The State of 5G: When It’s Coming, How Fast It Will Be & The Sci-Fi Future It Will Enable

This article originally appeared on Techspot by Jay Stanley.

Although 5G may seem like just another generational upgrade for mobile networks, touting more speed and less latency than previous iterations, the years-long migration will require an expansion of cellular networks worldwide to include millions of new antennas that will become the backbone of IoT (Internet of Things) and its billions of sensor-laden devices, from smart dust to smart cars.

The convergence of technologies such as 5G, IoT, blockchain and AI would enable a fully meshed world of wirelessly connected everything that would be seamlessly woven into the fabric of our existence, imbuing our environment with an intelligence that evaluates and responds to us, ultimately transforming how we interact with our day-to-day surroundings.

Many industries expect 5G to generate billions of dollars through currently unrealized revenue streams, providing an endless supply of applications and services to the more than four billion additional people 5G is hoped to reach. Qualcomm for example predicts that by 2035, the network will enable $12 trillion worth of goods and services and the company has claimed in the past that 5G will be “bigger than electricity,” while the World Economic Forum describes the era we’re entering as being “the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

That level of profitability and the potential for tracking every grain of sand on the planet has encouraged massive rollouts via public/private partnerships who are aiming to create a ubiquitous smart grid. That grid would facilitate a more connected society in line with the global sustainability goals outlined by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and supported at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum.

The U.S. Federal government has been enthusiastic about a high-speed build-out of 5G from the very beginning, with former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stressing the importance of this communication upgrade to the national infrastructure, opening up large swathes of spectrum to accommodate increased speeds and many (billions of) additional devices being added to our already saturated wireless infrastructure.

“If something can be connected, it will be connected to 5G.” – Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Although it appears 5G phones won’t be coming until at least 2019, broad scale demonstrations of early 5G networks have recently taken place at this year’s Super Bowl in Minneapolis and Olympic Winter Games in South Korea.

Verizon’s Super Bowl LII demo involved streaming live 4K VR footage over 5G to virtual reality headsets in NYC, while a collaboration between Intel, Samsung and Korean Telecom (KT) at the Olympics demonstrated self-driving vehicles as well as 100 cameras positioned 360 degrees around an ice rink that streamed video of the skaters to nearby edge servers and then over KT’s Olympic 5G network.

How Fast is 5G?

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU), a division of the UN dedicated to the oversight of global telecommunications tech (radio, television, satellite, telephone and the Internet), established the IMT-2020 program (International Mobile Telecommunication for 2020 and beyond) in early 2012 to begin the global race toward 5G.

The ITU has defined key 5G performance requirements as being a peak minimum download speed of 20Gb/s (100Mb/s “user experienced rate”), a peak minimum upload of 10Gb/s (50Mb/s “user experienced rate”), as well as millisecond latencies and support for 100 devices per square meter (1 million devices per square kilometer).

By comparison, 4G’s standards call for a peak download of 100Mb/s and upload of 50Mb/s, while a recent report pegged T-Mobile as having the fastest 4G LTE download speeds in the U.S. topping out at 19.4Mb/s, leading Verizon’s 17.8Mb/s. Meanwhile, for reference, Qualcomm’s upcoming 5G modem chip (the Snapdragon X50), is said to be capable of speeds of up to 5Gb/s, a theoretical limit that exceeds the data rate of even many fiber-based wired connections.

Upgrading from 56K dial-up to cable Internet seems like an apt comparison for the performance that 5G promises to deliver and it will be made possible through a three-pronged approach to build-out efforts: 1) overall network bandwidth (support for billions of new connected devices), 2) super low latency (1ms response times), and 3) an emphasis on reliability, even in highly congested environments or indoors.

A successful deployment of 5G would bring wireless speeds capable of streaming multiple 4K videos at once without buffering or any other lag and that performance will usher in the emerging age of IoT while also opening the door for high-bandwidth products and services such as live-streaming virtual reality sporting events or receiving remote surgery.

