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Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications

How much bandwidth do we need in day-to-day life? Do we need enough to stream 4K video at 60 frames per second while driving down the highway? How quickly do we need interactions to round-trip from our phones to provide a real-time feel and interact with new devices—like self-driving cars? In a world where billions have little access to high-speed data, why would a gigabits-per-second standard even matter?

Those are the questions that we should ask as cellular data networks continue to mature. Apple devoted a “Stan Sigman of Cingular at the iPhone introduction” level of time and attention to 5G at its recent iPhone 12 introduction, and many of us in the industry are still puzzling over why. Apple doesn’t usually parrot marketing points or let speakers from other companies drone on about things that aren’t immediately useful to Apple or its customers.

Fifth-generation (5G) cellular networks have already achieved a reasonable level of rollout across the US and a few other countries, and many more countries are aggressively pushing private companies to build out the infrastructure as a national goal. It will eventually allow phones, tablets, fixed devices, and other equipment to transfer data at speeds ranging from hundreds of megabits per second to several gigabits per second. That’s impressive, given that it’s far faster than the vast majority of broadband Internet connections in the developed world.

5G is inevitable, and it would be a simple joke to say that it’s “just one more” than 4G, but to some extent, that’s true. 3G was the first Internet-focused flavor of cell networks, and 4G and 5G built on those principles. But 5G is being marketed as The Next Big Thing that will have some kind of transformative effect on everyday life and business.

Even the current generation of 5G-equipped devices that really have 5G tech—not the “5GE” label that is just fast 4G—have the potential to make data move zippier and with fewer delays. In practice, though, true 5G is hard to find in the field, where 4G LTE often outpaces 5G with current-generation devices. (Apple’s 5G-enabled iPhones aren’t yet widespread, so we can’t compare their performance; it’s unlikely to be much different.)

However, 5G won’t be transformative for most people or purposes. Its advantages primarily accrue to cellular carriers, even more so than 3G or 4G, which offered significant boosts in throughput and allowed higher rates over broader areas. 5G will let carriers charge more for service in some cases, handle more customers simultaneously, break into new markets that require higher throughput or low latency, and equip more kinds of devices with ubiquitous high-speed cellular data connections.

For users, it will gradually feel like we have broadband no matter where we might be, which is not terribly exciting except when you want to stream a 4K movie in the backseat of a car on a highway or download a 5 GB file in a minute in a coffee shop. The level of excitement should be more akin to finding out your city has silently dug up the streets while you were sleeping, replaced 10-inch water mains with 20-inch ones, and then cleaned it all up without you knowing. 5G is better network plumbing that your “Internet utility” has to install to deal with the amount of data and new data connections it wants to move around a city.

(If you’re concerned about health issues related to 5G, I wrote an extensive article about why the current debate is mostly manufactured. See “Worried about 5G and Cancer? Here’s Why Wireless Networks Pose No Known Health Risk,” 6 December 2019.)

Let’s start with the 5G technology and move into its applications.

Five Gee Whiz

The cellular industry has advanced across five generations of standards, about one generation per decade, starting in the 1980s. The 1G standard was analog and entirely focused on voice, although slow data rates could be crammed through. (I once filed a newspaper column over 1G at 9600 bps.) 2G switched to digital, improved voice quality, and enabled throughput close to that of the 56 Kbps dial-up modems of the 1990s. Next, an interim 2.5G improvement called EDGE, a bridge to 3G, upped data rates to as fast as 200 Kbps in Apple’s first iPhone. (That iPhone avoided 3G because the chips available in mid-2007 drained batteries like the dickens.)

It wasn’t until 3G emerged that we saw glimmerings of modern, high-speed, ubiquitous Internet availability. While 3G came in many flavors, it started at roughly hundreds of Kbps upstream and just over 1 Mbps downstream in the best conditions. Over a few years, improved phone chips and base stations enabled 3G to reach over 7 Mbps downstream. Some versions allowed voice and data to flow simultaneously; others had to pause data while a call was active.

While the future of cellular was still in development as Long Term Evolution (LTE), which would be the underpinning of 4G networks, carriers in the US got antsy. They started labeling their faster 3G networks as “4G,” presaging what’s happening today with 5G. Early “4G” networks were only slightly faster. True 4G LTE boosted speeds into the current tens of Mbps range, although LTE’s specification allowed for up to 1 Gbps for fixed usage and 100 Mbps for mobile purposes. (4G and LTE are sometimes used together, as “4G LTE,” and sometimes LTE is used preferentially to 4G.)

Along with the evolution of these generations came an increase in the number of electromagnetic frequency ranges that cellular carriers could use. Every country slices its spectrum up a little differently, though North America and much of Europe are aligned, as are many adjacent countries in other regions. While you may be accustomed to unlicensed spectrum used for Wi-Fi, cellular carriers must generally purchase licenses—often time-limited leases—for swaths of spectrum at auction or in carefully arranged government deals that in some countries reek of patronage, nepotism, or outright corruption.

