I recently attended an industry event that focused on 5G and the future of cellular technology. The panelists consisted of 5G equipment manufacturers, software developers, and a guy from Google. Ubiquitous with buzz words like AI, IOT, self-driving cars, etc., we listened to the each of the panelists evangelize about the technology. It was hard not to notice how most of the conversation focused on how 5G will help their side of the business. We were all curious what the Google guy thought but the rest of the panelists didn’t give him much time to talk. I did notice however what was missing in this conversation; how 5G would affect the common man, and more importantly, who’s going to pay for it?

5G: A Generalized Explanation

Let me be clear, I am a big fan of new technologies. I am a true believer that we are at a major turning point in our evolution (MPO Alternative statement: “that potentially will be bigger than the invention of the wheel and the industrial age combined) that will be greater than what we’ve seen in the past. In our home, we have Alexa and Google Home, a smart thermostat with sensors throughout and connected lighting (would be nice if the entire house didn’t light-up in the middle of the night when power comes on after an outage). I enjoy reading the transcripts when the kids start talking to the smart devices. The answers are typically accurate, until they get silly and you (thankfully) receive the response “I’m sorry, I can’t help with that.”

One of Alexa's new features is the Chatbot which allows you to have a conversation with an AI on any subject you wish ... if you have Alexa, try it. It is impressive (and a bit scary) with how far we've come. Outside the house, with my 4G LTE enabled devices I can email, manage documents, watch Game of Thrones, surf the web, play games, text, etc. With all of this wireless connectivity already providing my information needs, where does 5G come into play and why do I need it?

5G Looks Like Wi-Fi

5G technology has been touted as the next and final evolution of the cellular network. Copious discussion and articles note 5G is such a sea-change from current technology due to the use of higher frequency bands and the required infrastructure change to meet those needs.

The current 4G LTE network utilizes a frequency bandwidth up to around 2.6GHz allowing the cellular signal to travel kilometers from the cell tower to your device proving consistent service with normally seamless transition between towers. In contrast, 5G technology has a frequency range of about 6GHz-1000GHz putting it in the higher signal spectrum. The use of the higher spectrum provides a larger highway for more data and devices to connect.

But let us switch gears to Wi-Fi for a moment. Suffice it to say, we’ve all experienced the failure of our Wi-Fi signal as we walk to the edge of our driveway (in some cases less). For reference, Wi-Fi network wireless standards IEEE 802.11a/g work within the 5GHz and 2.4GHz (respectively) frequency range. If you’re keen on the details, you will notice 5G’s operation frequency is higher than Wi-Fi, which means the range of the signal is very short. Though cellular uses a higher power output than Wi-Fi, 5G will only have an operable range of approximately 500 feet.

The use of the higher bandwidth frequencies for faster download and connectivity speeds (up to 100-times faster) means there is a trade-off. Due to the shorter signal range, 5G LTE antennas will be located on light poles in your neighborhoods, on-top of stop lights in your town and mounted to the second floor of every high-rise building in the downtown district giving building owners a means of monetizing the exterior façade of their real estate. The signal is also line-of-site which is greatly affected by weather and obstructions. Also, your phone will require somewhere in the range of 12 internal antennas (versus the average 5 currently used) just to maintain the signal. Existing phones will not be able to utilize 5G technology due to the lack of this internal circuitry, but soon you will start to see new phones being released that are 5G “ready” or “compatible.”

During the panel discussion, I asked the question who is going to pay for the new infrastructure?  The general response was government and private investment, which was not very convincing. In a NY Times article from March 2, 2018 titled, "5G Service Is Coming. Who Decides Where It Goes?" author Allan Homes give good insight on the reality of where the money is coming from. Cities will assess fees to the carriers for the use of their municipal infrastructure to mount their equipment. He notes "AT&T says that three California cities assess fees of $2,600 to $8,000 a year per attachment."  Those fees will add up rather quickly since antenna's need to be placed at such short intervals. So if the cities are charging the carriers, who do you think the carriers are going to charge? My guess is the early adopters will bear the brunt of these costs. One way or another, the user will pay.

How Will I Use 5G?

Now let me circle back to my original question; how does 5G affect me? As the world continues to develop smart/driverless cars, the Internet of Things and Artificial Intelligence, the need for more speed and bandwidth is obvious, but how will this affect the device user? One recent example that utilized the speed of 5G was the 2018 Winter Olympics. They used a select group of spectators wear virtual reality (VR) glasses which gave them the ability to view certain events in 360-degrees with a real-time experience. 5G technology was also used to manage their fleet of unmanned shuttle buses.

Downloading media will be much faster too. In an article on engineersgarage.com written by Bharti Sharma titled "5G Technology," Bharti notes the ability to download an eight gigabyte HD movie in 6 seconds using 5G vs. seven minutes with 4G or more than an hour with 3G. The ability to remotely control devices such as medicine & surgery, commercial robotics and robotic avatars in real-time is also expected.

However, my research has shown the major use case for 5G will be back-haul and behind the scenes technologies. 5G speeds will be imperative for self-driving vehicles as they share road conditions and real-time driving analytics between each other. Transportation, machine learning, and entertainment will all be on the forefront of how the we will use, or benefit, from 5G. This technology isn’t so much about how it affects what we do today, but where future technologies utilizing 5G can take us.