What Is 5G? The Future of Wireless Technology Explained

5G Networks Explained
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In the telecom and tech industry, 5G networks will likely be the next great innovation. But the information surrounding 5G can be confusing — and that’s largely because there isn’t an official definition of what it is quite yet. The next-generation wireless network is currently in the midst of standardization, with many chipset makers and telecom companies rushing to cash in on what will likely be the next evolution of cellular networks and with government entities overseeing that standard-setting.

But what good will a 5G network bring to consumers? To answer that question, we need to define what it is, what it could do, and what technologies, industries and devices it could potentially revolutionize — like, for example, your iPhone.

What Is 5G?

Put simply, 5G is usually defined as a network relying on high-frequency spectrum. What many people are excited about is the potential for this largely untapped spectrum to be used in create the next generation broadband cellular networks.

Pros: As far as the benefit to consumers, the new 5G network systems will allow for blazingly fast internet speeds, higher capacities and much lower latency than current 4G LTE networks. The “G” in 5G refers to the generation, as it’ll be the fifth generation of cellular connectivity technology.

Cons: There are some drawbacks to the higher-frequency spectrum, however. While they can transmit massive amounts of data, their range is much smaller — which will likely require a dense network of smaller cell towers and transmitters. These high-frequency millimeter waves also have trouble bypassing objects and walls. Companies are already looking to mitigate these drawbacks by supplementing 5G waves with other spectrums, as well as by building out networks of mini-transmitters placed basically everywhere. In some cases, people’s home routers could even be converted into cell sites — expanding the range of coverage.

Of course, that’s a pretty broad definition coupled with fairly vague abilities. The problem with defining 5G — at this point — is that there’s no official definition or set of standards for the next-generation cellular network. Of course, companies and government entities are looking to change that, and they’re already in the process of defining and standardizing the technology. Chief among those standards is 5G New Radio (5G NR), a flavor of the next-generation technology that’s widely expected to become the global standard. Notably, 5G NR is being spearheaded by some of the world’s largest telecom and tech giants — and it might be here sooner than expected (but more on that below).

Just How Fast Will 5G Be?

Despite the shortcomings, 5G networks will be fast. Extremely fast. According to current estimates, we can expect download speeds up to ten times faster than current 4G LTE networks — up to 10 gigabits-per-second. To put that in perspective, you could download a long, high-definition movie (like, say, any of the Lord of the Rings) in mere seconds. Gone would be the days of buffering for live video and video chatting. Once it hits the mainstream market, 5G cellular networks could effectively negate the need for home Wi-Fi networks or public hotspots.

But that’s not all — while downloading movies and other large multimedia files in seconds is obviously an appealing prospect, 5G networks have the potential to foster new industries, and benefit current ones once implemented. With low-latency and increased speeds, 5G networks could also lead to a revolution in virtual and augmented reality. Your virtual reality devices could send and receive data much more quickly, leading to smoother and more seamless VR experiences. In augmented reality, the benefits are pretty plain to see, too. Your AR-enabled Apple glasses, for example, could download information about what you’re looking with virtually no lag.

So 5G Is Fast, But What Else Can It Do?

As we previously reported, 5G networks could open the doors to a lot of new technology.

Autonomous Car Enhancement: Self-driving car technology, for example, could be given a huge and revolutionary boost. Current autonomous vehicle technology is relatively self-contained, meaning that each self-driving car functions independently. With a faster, more stable cellular network with lower-latency, we could see a future where all self-driving vehicles are able to “talk” to each other. Not only that, but these vehicles could also communicate instantaneously with “smart roads,” improving safety and mitigating traffic, PC Mag reported.

Internet of Things Revolution : 5G networks could also lead to a revolution in the Internet of Things. While most smart home appliances currently rely on Wi-Fi networks; with 5G, we could see a much larger range of connected-devices. According to Quartz, 5G will be the first network actually designed to be “scalable, versatile and energy smart for the hyper-connected internet of everything world.” With this kind of lightning-fast connectivity, basically everything that can connect to the network will be able to transmit and analyze data to your main device. Rather than the current “Internet of Things,” this wider range of connectible devices could allow for virtually any device — regardless of function or size — to become a “smart device.” From wearables to your home appliances to city infrastructure like traffic cameras and parking meters, the future will likely be hyper-connected. This data could be instantly analyzed to help you make smarter, more efficient decisions.

App Innovation: Because of the sheer speed of 5G networks, the technology could also open a lot of doors in the app economy. While it’s hard to guess the next innovative features and applications, we can expect a whole new range of services and apps which aren’t currently feasible with today’s connectivity. Faster download speeds could allow for the creation of much more complex mobile apps and internet-based services.

Who Will Support 5G?

This is a fairly easy question to answer: in the future, it’s not a stretch to assume that everyone will be able to utilize 5G networks, regardless of what carrier or provider they’re with. Just like telecom, internet companies and device manufacturer adopted 4G, these entities will be quickly working to implement 5G technology and standards into their networks and devices. The real question is who will jump on the 5G train first, and who is currently spearheading the technology.

