The next generation of wireless technology will offer new consumer and business applications, with near real-time connectivity.
In the last decade, 4G wireless technology has become the standard for many mobile consumers around the world.
From social media platforms like Snap and Instagram to transportation apps like Uber and Lyft, many companies have benefited tremendously from the reliable connectivity and speed provided by today’s 4G systems.
While this fourth generation of wireless technology has paved the way for new mediums of mobile consumption, it does have limitations. Over the next decade, the rise of connected (IoT) devices will require networks to transmit massive sums of data in near real-time.
The next generation of wireless technology, known as 5G, will allow just that.
Early 5G deployment is expected in 2018, but widespread implementation may take the better part of a decade.
Even so, corporates are increasingly focused on this technology: according to CB Insights’ Earnings Transcript tool, “5G” was collectively mentioned over 900 times on Q1’18 earnings calls, up 70% from Q4’17.
We dive into the background of wireless technology, the introduction of 5G, and how the next generation of connectivity will come to be.
Table of contents
- History of wireless technology systems
- What is 5G?
- Four drivers paving the way to 5G
- Laying fiber
- The big impact of small cells
- More spectrum, more speed
- Bringing 5G indoors with fixed wireless
- What’s next for 5G
History of wireless technology systems
Wireless communications have existed for over a century, but it wasn’t until the late 1970s and early 1980s that they became a commercially viable consumer service.
The first generation (1G) of wireless technology systems came with the introduction of cell phones. These devices and networks allowed for mobile voice calls, but nothing more.
The second generation (2G) provided improvements to voice calling and introduced text messaging via SMS (and later media messaging via MMS), which ultimately helped the cellular industry to gain widespread adoption in the early 2000s.
Later iterations of 2G introduced data transmission, but it wasn’t until 1998 that 3G allowed for media-rich applications like mobile internet browsing and video calling. The most recent iterations of 3G are able to reach speeds up to 4 Mbps.
The most recent generation of wireless technology, known to consumers as 4G (now 4G LTE), is able to reach real-world speeds between 10 – 20 Mbps, depending on the carrier. These speeds allow for mobile online gaming, live stream HD-TV, group video conferencing, connected home solutions, and even emerging experiences like AR/VR.
That said, downloading or buffering is typically required at 4G speeds. For most consumers, this is a small price to pay for media-rich wireless freedom. But for industries like transportation or healthcare, latency (the delay before data transfer) can have a direct impact on system outcomes.
For example, 5G will enable near-instant communication between autonomous vehicles — communication that may prevent fatal accidents.
5G will have the biggest impact on these mission-critical systems, while also providing the necessary infrastructure for tomorrow’s connected technologies.
What is 5G?
5G is the next (and fifth) generation of wireless technology systems. It will provide speeds faster than any previous generation, comparable to those delivered via fiber-optic cables.
Early testing of this technology shows real-world speeds of 700 – 3025 Mbps (3.025 Gbps), which consumers may experience once 5G becomes commercially available. Movies that took minutes to download with 4G will take seconds with 5G.
While cells phones and mobile devices are the obvious use cases for 5G, there are many other applications for the technology.
The Internet of Things (IoT), for example, will benefit tremendously from the speed and bandwidth provided by 5G, especially as the industry grows: Gartner estimates over 20.4B IoT units will be installed by 2020, while IoT-related spending will reach nearly $3T.
Autonomous vehicles, robotic surgery, and critical infrastructure monitoring are just a few of the potential applications of 5G-enabled IoT.
But the path to 5G is anything but straightforward.
Below, we identify four primary drivers that will bring widespread 5G to reality and highlight how they will contribute to the deployment and use of 5G systems.
Four drivers paving the way for 5G
Despite sometimes being percieved as competing technologies, fiber-optic networks and wireless networks often work in tandem. In the case of 5G, fiber is required to reach the multi-Gbps speeds promoted by wireless carriers, because fiber-optic cables move information at the speed of light.
Data travels through wires the majority of the time, with wireless antennas typically completing the last few miles of delivery.
In this way, fiber functions as the nervous system to the mobile network. Connecting data centers to cellular antennas (cell towers or small cells) with fiber will allow for the near real-time speeds expected from 5G.
