PART I: What is 5G?
You’ve probably been reading or hearing about the new communications technology called 5G, and you probably think it’s going to massively increase the speed and quantity of data going to and from your smart phone or tablet.
That’s true, but there’s much more to it than that. However, since it’s also about that, let’s start there.
There are two basic ways your iPhone or Android phone or tablet can communicate with the internet. One is WiFi, which has great advantages: It’s very fast, it’s essentially free, and there are no limits to how much data you can consume.
WiFi also has one big drawback, and that is that you have to be within about a hundred yards of a WiFi transmitter (a “hot spot”) that you’re authorized to use. You probably have one in your home or office, and if you’re near a Starbucks you’re in luck, or you might have a subscription to a top-tier provider like Boingo, which has thousands of robust hot spots all over the country that you can use for next-to-nothing per month.
That still leaves you with only about a one-in-fifty chance of being within range of a WiFi hot spot when you need one. And in a moving car, you can’t use it at all.
Enter the other way of connecting to the internet, which is the cellular system. That’s the network of towers that lets you make mobile phone calls from practically anywhere, and that’s the chief — and only — advantage when it comes to using the cell system for your data needs. Otherwise, the cell system is slow relative to WiFi and, if you exceed the limits of your data plan, it can get very expensive.
There are several different technologies that handle the sending and receiving of data between your phone or tablet and the cell system. The first digital incarnation was called 2G, “second generation,” because it supplanted the original, purely analog system (retroactively referred to as “1G”) and made possible text messaging and transmitting pictures. After that came 2.5G, 2.75G, 3G and 4G LTE (the latter of which is a bit of a misnomer as it doesn’t actually meet the 4G standard).
The details of each of these aren’t important. Suffice it to say that each new generation brought greater speed, reliability, capability and security. 4G LTE averages about 5.5 MB/s, or 5.5 million characters per second, which is about a thousand times faster than 2G. Still not as fast as WiFi, but pretty decent for most data needs, like sending photos, watching movies, downloading eBooks and buying or updating apps. Again, all of those things are counted against your data plan so you’re much better off waiting for a WiFi connection if you’re not in a hurry.
Enter 5G, the latest entry in the cellular communications race.
At first glance, it seems like just another advance in the steady progression of ways to move data between your handheld device — a phone or tablet — and the internet. To be sure, it will be a monster advance, although nowhere near as monster as is being hyped, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 MB/sec, roughly a hundred times faster than 4G. Consumers aren’t likely to see anything that fast. That speed goal refers to the maximum bandwidth for a single 5G base station, which is communicating with any number of mobile devices, just as cell towers do now. Individual users are supposed to be guaranteed minimum download speeds of about 12 Mbytes/second, and uploads of half that speed. But there’s no way to guarantee that guarantee, because once a base station gets overloaded with users, speeds are going to drop, just like the water pressure in your apartment if everyone in the building takes a shower at the same time.
In any event, you can come close to 12 Mbytes/second right now using plain old 4G, so that guarantee isn’t very exciting. My guess is that smart phone and tablet users can probably expect real-world rates of 60-70 Mbytes/second when downloading, and half that uploading. That’s somewhat above the top end of a really strong home WiFi system. And those speeds are supposed to hold up even in vehicles traveling as fast as 300 mph, like bullet trains. (My other guess is that the 5G standards, which are still evolving and aren’t expected to be final until late 2019, are going to back off of some goals that simply aren’t realistic.)
You might not think most of us really need our phones to be that fast, but those speeds will allow for more immersive experiences, like hi-definition 3D movies and virtual/augmented reality applications, as well as “group gaming” played over the internet. And consider this: When you’re traveling and there’s no WiFi, you can tether your phone to you laptop. The laptop thinks it’s connected to the internet via WiFi, but it’s really talking to the phone, which is talking to the internet over the cell system. There are plenty of times when 4G is too slow for what you want to accomplish. 5G will fix that problem.
