.

“Major technology like this takes some time to roll out and the hype always gets ahead of reality,” maintains Ken Hyers, director of emerging device strategies at Strategy Analytics.

The general consensus is that 5G speeds will be at least 1 Gbps, with a latency of less than 10ms.  “It’s like having a fiber optic connection in your pocket anywhere you go,” says Mark Louison, senior vice president and general manager of the networks division at Samsung Electronics.

5G starts with routers

At MWC, Samsung announced a family of commercial 5G products to be available by the end of this year. It consists of a cloud-based 5G core network, and radio base stations and home network router.

For its part, Qualcomm announced that its new commercial 5G-based modems will be coming in 2019. Indeed, the first 5G products will be “fixed” wireless solutions, rather than mobile.

The discussion of 5G can get rather muddy. In Barcelona, geeky industry jargon was thrown about—terms such as MIMO and millimeter wave. Adding to the confusion: A top Huawei executive like Yu Chengdong, talked about “4.5G” speeds.

“Whenever you have these new generations there’s always a race…and so marketing sometimes gets a little bit obscure,” says Matt Branda, the director of technical marketing for cellular technologies at Qualcomm.

Of course, “when you get to a 5G world it’s not like 5G’s going to be everywhere day one.” And that means we’ll continue to rely on 4G LTE, Branda says.

What it will mean

What pretty much everyone agrees on is that this next generation of wireless, when it finally does arrive, will have a broad impact  beyond fast phones — from self-driving cars to remote surgery.

“5G is the enabler of what I would call the connected society that today’s current technology wasn’t engineered to handle,” John Stankey, CEO of the AT&T Entertainment Group.

Laxdal of Ericsson places 5G into three broad categories. The first is what he calls “critical” machine tech communications, where you’re remotely controlling something that needs to be precisely and securely managed over the air. This could be remote control surgery, remote control mining, self-driving vehicles.

A second category is for practically every other connected machine or thing: wind turbines, jet engines, connected water, connected vineyards.

And the third is mobile broadband. Indeed, all the experts expect apps to emerge that will exploit the increased broadband on your phone, for business use and for play. Think augmented reality, virtual reality, game and entertainment.

“As the Internet gets better it’s good for Internet TV which is good for Netflix,” says Todd Yellin, vice president for product innovation at Netflix.

(© 2017 USA TODAY)


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