US frequency allocations
This 2016 wall chart from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration shows the utter complexity of frequency bands in use.

As cellular standards advanced, radio-chip manufacturing became more sophisticated, processing power and bandwidth demands from phones grew ever heavier, and spectrum availability became more baroque. Early cell phones, even well into the 3G era, had chips that could handle only a handful of popular bands. Apple made several models of iPhones to cope with worldwide differences. Over just a few years, though, Apple, Samsung, HTC, and others generally gained the ability to produce as few as two worldwide models that could handle dozens of bands. While 3G moved a bit in this direction, 4G was more substantial, and 5G takes the cake. If you want to get a sense of how many different frequency bands are currently used, consult Apple’s 5G and LTE iPhone bands page.

If you read down that list with a gimlet eye, you will note something intriguing: while most frequencies are listed as MHz (megahertz), just a few have GHz (gigahertz) following their names—and only on the newest iPhone models sold in the United States.

That’s because the actual innovation in 5G isn’t in better data rates in spectrum ranges used by 4G and earlier standards. Rather, it’s about millimeter-wave (mmWave) transmissions that work at extraordinarily high rates over very short distances. Let’s dig into that along with what else 5G offers.

Long and Slow or Short and Fast

When trying to increase data throughput in any communications system designed to pass information, wired or wireless, engineers are constrained by the Shannon-Hartley theorem, a proof developed by three brilliant people (Harry Nyquist was the third) and named for two of them. The theorem effectively explains the upper limit of information—in digital communications, the data rate—that can be carried by a system and how the presence of noise reduces that maximum rate.

There’s always noise, which disorganizes information. Noise is why you might see a Wi-Fi device advertised as carrying a maximum of 3.2 Gbps but measure only 500 Mbps of actual throughput when you copy a large file: with any interference or signal degradation over distance, the maximum data rate quickly drops down. (Wireless networking also has a fair amount of overhead—from 20 to 40 percent of throughput—that’s necessary for managing traffic and preventing competition among devices on the same and nearby networks.)

Throughput = Spectrum x Antennas

There are several methods to improve throughput within the constraints of Shannon-Hartley. One is to add spectrum: expand the frequency ranges to increase the amount of data that can flow. But adding frequencies requires the aforementioned government interaction. Countries are eager to spur innovation and investment, so they have regularly made more spectrum available to gain the ostensible future benefits of 5G.

Another method of improving throughput relies on adding antennas. That might sound like just improving reception or transmission, but for over 15 years, multiple-in, multiple-out (MIMO) radio systems have allowed devices to transmit simultaneous streams of data that a receiver can distinguish. By changing certain wireless characteristics and using different combinations of antennas, cellular and Wi-Fi base stations can even direct signals directly to specific devices, called beamforming.

MIMO allows frequency reuse in the same space, effectively multiplying throughput. It doesn’t violate Shannon-Hartley because it leverages distinct paths across the same volume of space. Imagine a billiard table on which you send balls caroming around along unique paths. The difference is that as long as wireless signals are on different paths, they pass through each other, unlike billiard balls.

But MIMO has a physical constraint: antennas have to be a particular length that corresponds with the frequency wavelength. The 2.4 GHz wavelength used in Wi-Fi is about 5 inches (12.5 cm), and commonly used antennas are designed to be half a wavelength. You’ve probably seen Wi-Fi routers festooned with antennas—some have 8, 9, 12, or even more external ones! But there’s a practical limit on adding more antennas, even for cellular towers, due to their size and the complexity of attaching them.

Wi-Fi router with multiple antennas

The millimeter-wave (mmWave) ranges available for 5G start at 24 GHz, which allows for extremely small antennas that can be packed together tightly. (A half-wavelength antenna at 24 GHz is 0.25 inch or 6.35 mm.) Cellular base stations might be equipped with several dozen antennas linked together into a phased array, which enables precise beamforming across a huge number of combinations of antennas. The industry calls this “massive MIMO.” Many, many more devices can each receive essentially their own full-speed data stream, even in a crowded environment. (A famous Wi-Fi failure in the early 2000s was a phased-array antenna that was so far ahead of its time that, despite successful prototypes, the company couldn’t take it into actual production. But the idea was sound—particularly at mmWave scale.)

5G antenna panel
Fujitsu’s 2018 design for a 128 antenna 28 GHz phased-array panel.

The downside of mmWave hinges on the relationship between signal power and wavelength. Higher frequencies require more power than lower frequencies to achieve the same range at the same signal quality to noise ratio (the commonly seen SNR measurement). At the same power level, lower frequencies can’t transmit as much information as higher frequencies, but they travel further and penetrate solid objects better.

Range and penetration were two reasons why 2.4 GHz was preferred originally for Wi-Fi because, with the original very narrow Wi-Fi bands, transmissions could pass through objects, walls, and ceilings while maintaining a passable data rate. Wi-Fi in 5 GHz (and in 6 GHz in the US soon) relies on rules that allow for greater power and the capability to use much larger swaths of frequencies.