  • 5G-enabled smartphones: With 5G, consumers will almost never again need to log on to public Wi-Fi. They will also enjoy faster browsing, faster downloads, better quality video calls, UHD and 360-degree video streaming and instant cloud access than currently available.
  • Always Connected PCs: With the advent of 5G networks, “always connected” PCs will be able to utilize super high speed, low latency connectivity for the next level of cloud services, as well as high-quality video conferencing, interactive gaming and increased productivity due to the flexibility to work anywhere.
  • HMDs: 5G enhanced mobile broadband will further elevate virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and extended reality (XR) experiences with its increased capacity at lower cost and ultra-low latency – down to 1 millisecond.
  • Mobile Broadband: Fiber speeds and massive capacity to support insatiable consumer demand for unlimited data, as well as superior mobile and home broadband internet access. – Qualcomm

This year’s Mobile World Congress (Feb 26 – Mar 1) should demonstrate some of the potentials of these next-generation technologies, listing event themes such as The Fourth Industrial Revolution, applied artificial intelligence and content/media delivery.

Intel for example is expected to show the live video streaming capabilities of a prototype 2-in-1 device that is equipped with an early version of the company’s XMM 8000 series 5G modem, which is also working with Dell, HP, Lenovo and Microsoft to ship 5G-equipped notebooks for late 2019.

“The PC is a central hub for processing incredible amounts of data. 5G is coming. Not only will it bring a substantial amount of data needing processing but also new experiences for PC owners. Imagine immersing in untethered VR from anywhere in the world, or downloading a 250 megabyte file in seconds from a parking lot. Or imagine being able to continue participating in a multiplayer game as you ride in an autonomous vehicle on the way to class. Radically different. This is just a sampling of the experiences 5G will reimagine for the mobile PC. As this transformation of data continues, it’s critical for PCs to be ready with 5G.” – Intel

Much work remains in upgrading/meshing current mobile, fixed, optical and satellite infrastructure to accommodate 5G technologies, but many companies are striving for launch by 2019, with 5G coverage anticipated to reach around 20% of the world’s population in a few years according to Ericsson.

Building Out 5G, Expanding to Millimeter Waves

To achieve the ITU’s stated level of performance, carriers are currently looking at many combinations of technologies and strategies, including transmitting signals on new parts of the spectrum. Aiming to release 5G connectivity ahead of the ITU’s 2020 target, many cellular providers and equipment manufacturers are backing the consortium 3GPP in looking at Qualcomm’s X50 5G NR chipset, which combines support for 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G (including up to 28GHz mmWave).

Accelerating 5G standardization, 3GPP agreed to split up the specification of Release 15 into two phases, non-standalone (NSA) and standalone (SA). The preliminary, non-standalone spec for 5G, approved by 3GPP in December 2017 as Release 15, uses an the existing LTE backbone and 5G NR radios to boost the end-user data capacity. The final release 15 standard is expected June 2018 for standalone (SA) core 5G systems from end to end.

However, initial deployments are unlikely to meet the ITU’s exact specifications and in fact, the Olympic demonstration for instance does not technically qualify as 5G by the ITU’s full standards. Early trial runs such as at the Olympics are using a competing specification that has been picked up by a few operators but has not been adopted as the global standard, according to Sherif Hanna of Qualcomm.

Like the transition from 3G to 4G, the move from 4G to 5G has a lot of moving parts. It will involve the merging of new infrastructure with all existing wireless technologies including Wi-Fi (as well as WiGig and Li-Fi for that matter), all of which will play a critical role in bringing high-speed 5G connectivity to the IoT ecosystem.

