5G will connect cars, phones, computers, robots, tiny sensors, buildings, wearable computers and whatever else is dreamed up in coming decades.
Don’t worry too much about phone and Internet companies that say the sky is falling because of the net-neutrality regulations the FCC approved last week.
They’ll be singing a different song in a few days.
If you step back and notice what’s really going on in the industry, it looks like the sky is actually lighting up with new broadband technologies.
Generations of wireless technology
1G: The first generation of cellular phones generally provided analog voice service.
2G: Digital technology was introduced in the second generation of. These phones ran on one of three networks: GSM (Global System for Mobile), CDMA (code division multiple access) or TDMA (time division multiple access). They also handled some data services, notably SMS (text messaging),
3G: The third generation brought higher data speeds and more voice capacity. That helped transform the cellphone into a much-used data device that enabled more Web use, streaming video and other digital technology. Most usage was based on the UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) platform, which is based on WCDMA (Wideband CDMA) technology.
4G: Under the fourth generation, cellphones gained even more speed and data-handling capacity. The technology broadened the phone’s appeal as a ubiquitous mobile broadband device, essentially a mobile computer. Most of the phones work on the LTE (Long-Term Evolution) standard.
5G: There’s no clear definition for fifth-generation technology, nor has there been agreed-upon standards. Generally, it refers to technology that provides much higher speeds, perhaps hundreds times faster than LTE. It’s expected to make it easier for devices to communicate with each other, facilitating the Internet of things.
The same companies that argue the Federal Communications Commission is stifling innovation are gearing up to spend tens of billions of dollars in the next few years developing fifth-generation — or 5G — wireless networks.
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Really, the FCC’s timing was brilliant. Having the vote Thursday gave the telecom industry just a few days to complain before it flew to Barcelona for the annual Mobile World Congress, which starts Monday.
Nobody at the conference wants to hear U.S. telecom bosses complain about onerous regulations. Especially not European companies, which have it much worse.
Instead, most everyone at the shindig will be talking about the exciting potential of 5G networks.
Demos of “pre-5G” technology will be presented at the show, pointing toward deployments of networks that are expected to begin operating within the next five years. Japan aims to have a 5G network capable of delivering 4K video to the crowds at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
Perhaps you’ll then wonder whether to hold off upgrading to iPhone 7s because it will be compatible only with pokey old 4G.
Specifications for 5G are being worked out, but goals include speeds exceeding 10 gigabits per second, ultralow latency, a 1,000 times reduction in power consumption and dramatically better coverage indoors, according to a recent report by Issaquah-based industry analyst Chetan Sharma.
Samsung already has demonstrated 5G speeds of 7.5 gigabit per second, and last week 5G researchers at the University of Surrey in England reportedly reached 1 terabit per second.
Also intriguing is the evolution of business models that 5G will enable. More than just a single, new phone network, it’s expected to blend various networks — including Wi-Fi hot spots, 4G and 5G — into a sort of mesh. It will connect cars, phones, computers, robots, tiny sensors, buildings, wearable computers and whatever else is dreamed up in coming decades.
Mobile devices in the 5G generation will be designed to seamlessly switch between networks, hopping onto Wi-Fi when it’s available. It will look for the best or cheapest option for the application you’re using at that moment. It may even hand off the signal to satellites or perhaps a nearby Google Loon broadband-serving balloon.
Ideally it will be smooth enough that you’re just connected and don’t have to pay attention to what sort of network you’re using.
Meanwhile, incumbent phone companies probably will hire an army of lawyers and lobbyists to dissect and appeal the new FCC regulations. The FCC is finally treating broadband — wired and wireless — as essential service, but the rules look pretty soft and won’t control prices or require that everyone gets decent service.
Whether or not they appeal, industry lawyers will be busy haggling over vague passages, such as a provision allowing for “reasonable network management.”
That looks like a loophole that could be exploited as broadband becomes a more dynamic service, with software-managed networks and device radios that automatically reroute traffic to faster or slower connection points.
Will it be reasonable for Verizon to manage its network by diverting your email activity to a 3G or 4G antenna while reserving faster 5G nodes for movie streaming? Or is your work more important than watching Netflix?
Still, the Great Net Neutrality Fight of 2015 will soon be eclipsed by the telecom giants’ massive effort to advance their networks and stay ahead of new competitors they’ll face in the 5G era.
Google is apparently ready to enter the business, reportedly in an alliance with T-Mobile US and Sprint, and the Dish satellite TV company may join as well.
Other companies — such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Amazon.com — could also become 5G network operators as the business model around connectivity evolves.
Your monthly wireless bill might even fade away. It could be wrapped into the monthly or annual fee you pay Microsoft to use Office 730 and Windows 12. Those products and services could hypothetically be bundled with anytime, anywhere 5G access.
Amazon has shown how this can be done with Kindle e-readers that bundle mobile network access with the price of the device. They also shift from cell networks to Wi-Fi when it’s available.
The arrival of 5G won’t directly lead to cheaper options for wired broadband service at your home or business. Neither will the FCC’s new regulations.
But if 5G wireless fulfills its promise of wireless connections as fast and stable as a fiber-optic broadband cable, that should weaken the grip Comcast and others have on high-grade, residential broadband.
The privacy implications make you shudder. But imagine what it would be like if Google, Microsoft and Facebook ended up competing against each other and the big wireless carriers to sell you ad-supported, high-speed 5G broadband — fast enough to deliver ultrahigh definition video to your phone, PC, TV and car.
Prices would fall and Comcast would have to offer far better deals to hang on to subscribers.
Yes, the new FCC regulations add some compliance requirements and complexity. They could muddle the situation if the FCC changes course and decides to step up enforcement.
But my guess is that there’s already too much momentum behind 5G and the opportunities this Next Big Thing will create to slow things down.