A huge consortium of wireless companies, including AT&T, around the world worked on 5G technical standards for years before coming to a series of working agreements (it’s complicated). To these companies, only services that meet all those standards should be called 5G. And most important, true 5G would require using the new parts of the spectrum that provide massive new bandwidth and nearly no delay between asking the network for something and receiving it (low latency).
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In 2011, during the last network transition, a similar fracas went down with T-Mobile and AT&T redefining what they were going to call “4G.” But the stakes are much higher this time around. 4G networks began to launch in late 2010, back when few people still had high-end smartphones. Nearly a decade on, the smartphone—along with the panoply of services provided through and on top of them—is ubiquitous.
Now, while everyone is using the network, the carriers must invest many billions of dollars in building out a new network of equipment—the base stations located in cell towers—precisely as they push everyone to upgrade to new 5G-capable phones.
Creating this new capability will push the wireless internet into uncharted territory. “There are greater challenges for the service providers. I’m not doubting their capabilities, but they need to do things differently,” says one longtime wireless veteran, Markku Toiviainen. He’s the head of industry business development at Keysight Technologies, which provides widely used mobile testing equipment. “They need to understand how the signals behave and move in different kinds of environments,” he says.
The issue is basic to the physics of the spectrum portions that 5G will be employing. The fantastic 5G speeds require higher-frequency, shorter-wavelength signals. And the shorter the wavelength, the more likely it is to be blocked by obstacles in the world. (Think of the range of AM’s longer radio signals versus FM’s shorter ones.) “If there is a tree between the antenna and the smartphone, already that can affect what kind of signal the smartphone is getting,” Toiviainen says. “The normal rules are not really valid anymore.”
Because of this kind of problem (thanks for nothing, trees), the carriers will need a much denser grid of base stations to actually achieve good coverage. But how, precisely, to arrange them remains an open question. It’s not an easy thing to simulate, so they have to roll out small networks and test extensively.
For these reasons, among others, Toiviainen sees the move from 4G to 5G as “a much bigger change than in transitioning from 3G to 4G.”
And when it’s done, it’s not clear what your average cellphone user would do with wireless internet that fast. “Already 4G delivers a quite nice user experience to the consumer today,” Toiviainen says. If I can already stream video on a 100MB 4G LTE connection, do I care if I can now stream 4K video? It’s a bit like the TV upgrade cycle. The jump from standard definition to 1080p is huge. The move from 1080p to 4K is a nice-to-have, but not life-changing, upgrade.