With mmWave, because the frequencies used are so high (starting at 24 GHz), its estimated range is like Wi-Fi: about a 500-foot (150-meter) radius. In comparison, cellular frequencies at 2 GHz enjoy a roughly 3-mile radius, and when you drop down to the even lower-frequency 700 MHz range, signals can travel within a 6-mile radius. (In practical terms, cell towers have to overlap to ensure seamless handoff and are placed far more densely than those maximum ranges to handle large numbers of users in dense urban areas.)

There’s one more parameter here, too, that can affect throughput. Network systems encode data through modulation, which (more or less) maps bits into an analog pattern. Quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) is heavily used for wireless communications. You can think of it as a square containing a pattern of dots spread out across rows and columns, called a constellation. The dots as transmitted should be received exactly on the interstices where rows and columns cross, but QAM is designed to let a receiver nudge dots that don’t line up back into the right place.

Each generation of digital cellular and Wi-Fi technology has increased the size of this constellation, making it possible to cram more data into each time-slice of wireless transmission. Larger constellations require cleaner signals, which typically means that a device has to be relatively close to a transmitter to achieve the higher throughputs.

Conveniently, the high frequencies of mmWave require base stations to be located close together to provide coverage at all. That fits nicely with large QAM constellations requiring clean signals.

Latency

Alongside all of these changes to increase throughput is the potential for 5G to reduce latency, a lagging factor in cellular that’s a key attribute of responsive wired and Wi-Fi networks. Latency measures the amount of time it takes for a network transmission to pass from its origin to its destination, no matter how fast it goes. Think of the flow of water to a faucet: the water pressure and pipe width control the throughput—how much water can be delivered in a period of time— while latency measures how long it takes from turning the tap until water comes out.

4G networks have a latency of about 50 milliseconds. 5G should typically be closer to 10 ms, which is similar to modern Wi-Fi and roughly equivalent to the limits of human visual perception—the time between an image appearing and us processing it. However, 5G has the potential to drop even lower, down to 1 ms, which is the same latency that wired Ethernet can achieve.

For interactive purposes, high latency is a killer: it’s what makes you see or hear a lag when using videoconferencing or VoIP calls, and it prevents things from happening in what feels like a real-time way. That’s critical for gaming, but also for many industrial and business purposes, where the lag has to be as close to zero as possible.

Sub-Channels

There’s one more trick up cellular’s sleeve. Both 4G and 5G also employ a technique—used earlier in Wi-Fi standards—that breaks a wide swath of frequency set up as a channel into tiny sub-channels, each of which has its own modulation. If there’s interference or a reflection problem in one sub-channel, it doesn’t downgrade the throughput of the entire transmission. It’s like plowing a field and avoiding rocks.

For further reading, I suggest this highly understandable article about 5G at Waveform.

The Purported Potential Uses of 5G

The US is the first country in which 5G will rely on a triad of cellular frequencies: existing ones across a range of bands, new allocations up near the bands currently used for 5 GHz Wi-Fi and soon for 6 GHz Wi-Fi, and mmWave starting at 24 GHz. It’s a grand experiment for delivering broad-scale higher-performance in lower bands and super-fast throughput as needed in the much higher bands.

The uses cited for 5G include all things we do now, though carriers actually don’t mention video streaming all that often. Perhaps 4K-quality video streams just aren’t that compelling, especially given that some carriers already downscale video automatically or require a higher-priced subscription to get higher fidelity than 480p, and more expensive plans top out at 1080p.

Carriers are excited about (and investing in) 5G because they anticipate new money-making opportunities, particularly in industries in which low-latency, high-bandwidth, high-coverage wireless enables new products or services, or allows shifting intelligence from edge devices to central processing.

Just as Web apps have benefitted from the massive improvements of speed in JavaScript running in a browser that allows a combination of locally downloaded code and seamless interaction with remote resources, 5G networks will ostensibly enable massively scaled systems that can feed data out in real time to edge points. This includes both relatively low-featured Internet of Things (IoT) devices that will benefit from storing their brains elsewhere—with all the security and privacy issues associated with that—and more sophisticated hardware, like autonomous or driver-assisting vehicles.

