In the United States, wireless companies have been teasing us with 4G technology since the late 2000s. It became the mobile-device default by 2013, with most major wireless carriers touting 4G LTE network’s package of benefits for their smartphones, from faster downloads and increased device capabilities to buffer-free streaming.
4G revolutionized the mobile market because it allowed smartphones to deliver on their advertised function. Things like wireless access from virtually anywhere, uninterrupted mobile searches, reduced lag times and video streaming and downloading became device expectations — not wishful exceptions. In other words, it was the first real LTE generation where the supporting technology made the tool work the way it was supposed to.
Naturally, people wanted more of a good thing. Though 5G technology is still very much in its early concept stages, it’s set to expand the speed, stability and connectivity of wireless data transmission — not only for that smartphone in your pocket, but for many, many more applications. So much so, in fact, specs assign 5G LTE data speeds near the 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) range — up to 100 times faster than current 4G’s standards, and almost 1,000 times faster than the actual average data speeds in the U.S.
However, there remains no set approach for the mobile industry to achieve a 5G service platform. We know 5G won’t necessarily look or “work” like its LTE ancestors — we’re just unsure how it will work. There are a number of different approaches wireless carriers can take.
1. 5G Approaches
Approaches to creating a complete, commercial 5G network vary widely.
Companies with skin in the game worldwide understand the 5G developmental basics:
- They need to access untapped radio frequencies to transmit faster, richer data
- They need equipment that can handle that frequency and its bolstered Gbps speeds
- They need the infrastructure to connect and support it, securely and reliably, around the clock.
However, how they intend to get there differs. In South Korea, for example, the country’s largest telecommunications company created the world’s fastest mobile data network by pooling its current LTE system with hyper-localized Wi-Fi hotspots. This cross-network marriage is leading some to think it could serve as the guiding inspiration behind a 4G to 5G LTE carrier conversion.
The most recent FIFA World Cup, hosted in Russia, brought 5G VR-streaming games to certain areas in Moscow through a partnership between the country’s tech mogul, MegaFon, and its government. That follows on the coattails of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games, where South Korea borrowed Intel’s VR technology to allow viewers to stream real-time, 5G 360-degree images of sporting events through special glasses. The Russian government is also reportedly testing new wavelength frequencies for massive 5G network expansion in its capital city.
And in Scandinavia, where the world’s first 4G network commercially began, Finnish researchers have already beta-launched 5G networks within several test businesses. They’re using a new framework of frequencies and equipment under a banner project straightforwardly dubbed 5G Test Network Finland. If successful, their system might prove to be the one to copy for wider 5G adoption in other countries.
2. 5G Frequencies
The majority of 5G development today rests upon research into high-frequency millimeter waves, which are among the most promising solutions for mobile carriers to produce the data speeds and instantaneous connectivity 5G promises.
Currently, most residential and commercial devices — from our phones and smartwatches to TVs and GPS devices — run on frequency wavelengths that reach up to 30 gigahertz per second (GHz). The explosion of wireless devices in recent years has saturated this level of wavelengths, though, causing many carriers to regress in Mbps data speeds or cap them altogether.
Sitting on the spectrum between microwaves and infrared waves, millimeter wavelengths start operating at 30 GHz and can stretch up to 300 GHz — precisely in line with what’s necessary to match 5G speculations. They would rapidly increase data bandwidth and solve the transmission saturation that exists today.
3. 5G Equipment
5G equipment will have to address two significant hurdles.
First, it must be able to physically handle the transmission of exponentially faster and exponentially denser data. Mobile carriers must test and profitably produce semiconductor equipment that can handle these near-constant Gbps streams.
Second, companies must build this equipment to proper size and scale. Because high-frequency millimeter waves don’t travel far and are prone to disruptions, equipment must find a way to solve these wavelength’s top physical barriers, like free space and atmospheric path loss to physical impediments like buildings, trees and mountains. Wave receivers must then be geographically close enough to allow smooth, instantaneous 5G access outside of just an area hotspot.
Current explorations into millimeter wave technology have produced the following promising equipment.
- Backhaul design antennas: Many predict antennas will be the equipment backbone behind 5G networks. These aren’t the antennas of today, however. 5G-transmitting antennas will be highly directional and layered. They’ll be specially tuned for the 30-300 GHz range, as well as hold the ability to catch, receive, schedule and direct routing and reuse data flows in situ. Industry insiders call this process “backhaul design,” and it will be fundamental for 5G antennas to continually connect at the necessary speeds and reliability they must achieve.
- Fiber cell towers: The next generation of cell phone towers will be geared toward the expanding 5G network. They’ll play home base to the incredible data signal requests of the not-too-distant future, serving as the backbone to the army of antennas throughout 5G service areas.
- Small cells: Small cells are wireless nodes that help data travel better across small distances. They work to fill in the coverage holes of a network reliant on high-frequency wavelengths, built into localized areas to increase bandwidth and network reliability.
- Millimeter wave amplifiers: Since millimeter waves can hold vast swaths of data, but cannot travel far, amplifiers in heavy “traffic” zones or remote regions can help frequencies travel where they need to.