By now, you’ve probably started reading and hearing about fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks, how they will enable lightning-fast download speeds and low latency, and how 5G is a disruptive technology that will change everything for everyone everywhere. Oh, and that every mobile carrier is the undisputed leader in 5G technology.
If it sounds like hype, much of it is. So far.
Revving Up the Hype Engine
Have you noticed that you rarely have heard the term “4G” mentioned without the Long-Term Evolution (LTE) modifier? That may be because in their rush to be perceived as the first to market with 4G technology, some carriers jumped the gun a bit and marketed minimally enhanced 3G as “4G,” even though LTE, which came along later, should more properly have been considered the “real” 4G.
Mobile carriers are exercising somewhat more restraint this time around, but it’s wise to be skeptical of any claims this year around the availability of 5G networks or devices. Just because something has “5G” in its name doesn’t make it 5G.
5G Minus the Hype: What It Really Means
So what’s the reality behind the hype? Here are some reasons not to get excited about 5G (at least not yet):
- The 5G technical standards are not yet complete. The first standards document was approved by the Third Generation Partnership Project, the industry consortium that sets the technical specifications for cellular communication. However, it’s a “non-standalone” standard, which means it relies on underlying LTE technology. The full, standalone 5G standard is not scheduled for final approval and publication until later in 2018. Thus, any carrier marketing 5G capabilities now is probably leaning on the non-standalone 5G standard, in hopes of being seen as the “first to 5G.”
- Without complete standards, hardware development cannot begin. Specifically, work on the modem—the part of the device that connects it with the network—cannot begin until the technical specifications are settled. After that, it will be several months before the modems can be made available to device manufacturers, who have their own development cycles to contend with.
- Carriers need to build out 5G infrastructure before devices can use it. This is a complex and expensive task that will be accomplished in phases; the largest U.S. markets will see it first, spreading to smaller cities and finally rural areas over the next few years.
- The first available devices will not be smartphones. More likely, the first true 5G devices will be wireless hotspots, which will convert 5G signals into WiFi. Look for these towards the end of 2018.
- 5G won’t work with your current smartphone. The modem in your phone is not compatible with 5G, so using 5G in your phone will mean getting a new phone. 5G phones won’t be available until at least early 2019.
- Super-fast data speeds will be a work in progress. Carriers like to talk about 5G’s ability to download full-length 4K moves in seconds. This will be true in certain circumstances, such as when you’re standing still a short distance from a 5G base station. In the car or on the subway? Not so much. The trouble is, these super-fast speeds will rely on what’s called millimeter-wave signals, which can’t go through walls and fade within a short distance even in air. Supplying these speeds means a massive buildout of indoor and outdoor small, densely distributed base stations to provide adequate coverage. This will take a long time to achieve.
Another major unknown: cost. At this stage we simply don’t know the retail cost of the devices or service, or whether the data plans will be unlimited or throttled. No carriers are even setting a ballpark figure, but all of them are investing heavily in the technology and will need to recoup that investment. Stand by for sticker shock.
Believe It When You See It
That said, 5G does promise real benefits in ways that have little or nothing to do with smartphones. Autonomous robots in general, and driverless cars in particular, will have access to much more data, much faster, about the world around them, from onboard sensors, infrastructure systems, and other robots. This will enable them to make better decisions more quickly. Internet of Things (IoT) devices will benefit as well from the ubiquity of nearby base stations, enabling them to operate at lower power. In fact, many of the innovations that 5G will drive will be invisible to most people.
But of course, cell phones and services are what bring in revenue for the carriers, so that’s what they will emphasize most. But don’t buy into the hype until you see it in action.