Some of the most compelling cases are:

  • Augmented reality: In recent years, Apple has focused significant attention on AR, which can require a lot of constantly updated data that’s processed centrally and streamed to a device, all while responding to movements in the physical environment.
  • Gaming: Gamers often required wired Ethernet connections in their homes for the best results. 5G will make mobile gaming more responsive.
  • Rural access: Every generation of cellular technology promises better coverage for rural residents. Every generation often disappoints them, too, because carriers prefer to deploy service where they can more easily make money. However, 5G’s greater efficiency and variety of frequency options, particularly in some new frequency territory around 5 GHz and 6 GHz, should generally improve rural service.
  • Urban/suburban access: In some cases, carriers and other parties might find it feasible to deliver high-speed urban and suburban residential broadband over 5G. It’s more likely to happen outside the US because in this country there’s sufficient inexpensive wired infrastructure (cable, phone wire, and fiber) in more densely populated areas. I pay $85 per month for unlimited gigabit Internet in Seattle; it’s hard to imagine a wireless provider offering even 100 Mbps at that price for residential-scale video and other use in the US. However, in some developed and developing countries, even relatively populated or dense areas lack wired or fiber-optic infrastructure at the level demanded.
  • Remote medical procedures: We’ve all become more familiar with telemedicine consultations in the last few months, but with sufficient bandwidth, remote medical procedures are here today. Diagnosis and even robot-assisted surgery can be performed through remote linkages, but setting up a stable, low-latency, high-bandwidth network where a wired, low-latency broadband connection is unavailable, or for facilities that aren’t able to wire Ethernet into existing areas, would open up new possibilities. (That said, would you want a wireless surgeon operating on you? Seems like a hard sell.)
  • Autonomous cars: A car can’t rely solely on a 5G network for robotic operations while it’s zooming down the highway, but it could overlay its onboard capabilities with information gathered around and ahead of it to reduce accidents and improve safety.
  • Expanded sensor networks: 5G will enable massively scaled sensor networks for monitoring infrastructure. A Deloitte report suggested, “Imagine a scenario where millions of such devices can be connected in a city center, measuring temperature, humidity, air quality, flood levels, pedestrian traffic, and more.” I can imagine plenty of negative uses, too, but after suffering from weeks of bad air in Seattle recently, I can also acknowledge some of the more constructive purposes.
  • Industrial robots: Robots used in factories have to be hard-wired for control to keep latency low. Wi-Fi relies on unlicensed frequencies, which makes depending on throughput sometimes iffy, as we’ve all seen. Licensed 5G inside manufacturing facilities could enable wireless robots and make it easy to move them or add new ones without rewiring the factory floor. These private 5G networks would be like Wi-Fi but with higher power, lower latency, and more stability thanks to running over restricted frequencies.

Additional use cases will surely arise as the networks are deployed, but you’re excused if you don’t find the list above compelling. That’s a problem for carriers, who are largely eating the cost of network updates, except Verizon, which is charging customers more for it; see below. It also troubles phone makers who want the engineering effort of adding 5G support to be seen as a major reason to buy the next generation of phones that have only incremental improvements otherwise. Smartphones haven’t reached the end of innovation in their features, but the camera, display, and processing improvements make less of a difference with each release.

In short, although 5G is inevitable and may become an important aspect of society’s networking infrastructure, there’s no reason for most people to upgrade to get it right now.

Carriers Plan Their Plans

When it comes to 5G rollouts, cellular carriers face a lot of competing problems and employ different marketing and pricing approaches, even as they have more or less adopted the same technology. It’s a bit like Coke and Pepsi if Coke only let you buy its sugar water in 12-packs of cans and Pepsi could only be purchased in 2-liter bottles.

For now, we’re seeing the major cellular firms roll out 5G networks in order to claim they have 5G networks in place—they want competitive bragging rights. Only a few limited areas have 1 Gbps or faster mmWave service available for customers. PCMag dug into maps for Verizon’s mmWave service and found it was scarce so far and, as expected, clustered in places that likely also have high-speed free or paid Wi-Fi. AT&T and T-Mobile have not yet announced mmWave plans. Here’s how it shakes out now:

  • Verizon says its mmWave “5G Ultra Wideband” (UWB) can be found in 55 cities, while it has regular 5G across swaths of metropolitan areas nationwide. It charges $10 extra on its unlimited plans per line for 5G data rates.
  • AT&T seemingly calls its current 4G network “5G,” but says “5G+” (actual 5G) is “available in select innovation zones in over 15 states across the US.” AT&T includes 5G throughput on its “Unlimited Starter, Extra, and Elite plans,” which start at $35 per month and require at least four lines.
  • T-Mobile claims it has the biggest deployment, with over 7500 cities and towns having 5G in place, but given that the company also promises that “our network will be 8x faster than current LTE in just a few years, and 15x faster in the next six years,” it’s unclear which part of the network is faster 4G and which is actually next-generation 5G. At least T-Mobile says it won’t charge more for 5G service. (T-Mobile acquired Sprint earlier this year and has developed a 5G plan that coordinates the two brands.)

Verizon’s early mmWave deployments are promising, providing fiber-optic broadband and high-end Wi-Fi speeds in the extremely limited areas they cover, though I will ask again—to what end? I don’t need 1 Gbps while strolling down Newbury Street in Boston. But I can imagine appreciating excellent throughput when we’re once again surrounded by thousands of people in public.

More disappointing, however, is that the “normal” flavor of 5G, the generational upgrade to 4G, appears to be lagging behind 4G LTE performance in some areas where they overlap. That will change, but it seems odd that your fancy new iPhone with 5G capability could see worse performance than 4G in some places.