“Increasing traffic demand, limited spectrum availability and mass adoption of mobile broadband are challenging the traditional ways to build cellular networks. In this new environment, mobile operators are seeking new ways to increase network capacity, coverage and user experience while reducing time to market for new services and reduce costs. To accomplish this, operators need to cost-effectively use all network assets, including multiple standards, frequency bands, cell layers and transport network solutions. This means that, above all, cellular infrastructure must be flexible and support simplified deployment and management of increasingly heterogeneous radio access networks (RANs).” – Cloud RAN Architecture for 5G

For the time being, global device makers have thrown their weight behind Qualcomm’s X50 modem, including LG, HTC, Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi and the startup behind Nokia-branded phones.

All told, 18 carriers around the world will begin 5G interoperability trials this year using Qualcomm’s X50 modem and phone reference designs in both the sub-6GHz and millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum bands. Those carriers include AT&T, British Telecom, China Telecom, China Mobile, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, KDDI, KT, LG U+, NTT Docomo, Orange, Singtel, SK Telecom, Sprint, Telstra, TIM, Verizon, and Vodafone Group.

Expanding 5G to Millimeter Waves

Being that current wireless sub-6GHz signals offer better propagation and backward compatibility, and the fact that many IoT devices won’t call for the additional performance of millimeter waves, companies are opting to gradually augment existing infrastructure to include these higher frequencies.

Millimeter waves have greater speed capabilities because of their shorter signal wavelengths, broadcasting at much higher frequencies between 30GHz and 300GHz — a stark contrast to the current 3G and 4G signals that are broadcast below 6GHz.

They are called millimeter waves because they vary in length from 1mm to 10mm, compared to the tens of centimeters in length of the radio waves serving today’s smartphones. Given this shorter wavelength, mmWaves travel shorter distances and require direct line of site seeing as they cannot easily penetrate through buildings or obstacles and in fact, they can be absorbed by foliage or rain.

The industry is looking to enhance traditional cellular towers with 5G-grade connectivity via devices such as “small cells,” which are shoebox-sized antennas that can be mounted unobtrusively to existing structures like utility poles and would be installed in 10 to 100 times more locations than existing 3G or 4G towers, blanketing neighborhoods with high frequency signal.

An assortment of wireless technologies are being developed and deployed alongside mmWaves and small cells to help realize the demanding bandwidth and latency requirements of 5G, including beam forming (spatial beam focusing), massive MIMO (antenna arrays with dozens of transmitters and receivers), and full duplex (the ability to send and receive data at the same time over the same frequency). IEEE Spectrum’sprimer on 5G does a good job of elaborating on these technologies — beware of the autoplay video, though it’s worth watching.

As the industry looks for ways to expand current infrastructure with new technologies and spectrum, organizations have been working to overcome challenges involving spectrum allocation scarcities. DARPA for instance launched its SC2 Spectrum Collaboration Challenge to encourage competition toward creating autonomous spectrum sharing capabilities that would combine software-defined radios with artificial intelligence for the goal of developing collaborative intelligent radio networks that could dynamically share spectrum, allocating RF spectrum resources on demand in real time.

This would end today’s static bandwidth licensing and fixed spectrum rules along with opening up additional room on the spectrum for future communication technologies. The ITU is likewise investigating machine learning and how it could help better manage 5G deployments.

Health Controversies Surrounding 5G

On Jan 30, 2018 The House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing called “Closing the Digital Divide: Broadband Infrastructure Solutions” to accelerate the deployment of 5G networks in communities across the U.S., especially in currently under-served rural communities.

In December 2017, the FCC emphasized its enthusiasm for 5G in a bill titled “Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment that became effective January 29, 2018 and boosts the rate of deployment for new infrastructure by streamlining zoning approval and removing many of the obstacles to installing antennas in local communities.

Many communities across the country are resisting this bill, which provides telecommunication companies with liberal access to most utility poles, street lamps and public rights of ways in neighborhoods for 5G antenna placement, accelerating deployment in the interest of economic benefits. A primary cause for this opposition stems from health concerns over chronic exposure to high frequencies, such as the new spectrum that is being opened for 5G.