Fiber-optic infrastructure is prevalent today and used by current 4G systems, but more will be required to support widespread 5G. Capital expenditures on fiber infrastructure are expected to reach nearly $150B by 2019.
Wireless providers are leveraging different strategies to scale their 5G networks. For example, Verizon is looking to own its fiber backhaul (underlying connective infrastructure).
The company has worked with specialty glass manufacturer Corning and fiber provider Prysmian to design and install fiber-optic cables for 5G. To date, Verizon has purchased over 37M miles of fiber to support its growing network of small cells.
T-Mobile, on the other hand, leases “dark fiber” (unused or underutilized fiber) to support its small cells deployment. While the company may not own the fiber, it can provide 5G services sooner as much of the leased backhaul is already installed.
T-Mobile plans to build out 5G in 30 cities in 2018, while Verizon plans to rollout 5G capabilities to just 4. These providers may offer 5G services to certain cities by year’s end, but the majority of these these deployments will become active in 2019 and 2020.
Most of these 5G deployments will probably look to support urban centers before expanding to rural areas. However, areas already infused with pervasive fiber — urban or rural — are likely candidates for early 5G deployments.
The Big Impact of Small Cells
Much of today’s wireless data is delivered through macrocells, known more commonly as cell towers. They provided the foundation for wireless connectivity and can serve thousands of mobile users within a radius of up to 40 miles.
While macrocells continue to serve the telecom industry well, they’re difficult to deploy and maintain. The costs of regulatory approval, construction, power, and maintenance make traditional macrocell towers a necessary burden for wireless connectivity.
Small cells (or microcells) are growing contributors to wireless connectivity, supporting the wireless systems of the present and future. They serve fewer mobile users, but are much easier to install and maintain. They’re also cheaper, more energy-efficient, and require less red tape than macrocells.
Small cells communicate wirelessly with macrocell towers, other small cells, and individual mobile devices. Certain small cells connect directly to fiber cables while others provide support to wireless mesh networks that improve wireless coverage.
In rural areas, small cells can help extend coverage; in densely populated areas, they can strengthen capacity.
In deploying these small cells, LA has also installed some of the necessary infrastructure required for tomorrow’s 5G networks.
5G will only be able to travel short, unobstructed distances. Subsequently, an abundance of small cells will be required to serve an area the size of a single macrocell — though the small cells will provide much faster speeds.
T-Mobile has already installed 15K small cells, with plans to deploy another 25K in the near future. These will support the rollout of the company’s 5G services in 30 cities, including Los Angeles, New York, and Dallas.
In addition to the successes with small cell deployment, there have been a string of complications.
Wireless carriers are beginning to realize that small cells will have to comply with a host of new regulations, and meet certain demands from local residents who are concerned about the pervasive new technology.
Sprint recently paid an $11.6M fine for failing to secure the appropriate permits. AT&T received push back due to the “needlessly messy” design of certain small cells, and the city of Santa Rosa, CA suspended Verizon’s deployment for similar reasons.
Small cell deployments are still in their earliest stages. That said, many carriers will offer their first 5G services in 2019. Mobile users should expect major carriers to offer 5G services in the largest US cities by the early 2020s.
More Spectrum, More Speed
In addition to fiber infrastructure and small cell deployment, 5G speeds also require radio waves with extremely high frequencies. These frequencies need line-of-sight within a small radius to successfully communicate.
In other words, increasing demand for wireless coverage, speed, and consumption requires the use of new bands within the radio wave spectrum. A band is a specific frequency range on the radio wave spectrum. They range from very low (3 – 30 kHz) frequency to extremely high (30 – 300 GHz) frequency.
For context, AM radio uses the medium frequency band (300 kHz — 3 MHz), leveraging the specific frequencies between 500 and 1700 kHz (or 1.7 MHz).
WiFi and Bluetooth, on the other hand, use the ultra-high frequency band (330 MHz — 3 GHz), leveraging the specific frequency of 2.4 GHz. Mobile devices are designed to communicate on both the 2.4 and 5 GHz frequencies for Wi-Fi.