Are We Ready for 5G?

I hate to be a downer when it comes to improved technology that actually does what it says on the tin. 5G networks will provide substantial improvements in throughput and availability that we will notice—in a year or maybe two. Until then, not so much.

I’d almost rather the entire industry didn’t talk about it for a while, but 5G-involved companies have to talk about something because that’s how marketing works. Advertising that “we keep making things slightly faster” is not a winning campaign, particularly when your competitor is shooting off 5G fireworks.

5G is inevitable, in that all phones and cellular-capable devices will transition to supporting early flavors of it over the next year, including some relatively fast versions that use mmWave. The question is when we’ll see use cases that impact our everyday lives.

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Comments About Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications

Notable Replies

  1. Apparently they are not referring to 5G but I just got a promo email from GigSky suggesting that “Netflix is our go-to for entertainment these days, but with that comes buffering and network congestion (family members, anyone?) Instead, ditch the home WiFi and grab your own data plan from GigSky”
    I guess they are targeting US customers - 4G data plans are too expensive in Australia!

  2. Thank you Glenn I always appreciate your submittals to TidBITS. This is the best or one of the 5 best I’ve read. I felt like I was back enjoying the best of my professors from college days

    I forwarded the TidBITS article (with acknowledgements to you and TidBITS ) to a group of associates that I communicate with

    I moved this paragraph to my introduation

    In short, although 5G is inevitable and may become an important aspect of society’s networking infrastructure, there’s no reason for most people to upgrade to get it right now.

    Again thanks for all your articles

    Jerry in FL

  3. Thanks, Jerry! It is the nut of the article, more or less. 4G felt more insistent, because 3G and 3G+ was really barely cutting it, and as 4G LTE rolled out, mobile broadband became distinctly better.

  4. I especially echo Glenn from within the article that “4G” was a lesser improvement than when LTE really took off. We’re still in a mostly LTE world – as Glenn said there are times when 5G doesn’t match LTE speed. My speculation is that we won’t be in a mostly 5G world until 2023, and not in a 5G WideBand world until 2025 or later.

    Sprint had invested in a technology called WiMax and had it in deployment before LTE really spread. It obviously failed to gain traction as Sprint got acquired by T-Mobile.
    Perhaps the infrastructure and frequency assets were of use to T-Mobile? No idea.

    P.S.
    Continuing to buy your TC books, Glenn. The first especially is a regular upgrade and go-to reference for me.

    Reminder: this last one is FREE.

    P.P.S.
    Also, I literally refused to use Zoom because of its lack of ethics and competence until I read Glenn Fleishman explain the issues. I didn’t trust anything coming out of Zoom, but I’ve trusted Glenn’s writing for a long long time.

  5. It’s hard for me to get excited about gigabit speeds while roaming with my phone when I’m still limited to ~2Mbps at home with no improvement in sight. When I moved to rural Northern California 20 years ago I was stoked because I went from dial-up to DSL. Little did I know it would never improve from there.

  6. Sadly, it seemed that whenever the FCC confronted the broadband industry with their abysmal performance and extortionate prices, they carriers would just shout “But 5G! 5G!” and the FCC would inexplicably back off as though 5G might actually help. I personally think Starlink will ultimately have more of an impact on the industry than all the 5G carriers worldwide, combined.

  7. Yeah, Starlink is pretty much my only hope at this point. Godspeed, little satellites!

  8. Wonderful, thorough and balanced article on a complex subject that is beautifully written so that the content is easily assimilable.

    On a practical level I have for ages been telling everyone who will listen that 5G is totally unnecessary for the foreseeable future, and not to be taken in by the marketing hype. If I had a 5G-capable iPhone I would switch off 5G to increase battery life until it actually delivers any appreciable benefit.

    I find it immensely frustrating that the whole industry is seemingly set on cynically persuading people that they need 5G now. Whether it is the networks or the phone manufacturers they can’t help themselves - something new that they can use to sell new stuff when the feature won’t make any difference to the vast vast majority of people.

    When will people appreciate that sometimes things are as good as they need to be (for the moment at least), and until a valid reason to get something new appears they may as well stick with what they’ve already got? It is populism at its heart - listen only to the message, don’t bother to try and find out the truth!

    Apart from the cost to individuals of upgrading sooner than they need to, the negative side of it is that this behaviour encourages excessive exploitation of limited natural resources to manufacture all these new devices, not to mention the waste problem caused by all the casually discarded old devices.

    One final point is that I despair at two other factors that contribute to excessive and unnecessary replacement of devices - Android phone-makers who don’t update their devices for more than (typically, or even at most) two years which forces people to buy new phones if they want to stay safe, and people buying phones as part of a contract which encourages them to upgrade every two years whether the phone needs replacing or not.