But, as I said, there’s a lot more to 5G than speed. As it turns out, the impetus for this new generation technology was not downloading hi-def Harry Potter movies but meeting the needs of an increasingly interconnected world. The people putting together the 5G spec are trying to make sure that the cellular system is capable of handling everything from the Internet of Things (IoT) to self-driving cars to entire “smart cities.”
To explain those needs, let’s take a look at the four main features of 5G other than (1) its blazing speed.
How much data can flow between the Internet and a device (“speed,” or bandwidth) is one thing. How long it takes before it starts flowing is called “latency” and is another thing entirely. Think of it in terms of a garden hose. How much water flows through the hose is speed. How long it takes for the water to appear after you turn on the faucet is latency. In the case of our Harry Potter movie, it doesn’t really matter if it takes a second or two before the film starts flowing. But if you’re cruising down Central Boulevard in your self-driving car and the “Smart Street” system needs to warn you about the dump truck about to barrel through a STOP sign and ruin your day, milliseconds matter.
Latency is a tricky topic so I’m going to oversimplify heavily. The latency goal of the 5G system for consumers is 4 milliseconds. That’s four thousandths of a second. Consider that it takes 400 milliseconds to blink your eyes. I’ll be shocked if 4 milliseconds is ever achieved in practice — the current average in the US is 61 milliseconds — but we might come close.
For “ultra-reliable low latency communications” (URLLC), the goal is 1 millisecond, to effectively and reliably control industrial machinery and autonomous vehicles.
The 5G spec also calls for low-latency, direct device-to-device communications that bypass the internet altogether. So if your house is full of IoT devices like lights, thermostats, door locks and garage openers, a self-contained home system of 5G compatible devices will let you control the whole shebang without placing a drain on the cellular system or suffering its latency. (Controlling any of those things when you’re away from home, though, will still require using the cell system and the Internet.)
(3) Density and (4) Simultaneity
Right now there are about 9 billion IoT devices hooked up to the internet. By 2022 there could be fifty billion. There’s no telling which ones are going to be screaming for attention at any given moment, so the 5G system needs to be able to deal with a lot of them screaming at once, all while adhering to the low latency requirement. That’s a tall order but the interconnected world isn’t going to work unless that order is filled. The idea of the “smart city,” in which every streetlight, train, bus, power plant, police car, and firetruck is part of a fully integrated system, isn’t going to be realized until 5G is implemented.
Unless 5G has unprecedented reliability, there’s no sense even bothering with the other features. Reliability is expressed in two ways. The first is uptime, meaning how much of the time the 5G network will be up and running. According Dr. Rick Baugh, for medical devices, automated factories and self-driving cars and trucks that’s going to have to be somewhere around 99.9999 percent, or no more than about 30 minutes total downtime per year. The other expression of reliability is lost packets. Everything transmitted on the internet is divided into small blocks of data, called packets, which can travel along various paths depending on network traffic, and are re-assembled at the destination. Sometimes they get “lost” and have to be re-transmitted. For applications requiring 1 ms latency, the 5G reliability standard is no more than one lost packet out of every 1 billion transmitted. Achieving that is going to add a lot of cost to network development, and it’s not clear how revenues are going to cover those costs.
And that’s why 5G is about more than you and your phone.
Coming in Part II of this article: Who owns 5G? When will it be available? What will it cost? Can your current phone use it?
Lee Gruenfeld is a managing partner of Cholawsky and Gruenfeld Advisory, as well as a principal with the TechPar Group in New York, a boutique consulting firm consisting exclusively of former C-level executives and "Big Four" partners. He was vice president of strategic initiatives for Support.com, senior vice president and general manager of a SaaS division he created for a technology company in Las Vegas, national head of professional services for computing pioneer Tymshare, and a partner in the management consulting practice of Deloitte in New York and Los Angeles. Lee is also the award-winning author of fourteen critically-acclaimed, best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction. For more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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