Not so fast: High speed 5G network may be the future of connectivity, but not until a global standard is set

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5G was the hot topic at this week’s Mobile World Congress. The ultrafast wireless network will increase opportunities for businesses and consumers to connect through the internet. However, it likely will not be rolled out until 2019 as international bodies must still develop a global standard for 5G wireless technology. In the meantime, carriers and telecom equipment manufacturers are racing to set the bar for what constitutes 5G.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology, characterized by dramatically increased data transfer speeds. For the consumer, this means being able to download entire movies within seconds. The 5G wireless connection will also improve the ability of new devices - such as wearable technology, security cameras and home appliances - to connect to the web.

5G will change the way we connect

5G has been lauded as the super-speed wireless network of the future. It will allow carriers to offer mobile internet speeds of over 10 gigabits per second; 100 times faster than our current 4G networks. On a 5G network, consumers can download a high-definition movie to their smartphones or tablets in five seconds.

More importantly, the high speed and low latency offered by 5G will allow more gadgets to connect through a wireless network. Low latency means that there is less of a delay between a device sending a data request and receiving the data. This is essential to the connectivity of new technologies such as the driverless car, where the ability to quickly gather data from the environment is central to its functionality. A driverless car on a 4G network travelling at 60mph travels almost 5 feet in the time it takes to engage the brakes after sensing an obstacle. According to a report[1] by international wireless association, CTIA, a 5G car will only travel one inch before engaging.

Companies can connect millions of devices to the 5G network, from refrigerators to pet collars. 5G networks can be used by everyday objects, such as smart watches and wearable technology, to send and receive data as part of the Internet of Things. While this functionality can be useful for individuals, it can also be leveraged as a way to increase data usage for businesses and government. For example, in the healthcare space, businesses can use 5G to connect medical devices to the internet in order to track and use key health-related data.

But first - a global standard for 5G has to be developed

Before 5G wireless technology can make its way into our homes and businesses, carriers, telecom manufacturers and tech leaders have to agree on a global standard for 5G. This is not expected to happen before 2019.

Companies across the world have to negotiate the manner in which 5G networks will interact across country borders. The international community must determine requirements for latency (delay in transmitting data), reliability (time the network is operational), density (ability to connect to devices) and coverage (network reach). Governments will also have to negotiate how to assign spectrum - the radio frequency that wireless communications travel over. 5G is expected to use higher frequencies than current wireless standards, mostly in bands that are not currently used for mobile wireless services, meaning that regulators will have to determine how to allocate additional spectrum for this purpose.

There has been some movement in international cooperation for the purpose of determining a global 5G standard. Member countries of the ITU, a UN agency which works on interconnection between carriers, worked out a plan for harmonizing standards for 5G that is expected to be rolled out in 2020. At this week’s Mobile World Congress, the European Union and the Brazilian government signed an agreement to develop 5G which builds on similar initiatives with South Korea, Japan and China.

The race is on for wireless carriers and telecom equipment makers

As global standards have yet to be defined, the world’s largest wireless carriers are racing to be the first to offer 5G wireless technology in order to influence international 5G standards in development. Both hardware manufacturers and telecom companies are lobbying global-standard bodies and governments to promote their technologies.

Industry players are eager to publicize their tests so that they can influence the global standard. Many 5G trials were on display at Monday’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona. Leading operators and device makers demonstrated the latest wireless technology that used 5G, from virtual reality headsets to driverless cars. Companies are expected to test 5G style services at major global sporting events including the upcoming World Cup. It is expected that Korean mobile operator KT will offer 5G internet technology at the 2018 Olympics. Similarly, North American companies such as Verizon and AT&T have announced that they will start testing new wireless technology in 2016.

5G can often necessitate a collaboration between wireless carriers and equipment providers. They have been teaming up to develop 5G wireless technologies, often in university settings. This is because 5G technology requires the development of new hardware and software that facilitate the wireless network. Telecommunications equipment makers are researching ways to upgrade the mobile internet infrastructure in light of 5G. Sensors on devices connected through the Internet of Things require the ability to seamlessly connect to the internet, regardless of where they are. This means that telecom operators will have to extend their networks, putting up cellphone towers in remote areas and creating mobile hot spots in high density areas. Networks will also have to be able to handle more connections from an increased number of devices. The increase in mobile data traffic that will come as a result of 5G will also require new software to be developed that can handle the increased connectivity.

The future of 5G? Still unknown

5G is an exciting development that will allow the world of wireless connectivity to expand well beyond its current reach. As companies and countries collaborate to develop a global standard for the new technology, it will be interesting to see what further innovation lies ahead.


Alexandra Aliferis is an Articling Student at McCarthy Tétrault.

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