It’s called 5G because it’s the fifth generation of wireless technology. But it could easily stand for 5 Gee Whiz! because of the technologies it promises to enable.
The 5G network, the successor to the current 4G wireless network, is expected to have the capacity and speed needed for quick, accurate communication between billions of devices — from cell phones to sensors to cars — connected to the Internet. Connected by a 5G network, the Internet of Things, autonomous vehicles, and augmented and virtual reality will go from being just around the corner to parts of everyday life.
So far this year, AT&T announced its roadmap for research and development of 5G. It joined Verizon, which announced its 5G plans in 2015. Verizon is already testing 5G in five US cities, and AT&T plans testing in Bizmology’s backyard, Austin, Texas, in 2016. The technology is expected to roll out in 2020.
“New experiences like virtual reality, self-driving cars, robotics, smart cities, and more are about to test networks like never before,” John Donovan, chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations, said in the roadmap announcement. “These technologies will be immersive, pervasive, and responsive to customers. 5G will help make them a reality.”
The company said 5G would be good for applications that use big helpings of bandwidth because it will enable more spectrum efficiency and take advantage of software define networking (SDN) and network function virtualization (NFV).
AT&T expects 5G to deliver speeds between 1 gigabit per second and 10 gigabits per second, which would be 10-100 times faster than today’s average 4G LTE connections. If achieved, 5G speeds would rival, if not outperform, the gigabit speeds available through fiber-optic connections from AT&T, Google, Comcast, and other service providers. For reference, at 1 gigabit per second, its takes less than 3 seconds to download a TV show.
A key 5G factor will be the single-digit millisecond response times between signal sent and signal received. Besides being able to start a video faster, it would enable autonomous vehicles to respond faster to pedestrians wandering into traffic and communication with other cars and traffic signals.
In opening markets for wireless applications, the 5G networks open opportunities for carriers, telecom equipment makers, semiconductor manufacturers, software developers, and more. Several companies such as Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Korea Telecom demonstrated fledgling 5G technologies at the Mobile World Conference in February in Barcelona, Spain.
Intel, in particular, is aggressively pursuing 5G research partnerships. Though the company is the biggest chipmaker in the world, it has lagged competitors in developing and selling chips for wireless technologies, and it’s eager to make its mark in 5G technology.
Intel is covering all of its bets with a diverse partner lineup of Verizon, Ericsson, LG Electronics, and South Korean telecoms KT and SK Telecommunications. In various combinations they’re working on 5G infrastructure and equipment, the Internet of Things, and automotive applications.
“We think that this is going to be the underpinning of the next wave of the modern economy because there’s just going to be tons of data going around,” said Aicha Evans, corporate VP and general manager of Intel’s Communication and Devices Group.
The Software Side of Networking
While Intel and the equipment makers work on the hardware side, AT&T is developing its 5G networking technologies with a reliance on software.
The company has transferred many of the network functions previously carried out with hardware to software through SDN and NFV. It said that it is turning routers, firewalls, and other network equipment into virtual functions running on commodity hardware, which is mainly servers.
Using software allows more flexibility to make changes to a network, scaling it up or down and making enhancements when they are available.
Although these companies are working on their 5G network technologies, the official standards for 5G have yet to be set. The standard body, 3GPP, should have the standards in place in 2017 or 2018.
Verizon, however, might not wait for standards. An executive told investors at a meeting in March that the company could launch 5G service next year, according to an article in Wireless Week.
In the US, Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, told a Senate committee in March that the FCC would be ready with regulations to open appropriate spectrum to carriers when they’re ready to deploy 5G.
Wheeler too is on the 5G bandwagon, telling the committee, “It won’t just unleash commercial broadband, satellite, or government uses, but applications on the horizon, like Internet of Things and connected cars, and others we can’t accurately predict today.”
Tim Green has covered business, technology and science at newspapers and in higher education. At Hoover’s he covers computers and telecommunications. Follow him on Twitter.