As our environment has become more saturated with ever higher and ubiquitous radio frequencies, specifically in the microwave spectrum, more studies have surfaced showing potential long term health risks associated with exposure to radio frequencies.

As a quick primer, radiation is energy that travels through the air as waves or particles, while electromagnetic (EMF) radiation is waves of electric and magnetic energy moving together (radiating) through space. In the context of cell towers, that energy is generated via electrical charges sent through an antenna and “radiated” to a device.

EMF can be classified as either ionizing or non-ionizing. It’s established that ionizing radiation, which begins partway into the UV spectrum, can break chemical bonds (cause cell damage). Exposure to non-ionizing radiation from today’s wireless devices is thought to be negligible, although the World Health Organization (WHO) has also released a statement about non-ionizing cell phone radiation and EMF as being potentially carcinogenic.

The biological effects from radiation exposure are reported to begin at less than 10 microwatts per square meter average power density (RMS) and for example this figure can be upward of 100 times that figure near towers. Concerns over exposure to radiation from wireless products are increasing as the industry looks to move beyond 6GHz and toward high frequency millimeter waves, which for instance at its lowest spectrum of 30GHz would equate to 30 billion electromagnetic wave per second hitting your cells.

Biological effects due to radio frequency radiation range from cancer and immune dysfunction to memory impairment and reproductive issues. Glioblastomas are thought by some parties to be on the rise in association with cell phone usage and tissues with poor blood flow such as male testes are at particular risk for adverse effects. These hazards increase with higher frequencies and more continuous exposure, which is in line to occur with the rollout of new 5G infrastructure such as small cells.

Raising further questions about the potential for millimeter waves to interact with biology, a 2008 paper demonstrates the ability for human skin to act as an array of helical antennas, describing sweat ducts in human skin as being “helically shaped tubes, filled with a conductive aqueous solution,” and noting that human skin “can be regarded as a 2D antenna array in the sub-terahertz region.”

Expanding the mobile network to higher frequency spectrum also comes with a range of unknown quantities outside of human biology, such as the potential for radiation from millimeter waves to affect microbes in a way that increases antibiotic resistance.

The Future of 5G

The millisecond latency that 5G promises is largely possible to an emphasis on moving new infrastructure toward the edge. Long-term visions for this layout include the announcement of a neuromorphic (brain-inspired) chip that would rival quantum computing and be small enough to include in IoT devices, providing them with situationally-aware AI. Having AI at the edge would speed up processing and decision making instead of having to bounce back to the cloud for every execution.

“The technology and design of neuromorphic computing is advancing more rapidly than its rival revolution, quantum computing. There is already wide speculation both in academia and company R&D about ways to inscribe heavy computing capabilities in the hardware of smart phones, tablets and laptops. The key is to achieve the extreme energy-efficiency of a biological brain and mimic the way neural networks process information through electric impulses.” – Sayani Majumdar, Academy Fellow at Aalto University

The close proximity and low latency of 5G infrastructure will also be greatly advantageous to the development of wearable IoT devices that could gather physiological data and forward it to your smartphone. This paper out of the International Journal of Computer Science for instance discusses designs for wearable EEG and ECG system on chip sensor patches that could wirelessly measure and transmit brain and heart activity.

Unifying existing network assets and restructuring them to be near the end user is a big part of what will enable ‘wireless fiber’ speeds and ultra-low latency, laying the groundwork for a cohesive digital fabric of the future that opens the door to streaming 4K video and virtual reality. However, the full image of 5G is much larger than that.