Chip manufacturers, like Qualcomm and Intel, are already creating 5G-compatible modems for common consumer devices like smartphones. All of the big telecom carriers in the United States have plans in place to begin experimenting and rolling out 5G technology within the next few years. Once the basic infrastructure for 5G networks is in place, we can assume that device manufacturers — like Apple, Google, and Samsung — will begin outfitting their devices with 5G-compatible chips and antennas. And, if the 5G revolution is set up like we can expect, this implementation will likely extend beyond smartphones — we’ll see them in everything from wearables to tablets and notebooks to self-driving cars.

When Can I Get 5G?

By most conservative estimates, we won’t see 5G technology become widespread until at least the early 2020s — but we could see mainstream commercial adoption of a version of the technology as soon as 2019. As stated above, 5G New Radio is expected to be available for widespread deployment in two years, according to CNET. The companies working on creating a standard for 5G NR include Qualcomm, Intel, AT&T and Sprint, among nearly twenty other entities ranging from modem makers to wireless companies. Verizon, on the other hand, isn’t participating in 5G NR — instead opting for their own flavor of 5G, which will be closer in functionality to fixed broadband connections than a mobile network.

T-Mobile, too, is bound to be at the forefront of the 5G revolution. The Uncarrier recently became the first major U.S. telecom company to announce plans for a national, coast-to-coast 5G network — due in part to the load of low-band spectrum that they recently acquired in an FCC auction. Interestingly, we can assume that T-Mobile’s 5G network will rely on the 5G NR standard, as the carrier’s parent company, Deutsche Telekom, also pledged itself to that standard.

To be clear, we won’t see a 5G network any sooner than that, however. Contrary to AT&T branding, the company’s “5G Evolution” network is not technically 5G. It’s basically the carrier’s snazzy marketing term for their brand of gigabit LTE — an incremental upgrade at best. “5G Evolution” functions on existing spectrum, and won’t require new hardware to utilize — something that won’t be true for actual 5G networks. Having said that, the carrier is actually experimenting with true 5G in small-scale testing. 

Notes to Keep in Mind

Although the hype and coverage of 5G technology is exciting, there’s a few more things to keep in mind about the technology. For one, even when 5G is implemented, it likely won’t replace 4G networks entirely. This is because of 5G’s shortcomings as far as range, and many carriers will likely rely on the already established 4G infrastructure for broader coverage — particularly in rural areas. The other thing to note is that 5G will be more expensive to implement in devices. While we should expect the flagships in the next few years to have 5G capabilities, that could also mean that phones without 5G would quickly become obsolete.

Will the iPhone 8 Have 5G Capabilities?

So while true 5G networks will likely revolutionize the tech and telecom industries, the real question for Cupertino fans is whether or not Apple’s 10th anniversary flagship iPhone will have 5G connectivity. If so, that flagship device (and by extension, the app economy) would obviously benefit from those higher speeds and lower latencies. And it would make the iPhone 8 the first flagship smartphone with 5G connectivity — truly fitting for a device that’s expected to be revolutionary in so many other ways. But don’t get too excited, the short answer to that question is this: it probably won’t.

While some fairly sketchy sources have claimed that the iPhone 8 will indeed launch with 5G connectivity, those reports are plagued by misinformation and confusion. As an example, one such site (using PC Mag as a source) claimed that the iPhone 8 could come equipped with Intel’s XMM7650 modem, making it the first true 5G smartphone. There’s a few problems with this prediction. For one, PC Mag later amended their story to clarify that the XMM7650 would not be ready for use in commercial products until at least 2018 — after the iPhone 8 would launch. Additionally, the XMM7650 is not a 5G modem. In reality, it’s a modem that would allow for gigabit LTE network speeds. While gigabit LTE is fast, it’s not 5G by any means.

While Qualcomm and Intel have both announced their respective, experimental 5G modems, we probably won’t see them show up in smartphones for at least a few years. Qualcomm’s X50 chips, for example, won’t be commercially available until 2019 — which is probably a good thing, as there won’t really be any 5G networks for devices to connect to until then. In addition, according to a recent CNBC article, the current battle going on between Samsung and Apple concerns gigabit LTE — not true 5G (despite what AT&T calls their upcoming gigabit LTE network).

Which iPhone Will Have 5G Capability?

If the iPhone 8 won’t have 5G capabilities, then when will we see Apple implement the technology into its smartphones? Apple is usually one of the first companies to implement up-and-coming technology, so we can expect Cupertino to be on the tip of the spear, so to speak. Having said that, when we look at the hard evidence, we can safely assume that the iPhone 9 won’t have 5G connectivity either.

The safest bet to make is that Apple will rollout a flagship with 5G connectivity around the same time that such networks and corresponding modems become widely available. Referring back to the release timeline for Qualcomm’s X50 modem and the 5G NR standard, that won’t be until 2019 at the earliest. This makes the most economic sense: with 5G being more expensive than current systems, it’s not exactly sound business practice to start packing 5G modems into phones when there’s no network for those modems to take advantage of. So while the 2018 iPhone will likely pack fast gigabit LTE, we’ll have to wait a couple years before we start seeing 5G connectivity pop up in iPhones and competing devices.

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