The FCC will take a number of significant actions in the final months of 2018 to facilitate the development of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology. First, at its October meeting tomorrow, it will vote on making a portion of mid-band spectrum (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) available for 5G use. Second, it will launch in November the first of two high-band 5G spectrum auctions scheduled for 2018. Now is therefore a good time to take a look at what 5G is, and what impact it promises to have.
Looking back, the primary benefit of the transition from 3G to 4G was a significant speed boost, which allowed users to, among other things, stream YouTube and upload videos to social media platforms like Instagram without much waiting. Once implemented, 5G is expected to deliver download speeds anywhere from 10-100 times faster than 4G, with speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second. 5G users will also experience significantly less latency, i.e., the time between when you click on a link and when the network responds. While 4G latency is about 9 milliseconds, mature 5G systems will reduce latency to around 1 millisecond.
Mature 5G networks will use high-band spectrum (24 GHz and above), which is capable of transmitting significantly more data than 4G, but is limited to much shorter distances. 4G towers currently deliver service for up to 10 miles, while high-band 5G towers will only deliver service for up to 1,000 feet (about 3 football fields).
In addition, high-band 5G spectrum has a shorter wavelength than spectrum used for 4G, making it more difficult for these signals to penetrate solid objects such as walls and windows. To overcome the distance and signal penetration challenges, 5G will require vast networks of small-cell sites located on a diverse array of real estate platforms, with the small-cells anchored by larger cell towers. To streamline the deployment of small-cells, the FCC in March adopted new rules to reduce regulatory impediments to building out small-cell infrastructure, and in September adopted rules requiring state and local governments to approve or deny small-cell applications within prescribed time periods. Not surprisingly, the new rules are unpopular with local governments, who object to any federal interference with their local site review processes.
There are numerous potential innovations and business models that can utilize 5G’s faster speeds, lower latency, and increased connection capacity. Most agree that 5G will deliver seamless 4K video streaming and instant downloads of large files, but it could also dramatically change how users, including machines, access the Internet. Currently, the primary option for residential and enterprise broadband customers is cable or fiber. With speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second (and no need for wire infrastructure), 5G could disrupt the delivery of fixed Internet access as we know it.
5G will also allow the Internet of Things to flourish. Specifically, it will allow vastly more “things” to connect to cell sites and remain connected to the Internet without the need to connect through smartphones or Wi-Fi. 4G can connect about 2,000 devices per square kilometer, while 5G will connect about one million over the same area. For example, 5G could facilitate thousands of driverless cars in the same city talking to each other to coordinate efficient traffic flow without the need for passengers to open an app on their phone, or even to have a phone.
Another potentially transformative use of 5G is remote medicine. For example, given the high speed and low latency of 5G, medical procedures could be performed using robot arms controlled by doctors in a different part of the country or world, harnessing almost instantaneous data transmission and lowering geographic barriers to treatment. Similarly, augmented and virtual reality gaming, shopping, and other experiences should blossom under 5G.
Rollout of 5G will be gradual. Following pilot programs in 2018 in select cities, wireless carriers are expected to launch the first iterations of widespread 5G networks in the United States in 2019. 5G-enabled smartphones are also expected to be released in 2019. The first 5G networks will likely use low (600 to 900 MHz) and mid-band (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) spectrum already possessed by wireless carriers, rather than the high-band spectrum that will make up the majority of spectrum auctioned by the FCC for 5G use. As a result, initial 5G networks will only scratch the surface of 5G’s potential, delivering speeds ranging from 10% faster than 4G to three times as fast. Mature iterations of 5G networks that use high-band spectrum are expected to arrive in 2-4 years.