  9. On a personal level, I’m looking forward to the ability download a movie from Netflix in just a very few minutes, or all four seasons of The Crown. Just about everything that needs to be downloaded and uploaded will happen much more quickly, including online shopping. FaceTime, Zoom, MS Teams, and other online collaborative communications and video conferencing services will work faster and better. Mapping and public transportation and shipping will benefit tremendously. In addition to logistics, inventory management and traffic tracking, it’s currently enabling the development of drone delivery services. Online photo, video and audio editing and storage stuff will benefit, both for personal and professional uses. Just about any online intelligence service will process faster and better. And it will literally change the world for gamers. Weather and tracking and reporting will greatly improve, this will benefit individuals and businesses, including shipping, agriculture, security and public transportation of every type. I’ve read that about development of systems that will traffic lights that will adjust to what is going on in the street.

    So will every flavor of emergency services. Medical services will benefit tremendously…everything from processing and transferring records, including diagnostic tools like MRIs, CAT scans, robotic surgery. It will make personal and business use of cloud services, including photos in iCloud, work better and faster. Robotics as well. 5G will also make stuff like drone delivery a reality, as well as for autonomous driving for shipping, personal and public and personal transportation. Online shopping experiences will even get better, and I’ve heard about stuff like virtual try ons where you could assemble entire outfits or decorate rooms with furniture, window and wall treatments.

    It will also make VR/AR glasses a reality, which will greatly transform businesses as well as gaming. I’ll bet 5G is a very big why Apple started building out its Arcade. And 5G will really enable video, graphic, scientific, educational, etc. market segments that use Macs and Mac Pros to work faster and better, as well as iOS device owners; it will help Apple sell more hardware and software.

    My thanks to Glenn for another great article.

  10. Most of what you list mostly happens in fixed locations, and is available now, is the thing! I have gigabit Internet at my house, and 100 Mbps to 1 Gbps service is increasingly common. Wi-Fi carrying capacity is now in the gigabits with the latest flavor, with real 1 Gbps throughput.

    I agree there are specific use cases that could use low latency and higher throughput, for sure.

  11. So all of this stuff you list is happening NOW or will be very very soon, and is not possible over conventional fixed-line connections which have effectively unlimited bandwidth, speed, and very low latency? Sorry, I think you’ve fallen for the hype.

    Maybe one day that stuff will be happening AND happening remote from any fixed connection, but right now AND for the foreseeable future, it isn’t.

    If I had a 5G phone I can guarantee that stuff would not be happening from it. Not to mention the coverage issue which is going to take a very long time to resolve at anything approaching scale. And in particular the lack of significant coverage is going to delay the implementation of anything that will depend on (or, to put it another way, be enabled by) 5G’s speed until that coverage is in place.

    We all need to get better at differentiating between the future and now.

  12. It was Alan Kay who said, I believe, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

    The tension here is that the cellular carriers and the phone manufacturers are putting a lot of marketing effort behind 5G even though the real-world benefit to users is minimal at the moment.

    I firmly believe that 5G will be a big deal, just as having high-speed broadband to the home made possible all sorts of things we had no clue we’d be able to do back in the modem days. When that will be remains unknown, but the more widespread the technology, the sooner new uses will become possible.

  13. If I can download all four seasons of The Crown in 1-2 minutes, rather than almost forever like I would need to do now, I would be happy to shell out more money for 5G. I did have robotic surgery years ago, and though it was much faster and less invasive than traditional methods, it would have been accomplished a lot faster with 5G, and it would free up OR and medical personnel to help other patients. I thought I was very clear about the things I mentioned that are taking considerable time on LTE right now will benefit from happening in seconds or a very few minutes on 5G.

    Most of the big department stores invested lots of money to develop virtual fitting rooms; nobody used them because on the rare occasions they didn’t crash, they took forever to render and never rendered properly. No amount of tinkering could make them work properly because of latency issues. Years ago I had robotic surgery which took over an hour. If it could have been accomplished in less time, more patients could have been served in the OR, and I might have needed less anesthesia. And if traffic lights could respond dynamically in seconds to road conditions and traffic build ups, everyone would benefit from faster commutes, safety concerns as well as consuming less gasoline and electricity. Japan has started converting to 5G traffic lights last year, and they are leading in building out 5G systems. There’s a lengthy but very interesting report about the achievements and plans for the roll out here:

  14. Right, but many things you’re describing are best served in most places with wired Ethernet and high-speed broadband, which offers consistent low-latency or can be tuned and predictably have it. 5G will be an improvement on latency over 4G, but it’s competing with high-speed wired service for that, not improving on it.

    Now, in places in which wired infrastructure in the final mile is lacking or impossible, 5G deployments using “greenfield” approaches (meaning, wiring stuff for 5G from scratch instead of retrofitting buildings, streets, etc.) could be an advantage. There are certainly parts of cities all over the world where it would cost a fortune to put in high-speed wired service, and 5G—if sold for real home/work broadband purposes and not for limited mobile connectivity—is an improvement. But that’s a small subset of all potential homes and businesses served in places in which 5G will be deployed.

