It's out there on the horizon, tantalizingly close but hard to see, and eagerly awaited by an increasingly connected world.
It's called 5G, essentially the next generation of wireless connectivity after 4G LTE, and it holds the promise of more speed and capacity and lower latency to unlock the potential of everything from gaming, streaming video and virtual reality (VR) to the internet of things (IoT), smart cities, machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and autonomous cars.
In a world where there will be 20 billion to 50 billion or more connected devices by 2020, 5G is seen as the technology that can connect all these systems and sensors and machines, enabling them to more easily link to the cloud and communicate with each other.
It will be the answer for telecommunications companies whose networks are under increasing pressure from the skyrocketing traffic brought on by the proliferation of connected devices, video streaming, cloud computing, data analytics and other emerging trends.
All that said, it's going to take time for 5G to get here. The standards for 5G wireless aren't expected to be all set until 2020, with ramping happening after that. However, as the standards bodies get on with their efforts, work is being done on multiple fronts—from carriers and tech vendors to consortiums and governments—to push the industry in that direction and to be ready as the standards start to gel.
At the same time, there's also work ongoing to improve the speeds and capabilities of 4G LTE, creating a scenario where the two technologies will co-exist going into the next decade. Still, for many organizations, 5G can't get here soon enough.
"Mobile data traffic on AT&T's national wireless network increased more 150,000 percent from January 2007-December 2015," Hank Kafka, AT&T's vice president of radio access and devices, wrote in an email to eWEEK.
"We're engineering and designing for another 10X growth in volume across the network. Today, more than 60 percent of our network traffic is video and we expect continued growth. We believe 5G will add higher capacity, lower latency and faster throughput. We also anticipate it will bring great opportunity to further scale up the IoT, including smart grids, connected cars, homes and cities, connected health and more."
Accelerating 5G Innovation
Carriers estimate 5G will offer speeds 10 to 100 times faster than current 4G LTE networks. Picture downloading a full-length high-definition video onto a smartphone in seconds rather than minutes.
There will be plenty of bandwidth to support all the devices and systems that will make up the IoT with latency at 1 millisecond, almost where it needs to be for such applications as V2X (vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-cloud) communications. The latency on today's 4G networks is about 50 ms.
"We are moving into a constantly connected world," Nigel Eastwood, CEO of New Call Telecom in the UK, wrote in a column in the Economic Times. "We are able to connect with friends anytime, anywhere, or do live stock trading or shop anytime. … Internet of things, driverless cars, augmented reality will all be real in the coming years and all will depend on telecom networks for smooth, seamless functioning."
Industry analysts are expecting the ramp to 5G to be quick once standards are in place and products start hitting the market. ABI Research analysts are predicting that by 2025, mobile broadband operators worldwide will see 5G revenues of $247 billion.
"5G will be a fast-growing cellular technology, most probably faster than preceding generations, including 4G," Joe Hoffman, managing director and vice president at ABI, said in a statement. "The technology migration over the next few years will mean the continued decline of 2G. 3G and 4G will grow in many markets, but 5G will generate new use cases and market revenues."
The building blocks for 5G are being put in place now. The 3GPP (3rd Generation Partner Project), which defined the standards for 4G, is beginning to work on creating the underlying standards around the new technology with the first step beginning in 2018 and the rest of the work running into 2019 and 2020. However, even as the standards work is ongoing, telcos and tech vendors are making incremental steps toward 5G.