5G is coming — here’s what to expect, and when to expect it on your carrier

Cell tower FM radio

Mobile 5G, which is short for “fifth generation,” is about as nascent and nebulous a term as they come. The organization that governs cellular standards, 3GPP, released its first formal standard, Release 15, in December 2017. Chipmakers are starting to create 5G hardware. So we’ll see 5G capability in mobile devices any day now, right? Mmmm …  not so fast.

Carriers including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and others are testing 5G in cities around the country, and equipment vendors like Nokia, Qualcomm, and Intel are producing 5G prototypes that’ll eventually make their into smartphones, tablets, laptops, and more. Still, each carrier has its own plan on exactly how, and when, they will roll out 5G.

To figure out what it’ll mean for the devices we use every day, we asked experts in the industry their take on 5G.

What is 5G?

5G is best understood in terms of its predecessors — 2G, 3G, and 4G. With the debut of 2G in the early ’90s, wireless phone technology expanded from a voice-based technology to one that supported text messaging. 3G carried data in addition to text messages and phone calls, and 4G LTE (Long-term Evolution) enhanced those capabilities with greater speeds and greater reliability.

5G brings about more improvements, but it’s also comprised of a suite of new technologies. Not every vendor agrees on what should be included in the final specifications, but the most popular contenders are small cells; millimeter waves; massive Multiple-input Multiple-output (MIMO); beamforming; and full duplex.

Small cells are miniature cell phone towers that can be placed in inconspicuous places like light poles and the roofs of buildings. They don’t require as much power as full-sized towers, and perform better when clustered together.

Small cells transmit data using millimeter waves, which get their name from their narrower-than average wavelength. They occupy frequencies in the 30-300GHz range — high enough to avoid interference from surrounding signals, but too high to pass through physical barriers. In some cases, the leaves of trees are enough to interrupt a download.

Millimeter waves have limitations, but they’re a good fit for MIMO — a wireless system that uses multiple radios to send and receive data simultaneously. The 4G LTE networks of today support a maximum of eight transmitters and four receivers, but 5G cell towers can theoretically support dozens.

More radios mean more interference, though, and that’s where beamforming comes in. At its most basic, beamforming uses algorithms to choreograph wireless signals’ movements and increase their strength by focusing them in a beam.

A 5G technology called full duplex helps boost the signal even further. Most current-gen cell towers and phones can’t transmit and receive data at the same time, but full duplex phones can route incoming and outgoing signals simultaneously, potentially doubling bandwidth.

5G in the real world

If preliminary tests are any indication, 5G will be fast. Really fast. The ITU’s latest draft specification calls for a minimum of 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station.

In wireless scenarios, that capacity will be split between all users on a cell tower. But carriers like AT&T still expect 5G to deliver impressive speed improvements. At the Brooklyn 5G Summit in New York, Dove Wolter, assistant vice president of radio technology and architecture at AT&T, said engineers had achieved speeds of up to 6 Gbps at the company’s test site in Austin, Texas. That’s fast enough to download a 100GB 4K movie in two and a half minutes.

In many ways, it’ll seem more like Wi-Fi than a cellular technology.

The 5G draft spec also calls for extremely low latency (the amount of time it takes for data to be stored or retrieved). The ITU defines 5G as transfer with a minimum of 5ms (down from 4G LTE’s 20ms), a potential boon for video chat apps and multiplayer video games.

But 5G won’t provide nearly as much coverage as 4G LTE, or even 3G. In many ways, it’ll seem more like Wi-Fi than a cellular technology. Instead of beaming connectivity from tall cell towers, 5G transmitters will be positioned a closer to the ground. This requires a lot of ground coverage hardware to insure you’ll actually have a reliable signal.

Because 5G’s high frequencies have correspondingly low wavelengths, they have difficulty penetrating solid objects like walls, windows, and even trees. The near-term result may be “pockets” of 5G deployed in heavily trafficked areas — think public parks, coffee shops, and airports. You’ll also see fixed 5G start making its way into businesses with 5G pucks that should start making their way to select markets in late 2018.

Since each carrier has a different 5G ethos, it’s likely we’ll see some different use scenarios. For example, smaller test cities may have 5G only in densely populated areas like convention centers and city centers, while there may be significantly more coverage in larger cities like New York and Los Angeles.

Jason Elliot, director of marketing and corporate affairs at Nokia, framed it in terms of city planning.

“[Operators] will have to be careful about how they plan,” he said. “If you look at a top-down map of Manhattan, you’ll see that the avenues generally have no trees, unlike the streets. If a carrier were to deploy 5G there, you’d probably get worse reception in the streets.”

5G hot spots will vary drastically in size, from a “sports stadium” to “entire neighborhoods.” Unsurprisingly, some areas perform better than others. “You’ll have faster and lower-latency ‘hotter spots’ within the hot spots.” Elliot said.

Those shortcomings will be enough to discourage carriers from doing away with 4G LTE anytime soon. The carriers we spoke with at 2018 Mobile World Congress all said they all see 4G LTE service as an important part overall network coverage because true 5G is not necessary in many use cases.

For that reason, El-Kadi expects 4G LTE to advance alongside 5G. Sprint is collaborating with Ericsson on gigabit 4G LTE connectivity, and T-Mobile said portions of its existing network reach gigabit speeds.