  15. I’ve investigated a lot of “5G” technology for a few years as a part of my job.

    While higher bandwidth (especially where mmWave bands are available) is going to be the most public feature, and the one network operators advertise the most, there are other features that I think are far more interesting and significant than just a faster version of what we’ve been using for the past 10 years, including:

    • Massive MIMO and beam-forming, allowing a single tower to support far more devices, and greatly reducing congestion to those devices.

    • Edge computing, putting compute servers (as you might find in data centers hosting cloud services) close to the network’s edge (the cell towers and the operators’ data centers directly attached to the towers) in order to minimize latency when using cloud service that have been made available on those edge nodes. This is expected to be critical for features like autonomous driving and emergency services.

    • Various SDN/NFV technologies. Software-defined network topologies and configuration in order to support things like wireless VPNs with bandwidth guarantees and reserved bandwidth (e.g. “network slicing” to reserve specific sub-carrier bands and time slices for high priority traffic like emergency services and premium services).

    • Narrowband IoT. Parts of the spectrum (often the unused space between radio carriers within a band) used to provide low bandwidth capabilities for IoT devices. Think, for example, about a weather station that needs to send a few kB of data per day, but needs a reliable connection for that data. This has been available in the LTE world and even 3G, but it has been greatly improved in 5G.

    • Use of spectrum normally reserved for unlicensed use and law enforcement/military use in places where nobody else is using it.

    • Reorganization of the wireless core network. This is the data-center servers where the various 3GPP protocols run, formerly called the EPC (evolved packet core) in the LTE world.

    See also:

  16. Oh, that’s something I hadn’t gleaned from my reading and interviews. Very smart.

  17. I think it’s important to consider the potential impact of super advanced analytics and rapid data crunching that the edge offers, along with the ability to deliver information in real time. Edge computing will especially benefit IOT and mobile devices. And if the devices can be tracked by particular groups of towers, then there is the potential it can remain local. But I have no doubt that Amazon, Google/Android MS, etc. will move the data they gather into their respective clouds and target advertising more effectively. It’s one of the reasons why the NFL hooked up with Verizon.

    I think that any service where speed is an issue will also benefit from 5G and Edge. Hospital and medical services, doctors’ offices will benefit, especially from rapid communications and access to records. And in times of major, challenging public health and safety crisises, gathering, compiling, interpreting and storing information, as well as speedy delivery, would be facilitated. If 5G Edge were available now it would certainly benefit Covid contact tracing, but just about any public health endeavor where speed and rapid analytic data crunching is important will equally benefit.

    Monitoring localized environmental and safety issues, food and supply services, as well as managing public transportation and shipping will benefit in addition to autonomous cars. Retailers of all sizes and shape will benefit from rapid data, and they can probably develop virtual dressing room apps that work. It would be good for inventory and supply chain management, as well as trend spotting in just about any industry, department or situation.

    Media and advertising companies, as well as gaming, are salivating at the opportunities 5G and IOT will enable. Think super high res video and movies, as well as immersive 3D games, The more information they can gather and respond to on real time, the better for their bottom lines. It’s why Apple and other device manufacturers are making a big deal about it.

  18. No disagreement with anything here, but we won’t be seeing apps moved wholesale from cloud services to the edge - there’s simply no room to put that much computing power in all the edge nodes.

    It’s more likely that we’ll see cloud apps broken into pieces with the time-critical components running on the edge and the rest (including data storage) in the usual central locations.

  19. I could be wrong, but IIRC, processing and storage can be divvied up between edge and cloud systems. I think I remembered reading about this in regard to autonomous vehicals; probably traffic mapping apps would be in the cloud and all driving systems in the edge. Autonomous farming vehicles might combine cloud based weather with terrestrial functions on the edge.

  20. I’m certainly not saying that 5G won’t be of any value at all in the future. My argument is solely that there is no appreciable benefit to consumers NOW. Buying into 5G right now is pointless, but there will probably come a time in the future when it is worthwhile on phones, dependant on what functionality they offer that requires the higher speeds and lower latency.

    Personally I doubt it will be for a few years yet, though, and in the meantime people might just as well stick with 4G for all the good that 5G would do them. As before, we all need to get better at differentiating between the future and now.

    You mention downloading all four seasons of The Crown in 1-2 minutes - why? When each episode takes an hour to view, why would you need to download all four seasons in one go? And paying extra to do it just doesn’t make any sense to me at all when you could do it over a fixed link for free as and when you need it, or over 4G if you insist at a plenty fast-enough speed to be able to view when you want.

    Finally, with regard to your points concerning the value of the higher speed and lower latency for uses such as robotic surgery - I am entirely unconvinced that this use would be better served by 5G than a fixed link. I cannot come up with a scenario where a fixed link with high bandwidth and low latency would not be available where robotic surgery is carried out, but where 5G was available. Traffic lights and suchlike uses - I find it hard to believe that the latency actually required for this function is not available with 4G already. To me these are entirely fallacious justifications.

