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5G Is Coming This Year

This year a big technology shift will finally begin. It’s a once-in-a-decade upgrade to our wireless systems that will start reaching mobile phone users in a matter of months.

But this is not just about faster smartphones. The transition to new fifth-generation cellular networks — known as 5G for short — will also affect many other kinds of devices, including industrial robots, security cameras, drones and cars that send traffic data to one another. This new era will leap ahead of current wireless technology, known as 4G, by offering mobile Internet speeds that will let people download entire movies within seconds and most likely bring big changes to video games, sports and shopping.

Officials in the United States and China see 5G networks as a competitive edge. The faster networks could help spread the use of artificial intelligence and other cutting-edge technologies.

Expect to hear more about 5G soon at events like the big consumer electronics trade show CES this month in Las Vegas and MWC Barcelona (formerly the Mobile World Congress) in February in Spain. Wireless service providers including AT&T and Verizon are already talking up 5G. And device makers are previewing gadgets that will work with the technology.

Samsung recently demonstrated prototypes of 5G smartphones that are expected to operate on both Verizon and AT&T networks. Many other manufacturers are racing to follow suit, though Apple is not expected in the initial 5G wave. Analysts predict that iPhones with the new technology won’t arrive until 2020. An Apple spokeswoman declined to comment.

What exactly is 5G? Strictly speaking, 5G is a set of technical ground rules that define the workings of a cellular network, including the radio frequencies used and how various components like computer chips and antennas handle radio signals and exchange data.

Since the first cellphones were demonstrated in the 1970s, engineers from multiple companies have convened to agree on new sets of specifications for cellular networks, which are designated a new technology generation every decade or so. To get the benefits of 5G, users will have to buy new phones, while carriers will need to install new transmission equipment to offer the faster service.

How fast will 5G be? The answer depends on where you live, which wireless services you use and when you decide to take the 5G plunge. Qualcomm, the wireless chipmaker, said it had demonstrated peak 5G download speeds of 4.5 gigabits a second, but predicts initial median speeds of about 1.4 gigabits. That translates to roughly 20 times faster than the current 4G experience.

The 5G speeds will be particularly noticeable in higher-quality streaming video. And downloading a typical movie at the median speeds cited by Qualcomm would take 17 seconds with 5G, compared with six minutes for 4G.

Rather than remembering to download a season of a favourite television show before heading to the airport, for example, you could do it while in line to board a plane, said Justin Denison, a Samsung senior vice president.

There’s also another kind of speed, a lag known as latency, that may become even more important with 5G. Issue a command now on a smartphone — like starting a web search — and the response isn’t exactly immediate. A lag of 50 to several hundred milliseconds is common, partly because signals often must pass between different carrier switching centres; 5G, which uses newer networking technology, is designed to reduce latency down to a few milliseconds. It is also designed to deliver signals more reliably than earlier cellular networks, which today frequently drop bits of data that aren’t essential for tasks like watching movies on a phone.

That improvement could bring many benefits, notably in fields such as virtual reality. The highest-quality VR applications now typically require bulky headsets that are connected by wire to nearby personal computers that generate 3D images. With 5G, that would be off-loaded wirelessly to other machines, freeing users to move and making it easier to develop goggles the size of eyeglasses, said Cristiano Amon, president of Qualcomm’s semiconductor business.

When will 5G be here? The answer for smartphone users in the US appears to be by the second quarter of 2019; precise timing is uncertain.

Verizon and AT&T will introduce their 5G offerings with the first use of high frequencies that are known by the phrase “millimeter wave”. Using this, the wireless providers can pump data at high speeds, but the signals don’t travel as far. So the two carriers are expected to first target densely populated areas — “parts or pockets” of cities.

Still, 5G’s full benefits aren’t expected until US carriers upgrade key central switching equipment, which may not happen until late 2019 or sometime in 2020. – NST

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