While higher frequencies allow for faster data transmission, they’re unable to pass through certain structures. For example, satellite TV, which typically uses frequencies between 13 -18 GHz, requires a direct line of sight to prevent disruptions. Heavy rainfall or an overgrown tree could impact viewing quality.
For most 5G networks, the super high (3 – 30 GHz) and extremely high (30 – 300 GHz) bands will be used to deliver the Gbps speeds promised by wireless carriers. Frequencies between 24 and 86 GHz will be particularly popular.
In one of the more recent spectrum auctions, wireless carriers spent approximately $45B to license certain radio wave frequencies that will support and expand current 4G networks. The auction for 5G spectrum is set to start in November 2018, where US wireless carriers will bid for spectrum in the 24 GHz and 28 GHz bands.
Verizon already owns a license for part of the 28 GHz band, which it obtained through the acquisition of XO Communications.
Certain spectrum will be allocated for shared access. With the use of a Spectrum Access System (SAS), carriers can dynamically access shared frequencies based on availability. This will allow carriers to scale bandwidth up and down based on network demand.
It will also provide spectrum access to smaller commercial users that don’t license dedicated spectrum of their own. SAS providers like Federated Wireless ensure secure, interference-free bandwidth using proprietary software.
Shared or licensed outright, these higher frequencies will require small cells to be arranged in a way where they maintain line-of-sight between mobile users or other small cells. While an abundance of small cells will help to maintain 5G coverage, another wireless configuration called “fixed wireless” will help deliver wireless coverage indoors.
Bringing 5G Indoors with fixed wireless
Though the high frequencies of 5G require direct line-of-sight, “fixed wireless” will allow for cellular coverage within buildings and homes.
Fixed wireless antennas are placed on top of homes and buildings to communicate with nearby small cells or macrocell towers. While these fixed wireless antennas must maintain line-of-sight with the nearby cells, they are able to extend cellular coverage into homes and buildings.
These antennas may be connected by fiber to internal picocells or femtocells, which are used to relay wireless coverage to a small number of mobile users indoors. The wireless signal can also be converted to conventional Wi-Fi with the use of specially designed modems and routers.
The ability to convert cellular signal to Wi-Fi may enable wireless carriers to compete with traditional ISPs like Comcast and TimeWarner.
Verizon, which already provides internet access to homes and businesses, plans to offer fixed 5G wireless services in 3 – 5 cities this year. These services will provide an alternative to internet access delivered via fiber, while maintaining comparable speeds.
The company is partnering with Samsung for it fixed wireless 5G routers, which will convert wireless 5G signals and enable Wi-Fi compatability.
While Verizon plans to offer fixed 5G wireless access before any of its mobile 5G services, the infrastructure will help to support both mediums.
To date, Verizon is one of only a few companies targeting this fixed wireless access opportunity, indicating that it plans to offer 1 Gbps speeds to 30M US households. AT&T has tested its own fixed wireless technology, but doesn’t see the same opportunity as Verizon.
On the other end of the spectrum, companies like Google may start to build a mobile 5G network using the number of fixed wireless assets installed as part of its growing Webpass business (acquired in 2016).
Ultimately, fixed wireless is early in its progression to extend mobile 5G service into buildings beyond line-of-sight or to provide internet access to homes and businesses.
What’s next for 5G
As numerous wireless carriers plan to offer 5G service in the coming year, the entire telecom industry is banding together to capitalize on this shift to higher radio wave frequencies.
Manufacturers of 5G devices also play one of the more important roles in 5G adoption: device manufacturers need growing coverage, while wireless networks need a growing number of compatable devices. Qualcomm recently tested its prototype device as part of a 5G trial conducted by Verizon — the first 5G voice calls were a success. It seems likely that the new technology will affect device design. Some prototypes currently exist, but it may take some time before manufacturers can properly — and aesthetically — integrate new 5G antennas into mobile devices.
But with so many companies working to make the technology a reality, consumers should expect to see 5G-enabled devices in 2019. Once carriers activate 5G in a minimum viable number of cities, compatible phones will soon follow.
While 5G service may be start to become available in the coming year, 4G will still remain the default service in areas outside of a select few densely populated cities. Widespread 5G coverage could take over a decade — and as for the broader industrial applications of 5G, estimates suggest that adoption will take off in the early 2020s.