    But once again I am not saying that 5G will never be of value, I am simply saying that consumers have little or no use of it now and should save their money until it is of value.

  21. I thought made this point clear in earlier posts, and I totally agree that the current hype emphasizing the need to move to upgrade to a 5G consumer package now is totally hype. I have talking about potential use cases when super high speed will be available. I think that pressure is probably building up from companies, including Apple working on VR/AR glasses, autonomous driving, etc. that requires super high speed 5G before they can get the their products onto the production lines.

  22. There is only one reason to get 5G right now – it will spur the cellular companies to expand their 5G networks and bring it to the masses. If no one upgrades to 5G it will go the way of 3D televisions and that wouldn’t be good for the future of communications. Early adopters are needed to get the new tech off the ground and make it become popular.

    I’m sure the cell companies are watching very carefully to see the adoption of 5G and based on those numbers they’ll increase their investment and the speed of the transition, or slow down their plans.

    Now that doesn’t mean that we should all jump on 5G even if it’s useless to us (like I live in a rural area that barely gets LTE, let alone 5G, so it’s of little benefit to me right now), but I’m sure in favor of others going for it as it will (eventually) help me down the line.

  23. Well, there are people like me who buy phones every 3 years, so if 5G is more wide-spread in 2022 into 2023, maybe it’s not so bad to buy a 5G phone now rather than buy a less-expensive iPhone 11 or XR or SE. So, there is more than one reason to buy now, if you are in the market anyway.

  24. If you’re a T-Mobile customer, you may want to go to 5G simply because T-Mobile is moving a lot of their network to 5G. True, it is the slower 600Mhz low band, but there has been less 4G space and a lot more 5G space in recent months on that band.

    Here are T-Mobile’s Bands

    • Band 71 (600Mhz) — extended range
      • 4G and 5G
    • Band 12 (700Mhz) — extended range, but limited availabliity
      • 4G only
    • Band 4 and 66 (1700/2100Mhz)
      • 3G and 4G
    • Band 2 (1900Mhz) — Limited Availability
      • 4G, 3G, some 2G
    • Band n41 (2.5 GHz)
      • Midrange 5G (Old Sprint network)
    • Band n260 (39Ghz and n261 (28Ghz)
      • Ultra Highband 5G

    T-Mobile plan is to move Band 71 to 5G only and moving 3G off Band 4 and 66. That means if you want to take advantage of the extended range of Band 71, you will need 5G in the near future.

    How quickly T-Mobile will be moving forward with this depends upon the number of customers with 5G phones. However, T-Mobile had previous plans to stop supporting 3G entirely in January 2021 but has held off on that for now.

    Unlike AT&T and Verizon which is concentrating on 5G on ultra highband, T-Mobile is pushing 5G on their lower and midrange bands.

    And T-Mobile is quickly deploying Band n41 for 5G. These won’t give you gigabyte speeds offered by ultrahigh bands, but they will give you about 100Mbs to 200Mbs speeds and they can penetrate buildings and cover more distance. The plan is to cover over 400 cities and 100 million people by December.

  25. I think this is very interesting, especially since T-Mobile just acquired Sprint a few months ago. This is what they said at the time:

    ““During this extraordinary time, it has become abundantly clear how vital a strong and reliable network is to the world we live in. The New T-Mobile’s commitment to delivering a transformative broad and deep nationwide 5G network is more important and more needed than ever and what we are building is mission-critical for consumers,” said Mike Sievert, president and CEO of T-Mobile.”

    What’s also interesting, and I’m not trying to create a political discussion, is that the prior US government administration nixed the deal. It got approved by the current one, which is now on the way out the door. But in order to receive government approval for the merger, T-Mobile had to agree to not raise prices for three years; there’s a very interesting article about the court decision and its potential ramifications here:

    I looked around to see if T-Mobile has been actively bidding in the auctions for bandwidth, and it looks like they’ve recently been MIA in the high bandwidth arena. But they have been aggressively pushing LTE fixed wireless in target areas, especially in the markets where AT&T stopped accepting new DSL customers:

    I think they are probably focused on getting the customer bases of two services rolled into one, and waiting to see how much scrutiny they might or might not be getting from a new administration, especially since 5G is a new category for the industry.

  26. 4G/LTE can only get you about 30Mbs max. T-Mobile bills the service as 20Mbs with a caveat that your speed might be slower. However, with their 5G midband deployment, they will probably be using that as their Home Internet backbone. That can get hundreds of Mbs which is equivalent to cable landline speeds for most people.

    Being able to package Home Internet with Cellphone service will be the new Triple Play that the cable companies used to pull customers in from the phone companies. T-Mobile is probably looking at Home Internet as a way to steal customers from Verizon and AT&T — just like the cable companies did back in the early 2000s.

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