On October 1, the first commercial 5G services rolled out to a small number of customers in select parts of Sacramento, Houston, Los Angeles and Indianapolis. While limited in scope and accessibility, it’s an early milestone in what many are arguing will be the most profound technological leap we have ever seen.
But as the country prepares for 5G, what many still don’t understand is how it all works. To put it simply, 5G is not a single wireless technology, but an umbrella term used to categorize the fifth generation of wireless communication, offering networks that are 100 times faster, support 100 times more devices and feature five times lower latency.
The move from first generation wireless to second generation (2G) brought texting capabilities, while 3G enabled mobile users to browse the internet at speeds previously only experienced with a desktop computer. The evolution continued with 4G, which ushered in a new economy of mobile applications like Uber and AirBnB. But analysts predict the 5G standard will promise even greater disruption by connecting billions of devices in our homes, cars, offices and cities, using some of the fastest and most reliable ways possible. And companies across the telecom industry, from wireless providers like Verizon to broadband operators like Charter Communications, are conducting 5G trials in markets across the country – many of which are exceeding initial expectations.
5G will have an impact similar to the introduction of electricity or the car, affecting entire economies and benefiting entire societies.
“Why does 5G matter?” asked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at the White House 5G summit in September. “Because it could effectively remove speed, responsiveness, and capacity as meaningful constraints on wireless innovation.…These are major advancements. And they’ll open the door to new services and applications that will grow our economy and improve our standard of living… some of which we can’t even conceive today,” he continued.
This range of new 5G technologies are underpinned by a fundamentally unique architecture different than all of the previous generations of wireless infrastructure (2G, 3G, 4G,) that have come before it. A key component of this unique infrastructure is the transition from traditional large cell towers spread out over long distances to a network of smaller cells strung more closely together.
These smaller cells will leverage a higher frequency than current 4G transmitters, meaning their signals will carry a lot more data at much higher speeds. While 5G transmitters will produce much more bandwidth than current 4G LTE transmitters, they have a shorter effective range – meaning in some cases, they will sit just a block apart. To put that infrastructure change into perspective, the country will need an estimated 800,000 new cell sites by 2025 to remain competitive in 5G.
“5G is a technology,” Charter’s Tom Rutledge told CNBC. “We have a better platform to deploy that technology, I think, than the cellular industry does because we are fully distributed from a high-capacity wireline perspective. If you think about what 5G is, it is small cells. Small cells mean you need lots of wireline connectivity to make the small cells work. We think we are actually in a better position to do that than traditional cellular companies.”
5G is a technology. We have a better platform to deploy that technology, I think, than the cellular industry does because we are fully distributed from a high-capacity wireline perspective.
To simplify, wires are key to powering the next generation of wireless communication. And maintaining, enhancing and expanding wireline infrastructure is crucial for closing the connectivity gaps, particularly in more rural communities. Truly ubiquitous connectivity will rely on a combination of industries, providers, and multiple technologies, including enhanced Gigabit WiFi, 4G LTE and 5G.
And to prepare for this complex infrastructure expansion, industry stakeholders are calling for a friendlier regulatory environment: “We will not have the hundreds of thousands of small cells and miles of fiber needed for 5G unless we have a regulatory approval process that encourages deployment,” says FCC Chairman Pai, “Consider this: It takes roughly one or two hours to install a small cell on a utility pole. But it can routinely take more than two years to get the approval to install that antenna.”
So, whether it’s deploying new wireless technologies or enhancing existing broadband networks, the success of 5G will require a balanced framework that promotes deployment, innovation and competition to connect Americans like never before.