5G Wireless: What We Know (and Don’t Know) So Far

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Even as wireless carriers work to offer higher-speed 4G networks, researchers have their eye on the next “G”: 5G, which will be both faster and better able to manage the burgeoning Internet of Things, which enable practically countless devices to connect to the Internet and to each other.

Chris Cave of InterDigital writes for VentureBeat that the industry is in the earliest stages of defining what 5G will be. But the early efforts can tell us a lot about what 5G will look like when it finally arrives. Cave explains that the global effort to define the 5G standard “will yield a set of technologies that will function seamlessly, delivering value to consumers, industry players, and emerging companies that will be able to leverage the efforts of standards development in creating new, defining products – very much like Apple did with 3G and the iPhone.” He adds, though, that “5G may turn out to be a tale of two approaches – and maybe more.”

According to a survey that the Telecom Industry Association recently conducted among operators, there are a couple of different use cases that 5G will enable. The primary reasons that they want 5G is to provide broadband performance and to enable the Internet of Things. Cave notes that that points to two very different use cases, “one of which is focused on very high throughput mobile broadband with a particular emphasis on indoor access, and one of which is designed to deliver a variety of alternative connectivities, whether ultra-low-power and low cost (think disposable sensors) or mission-critical/low latency (think self-driving vehicles).”

Similarly, the initial research into 5G has been driven by a couple of different motivations. Much of it has occurred in Asia because South Korea will host the Winter Olympics in 2018, and Japan will host the Summer Olympics in 2020. Both events serve as both the impetus and the target date for researchers, and the video-heavy nature of the events place the focus on mobile broadband above 6 GHz. Development efforts in Europe and North America, by contrast, focus more on multi-device, Internet of Things, and non-consumer applications.

“Eventually they’ll converge,” Cave projects, “but for now we have a bifurcation of focus.” Researchers’ different focuses have also impacted the early definition of the required radio access technologies. One approach is focused on eclipsing the performance of 4G networks with regards to user throughput, latency reduction, and restructuring of the network.

The other looks to define what Cave terms “a more flexible access technology” that supports the broad requirements associated with the Internet of Things and the devices that comprise it. The different focuses require different spectrum bands; extreme mobile broadband requires “larger chunks of spectrum” available only at higher frequencies, above 6 GHz, while 5G for the Internet of Things will focus on lower spectrum bands.

Cave notes that operators who are looking to access as much spectrum as possible are receptive to newer licensing schemes. In 2G, 3G, and 4G, they’ve used licensed spectrum, which will continue to be the foundation of 5G. But shared and unlicensed spectrum will also enter the picture, and Cave reports that many operators have shown interest in operating LTE in the unlicensed 5GHz band with LTE-U or LTE-AA.

As CNET’s Stephen Shankland reported earlier this year, Gartner predicts that the number of networked devices will jump from about 5 billion in 2015 to 25 billion by 2020. 5G is considered key to the development of the Internet of Things, and all those sensors and devices should push carriers to spend billions upgrading their networks to 5G, which is estimated to be about 66 times faster than 4G.

That speed will open up new possibilities for devices; video chats will feel like talking to someone in the same room, driverless cars will be able to make time-critical decisions on how to respond in traffic, and your car will be able to tap into the data your city collects on traffic congestion, pollution levels, and parking demand in real time. The next generation of connectivity will also enable download speeds to increase from today’s 4G peak of 150 megabits per second to at least 10 gigabits per second.

The wireless industry plans to have the first 5G networks up by 2020, though some analysts think that 2022 or even 2025 is a more reasonable timeframe. To deliver 5G once the standard is defined, carriers will need to boost network capacity between phones and base stations, starting by tapping into unoccupied spectrum, using advanced antenna technology, and packing base stations closer together. But Shankland notes that carriers won’t foot the bill for the 5G build-out without the prospect of lots of new customers — customers whom the Internet of Things should deliver.

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