Such a ubiquitous wireless network would help realize a fully autonomous smart world with a range of 21st century capabilities:

  • Next generation mobile immersive media & education
  • Real-time surveillance / facial recognition & predictive policing
  • Mobile healthcare & monitoring via wearables
  • Industrial IoT & autonomous manufacturing
  • Smart agriculture (self-driving tractors, drones, field robots)
  • Retail asset tracking & real-time inventory, pick, pack and ship & logistics
  • Smart infrastructure connectivity in home and city

Looking briefly at only one of those bullets, cellular Vehicle-to-Everything (C-V2X) interfaces for self-driving cars have been in development over the last 10 years and were standardized by 3GPP Release 14 in 2016. Future releases will support autonomous/assisted navigation including collision avoidance, traffic alerts, infotainment, diagnostics, emissions, automated parking and refueling timing.

V2X includes a suite of communication interactions such as Vehicle-to-Vehicle (V2V), Network (V2N), Pedestrian (V2P) and Infrastructure (V2I), which will allow vehicles to communicate autonomously in real-time among themselves and their environment.

Seeing, sensing, exchanging and processing data for situational awareness, the system can stream that information to a central network repository for smart traffic administration and statistics storage, leading to non-line of sight intelligence about other vehicles and situational awareness of the road. With platooning technologies, vehicles can share real-time information processed by vehicle intelligence, allowing heavy traffic to be coordinated in a swarm fashion.

Developing fully autonomous cars and related 5G technologies could carry over to drones (not to mention that flying taxis are expected to be commercialized in the coming decade) as well as any other form of robotics. Thousands of industrial automation machines would benefit from 5G’s low latency connection to keep digitalized production lines flowing flawlessly, complete with real-time dashboard statistics and logistics. Nearly anything time-sensitive or mission critical would stand to benefit from 5G.

“FirstNet” – A Big First Step for 5G in the U.S.

Created under the U.S. Department of Commerce and enacted by Congress on February 22, 2012, the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) is responsible for organizing a next-generation 911 network that would be dedicated to first responder communications.

It’s been estimated that public safety organizations nationwide currently use over 10,000 different communication networks and FirstNet would streamline that infrastructure to better support real-time information exchange as well as interoperability between divisions and locations.

Directed the Commission to allocate the D-Block (758-763MHz / 788-793MHz) to public safety for use in a nationwide broadband network; and Formed the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet) as an independent authority within the U.S. Department of Commerce. FirstNet is charged with responsibilities for deploying and operating the nationwide public safety broadband network and will hold the license for both the existing public safety broadband spectrum (763-769 MHz/793-799 MHz) and the reallocated D Block. Allocated up to $7 billion dollars to FirstNet to construct this nationwide public safety broadband network. –FCC

Existing just above TV broadcast channels in spectrum, the 700MHz bandwidth was freed up as a result of the digital television transition of a few years back and has now been allocated toward FirstNet.

Responding to a FirstNet bid on the Federal Business Opportunities website (, AT&T was awarded $100 billion over 25 years to provide equipment and services for building out FirstNet, which will span communities in all 50 U.S. states, all five U.S. territories, as well as Washington D.C.

Landing this deal will see all U.S. first responders on AT&T, which outcompeted Verizon for the contract, and will provide the carrier with a launching point from which it can “innovate and evolve” around technologies such as 5G when the time comes to pivot in that direction.

So, when is 5G coming? That depends on where you live, the device you’re looking to buy with 5G connectivity, which company you ask for a roadmap, and whether or not you mean a specific part of the spectrum (a few hundred MHz to 50GHz and beyond) when you say 5G.

The global timeline for a 2020 rollout has been accelerated recently with the 3GPP ratification of a new low-end 5G standard, 5G LTE, which promises full-blown standards and implementation between 2020 and 2022.

In the United States, carriers including AT&T, and Verizon are looking to begin rolling out their versions of 5G this year, T-Mobile has said 2019, while Qualcomm also reports that you’ll be able to buy smartphones equipped with its Snapdragon X50 5G NR modem by 2019, though it’s interesting to note that Apple, Samsung and Huawei are not yet counted among the OEM device partners who have agreed to build X50-based devices.

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