How 5G will push a supercharged network to your phone, home, car
The next evolution in wireless networking holds promises of self-driving cars and movies that download in the blink of an eye. 5G is big at this year's Mobile World Congress, but don't expect it until 2020.
Stephen Shanklandprincipal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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I've been covering the technology industry for 24 years and was a science writer for five years before that. I've got deep expertise in microprocessors, digital photography, computer hardware and software, internet standards, web technology, and other dee
Five years from now, you may be thanking your dog for helping to make you healthier, safer, more productive and smarter about what's happening in the world around you.
And it has nothing to do with taking Scruffy on long walks.
Instead, it has to do with faster, more powerful wireless networks. Today, the networks that drive our smartphones and Internet-connected devices are mostly based on 4G technology. But higher-performance fifth-generation technology, called 5G, is coming, and it promises to take us places we've never been before.
Here's where your dog comes in. 5G is considered key to the Internet of Things (IoT), the name given to the notion of tying just about every and any thing into the Net. Billions of sensors will be built into appliances, security systems, health monitors, door locks, cars and wearables -- from smartwatches to dog collars. Analyst firm Gartner predicts the number of networked devices will skyrocket from about 5 billion in 2015 to 25 billion by 2020.
All those sensors producing mountains of data should, in turn, spur carriers to spend billions upgrading their networks for 5G so they can cash in on your increased appetite for IoT data -- including updates to your smartphone on what Scruffy is up to throughout the day.
"You'll have tags on your dogs talking to devices in your home," says Femi Adeyemi, lead mobile architect for Fujitsu. "You'll know when your children come home. Cars on the highway will be autonomously managed."
Plus, 5G networks will be about 66 times faster than 4G. That speed opens up intriguing new capabilities. Self-driving cars can make time-critical decisions. Video chats will make us feel like we're all in the same room. And cities can monitor traffic congestion, pollution levels and parking demand -- and then feed that information to your smart car in real time.
Reasons to be eager for 5G
Expect plenty of benefits from the next-gen network.
New realities: 5G will push augmented reality and virtual reality into the mainstream. Augmented reality overlays information like walking directions, product prices or acquaintances' names over our view of the real world by, for example, projecting data onto a car windshield. Virtual reality creates an entirely artificial view. Both need to pull in new data almost instantly.
Instant gratification: Download speeds should increase from today's 4G peak of 150 megabits per second to at least 10 gigabits per second. That's fast enough to download "Guardians of the Galaxy" in 4 seconds instead of 6 minutes.
Lightning-fast response: In addition to cramming more bits into every second, 5G will shorten the lag time before the first bits show up. Waiting a few seconds for a streaming video to start over 4G is no big deal, but that's unacceptably slow for things like self-driving cars, where every millisecond counts. 4G ideally needs 15 to 25 milliseconds for one car to tell another behind it that it's begun emergency braking. That delay will drop to 1 millisecond with 5G.
It ain't easy
The wireless industry is fixated on delivering the first 5G networks by 2020. AT&T and Nokia Networks say the schedule is reasonable.
Craig Wigginton, leader of the telecom practice at consulting firm Deloitte & Touche, thinks 2022 is more realistic. And Tod Sizer, head of wireless research at Alcatel-Lucent's Bell Laboratories, doesn't expect widespread availability until 2025.
Whatever the date, 5G is coming.
To deliver 5G, carriers will need to boost network capacity between phones and the big antennas, called base stations, they install every few miles.
They can start by tapping into unoccupied spectrum -- radio-wave territory relatively uncluttered with signals today. Radio waves vibrate with a frequency measured in megahertz or even faster gigahertz. Today's phones communicate at less than 3GHz; 5G will require higher frequency bands.
But radio waves at higher frequencies are harder to transmit over longer distances or if buildings and walls are in the way. To compensate, carriers will rely on advanced antenna technologies. These include massive MIMO (multiple input multiple output) antennas, which send many radio signals in parallel, and beamforming, which focuses radio energy in a specific direction.
Carriers will also pack base stations more closely together to improve the odds your phone will be near one. They will also supplement today's long-range "macrocells," which can reach up to about 20 miles, with lots of short-range "small cells," which can cover up to a few hundred feet.
Installing one macrocell and getting it running costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, while mounting small cells every block on power poles costs tens of thousands of dollars apiece, Fujitsu's Adeyemi says.
It's too soon to say how much 5G will cost, but carriers' ongoing 4G build-out may total $1.7 trillion through 2020, says Dan Warren, senior technologist for the GSMA mobile industry group. Carriers won't foot the 5G bill without the prospect of lots of new paying customers.
IoT should deliver those customers. The market will hit $3.04 trillion by 2020, says researcher IDC. Network-equipment maker Cisco Systems, which has a vested interest in IoT's success, predicts the market will be worth $19 trillion over the next decade.
People joke about Internet-connected refrigerators, but the idea isn't marketing puffery.
Google's Nest thermostats and Net-connected smoke detectors are already making homes smarter. Automakers are developing connected cars with seat-back video and self-driving safety features. Fitness bands, sleep monitors and smartwatches will soon combine data gathered about your vital signs, including breathing rate, heart rate and temperature. That holistic view could keep us healthier longer and even warn us of an imminent heart attack or stroke. Cities, already getting smarter, could become downright brainiacs. Barcelona, Spain, uses more than a million sensors to monitor traffic, pollution, noise, parking, water pressure, weather and electricity.
In Nice, France, more than 200 sensors have been installed on streetlights, in the roadway and on garbage bins. They collect data on traffic flow, public lighting, parking, waste and pollution in the city's center.
While carriers' base stations can handle hundreds of simultaneous users now, that's not enough to accommodate the billions of new devices that will hook into the Internet of Things. Equipment makers must increase base station connectivity capacity by a factor of 1,000, says Bell Labs' Sizer. "My research team ran the numbers. This isn't that crazy."
It'll be a different world. And maybe when it's easier to find Scruffy after he gets lost at the dog park, he'll be able to thank you for it, too.
Editors' note:This story appears in the Spring 2015 issue CNET Magazine.