5G mobile connectivity promises to bring faster speeds, enabling higher-bandwidth technology like virtual reality.
But don't expect to see it soon.
If one can cut through all the noise surrounding 5G, one will find that despite the fanfare about 5G trials rolling out this year and the industry attacks on cities’ ability to control a messy 5G infrastructure, the technology is nowhere near real implementation.
“5G deployment is not imminent at all,” said Doug Dawson, owner of CCG Consulting. “Giant companies like Verizon and AT&T are trying to stir up their stockholders” by announcing the deployment, he said.
But most cities will not see the deployment of the technology in 2019.
“Nobody is going to go straight to the 5G standard, last year they finally started using the [full] 4G” set of rules, he said. “We will start seeing some radios as soon as next year with a little bit of 5G in them, but they will just be improved 4G. It takes them about seven years on average to implement the standards.”
To understand the deployment of cellphone technology, one begins with the word "generation" — from which the "G" in 5G comes. Wireless phone technology technically started with 1G phones that just allowed the user to make a phone call in the early 1990s. As cellphone capabilities expanded, the technology went through a 2G iteration that allowed for both text and phone conversations. What followed was 3G, which gave consumers the opportunity to make phone calls, send texts and browse the Internet. The current generation of phone technology is 4G, which just enhanced and sped up many of the capabilities of 3G. Added to this was long-term evolution, or LTE, which made cellphones that much faster and more consistent.
When the industry hit the third generation of cellphones, the big players in telecommunications decided that they would create basic rules to gain consistency across cell phones and signals for consumers no matter where they were. To achieve worldwide buy-in on 3G standards, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) was formed.
“The goal of 3GPP was to develop a worldwide standard so that people could buy devices that would work all over the world,” said Eric Lampland, founder and principal consultant of Lookout Point Communications in Minnesota.
Without those guidelines, you could buy a cellphone, but it wouldn’t necessarily work everywhere.
This past December, the 3GPP announced its first 5G standards to the public during an industry meeting in Europe.
“After the 3GPP group passed its standards, the standards move to a group within the United Nations called the International Telecommunication Union, [which will] finally pass a standard for the whole world,” Lampland said.
The ITU has said it hopes to publish its standards by 2020.
And while the 3GPP group has managed to get the ball rolling, there is still a lot of work for the telecommunications companies to do. First and foremost is the deployment of infrastructure that will support the higher frequencies that will be used by 5G technology.
Deploying new wireless technology requires the industry to choose a frequency not already in use. For example, 4G occupied frequency bands up to 20 MHZ, but it averaged 15 MHZ. The FCC has made several frequency bands available to carriers, including 28/37/39 GHz and 37-37.6 GHz.
“The goal of the actual 5G standard is to be able to deliver 50 MB cellphone coverage everywhere,” Dawson said. “And herein lies the problem with the 5G frequency — they will not travel as far as the 4G frequencies and will require multiple input and output antennas to boost the signal."
These fast speeds should allow driverless cars to “talk” to one another in traffic and allow cell users to use virtual reality. To do this, the faster 5G speed will create something that is called ultrareliable low latency, Lapland said. Low latency for mobile broadband is 4 milliseconds.
The target for ultra-low latency is 1 millisecond. For technologies like virtual reality, too much latency from the eye to the brain can cause nausea.
Another impediment to wide deployment is the factor that higher frequency radio phones use millimeter wave technology, which does not travel over the long distances that 4G traveled. These short waves need more antennas to carry within a block, a downtown or a neighborhood. The fact that cities could have antennas strung up everywhere has inspired a battle between cities and telecoms that want to deploy their hardware everywhere. At least 30 state legislatures have passed legislation in favor of the telecom industry and stripped their cities of the ability to control deployment of 5G infrastructure and the costs that it could cause.
In March, the FCC has jumped on the bandwagon seeking to change regulations that would streamline the deployment of wireless infrastructure for 5G.
Dawson says this action on the part of the FCC would cause more conflict than goodwill.
“The telecom act of 1996 gave cities and states the right to do this themselves," said Dawson. “It would take an act of Congress to pass a rule to do that, but this Congress is in the pocket of the big telecom companies.”
Other impediments to quick deployment of 5G include the manufacture of phones that will be able to handle several frequencies simultaneously.
“The cell of the future will have something like five different frequencies,” all jammed together which will require a separate antenna, Dawson said. “But, if you slice together more signals you will have a problem with batteries [draining rapidly].”
He suggests that the technology of cell phones will have to be reimagined quickly to be useful.
Another barrier to deployment is the status of critical infrastructure like fiber.
"Demand for bandwidth is exploding, and we are developing last-mile technologies to deliver the needed bandwidth, but we are largely ignoring the backhaul network needed to feed customer demand," he wrote in a blog post.
Some of these existing networks are almost 30 years old, he said. Even if they were adequate for the speeds required by 5G, how long will we be able to rely on them? Fibers tend to lose capacity over time. Bad fibers can cause regular outages for these systems.
Elizabeth Zima is a former staff writer for Government Technology. She has written in depth on topics including health care, clinical science, physician relations and hospital communications.