Home broadband

In many cases, you will see fixed 5G service in your home before it makes its way to your cell phone. Executives with Verizon and AT&T told us these fixed 5G networks would complement, not replace, wired home broadband networks.

Carriers including AT&T and Verizon have been testing fixed 5G wireless in small markets for more than a year.

The focus on home — or “fixed” —  5G service partially has to do with equipment footprint, El-Kadi said. Chip makers like Intel and Qualcomm, both unveiled “5G-ready” modems in early 2017, and we may start seeing these 5G pucks in selected markets later in 2018.

“Fixed wireless is going to be easier to get done in a short timeframe,” El-Kadi said. “Battery life, processing, and other problems present a challenge.”

It won’t be cheap, and the carriers we spoke to would not provide any type of details on pricing however, more than one major carrier told Digital Trends they don’t expect to see a significant price hike for 5G services. However one of the executives did suggest we will see the return of tiered data plans for 5G services.

5G applications

5G’s speed and reduced latency has the potential to transform entire industries.

Cars

Connected cars are a key growth driver. Futurists predict that the self-driving vehicles of the future will exchange cloud management info, sensor data, and multimedia content with one another over low-latency networks. According to ABI Research, 67 million automotive 5G vehicle subscriptions will be active, three million of which will be low latency connections mainly deployed in autonomous cars.

IoT

According to Asha Keddy, general manager of mobile standards for advance tech at Intel, 5G will be the first network designed with the Internet of Things (IoT) in mind.

“These next-generation networks and standards will need to solve a more complex challenge of combining communications and computing together,” Keddy told Quartz in an interview ahead of the 2017 Mobile World Congress. “With 5G, we’ll see computing capabilities getting fused with communications everywhere, so trillions of things like wearable devices don’t have to worry about computing power because network can do any processing needed.”

Keddy envisions smartwatches and tablets that use location- and context-aware sensors to share data with someone on your calendar, and save energy while delivering location-based services. Eventually, everything from wearables to internet-connected things such as washing machines, smart meters, traffic cameras, and even trees with tiny sensors could be connected.

“There will be an underlay network with computing and communications, so not everything needs to go through backhaul because lots of capabilities will be available close to where [they’re] needed,” he said. “Even wireless charging will be integrated to help keep devices running.”

Virtual reality and augmented reality

5G could bring about advances in virtual reality and streaming video. Sprint recently demonstrated streaming wireless VR at the Copa America soccer tournament, and Huawei showed a demo of 360-degree video streamed live from a 5G network.

Cloud-powered apps

Remote storage and web apps stand to benefit from 5G. “The cloud becomes an infinite extension of your phone’s storage,” El-Kadi said. “You never have to worry about running out of photo space.”

In addition to additional phone storage, you may see a significant difference in mobile hardware design overall. With 5G many of the computing tasks completed on your device can be moved to the network. Since the devices will not require the same computing capabilities, we may see so called “dummy phones”with minimal hardware using the network to complete tasks. The transfer of power from device to network also means that your cellphone may have greater longevity as it will not necessarily require incremental hardware improvements to keep pace.

How long will we have to wait?

While most carriers were initially promising a wide-spread roll out of 5G in 2020, they’ve become a little more reserved over the last year. Here’s what we learned from each carrier at Mobile World Congress 2018

Verizon

It’s no secret that Verizon wants to be the first to implement fixed and mobile 5G. The company has been working for years to update its architecture to support 5G service, and we should start seeing the results of that work in the near future.

Nicki Palmer, Verizon’s chief network engineering officer and head of wireless networks for Verizon, told Digital Trends that we will likely see fixed 5G rolling out to select markets in late 2018. As for mobile 5G, Palmer would not provide a timeline for implementation, but she did say the carrier is hard at work improving its architecture and wants to be the first to provide reliable true 5G mobile service.

AT&T

AT&T promised to build out a true, standards-based, mobile 5G internet in 2018. The carrier has committed to rolling out the network in a dozen cities over the year with Atlanta, Dallas, and Waco, Texas, being the first cities to see the service. While it’s a pretty impressive claim, there’s one catch: The carrier will use mmWave for the service, rolling out to additional spectrum bands in the future.

The 5G system will also not be stand-alone: LTE will serve as the backbone for the system, with 5G picking up when you’re close to one of the carrier’s transmitters. Since AT&T 5G is rolling out on mmWave, it’s likely you’ll see small pockets of 5G service close to ground transmitters instead of widely available as is 4G LTE.

T-Mobile

At Mobile World Congress, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer Neville Ray announced that 5G service would roll out to 30 major cities including New York, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas in 2018. Like AT&T, the T-Mobile 5G network will piggyback off it’s robust LTE spectrum, kicking in when you’re within range of a transmitter. Realistically, you should see limited 5G service in these markets starting in 2019 when 5G-capable smartphones are introduced.

Sprint

In February 2018, Sprint, the only carrier not to travel to Mobile World Congress, announced it would roll out 5G in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., in 2019. Since the company is using Massive MIMO antennas to deliver 5G, it’s promising that customers in these markets should begin seeing massive speed increases in April 2018, even while using 4G devices.

Like the other carriers, Sprint will use LTE as the network backbone with 5G picking up in areas with coverage. While Sprint expects to roll out its service to these six markets in 2019 as 5G capable devices come to market, the company promises a national rollout in 2019.

Updated on March 1: Added carrier updates based on our interviews at MWC 2018.

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