An estimated 4.5 billion mobile users worldwide subscribe to 4G data plans, according to research from Ericisson. That figure is expected to balloon to 7.7 billion by 2021. However, as this established networking format further solidifies its spot in the global marketplace, the technology meant to overtake it gains strength.
Telecommunications companies everywhere are now testing out fifth-generation mobile networks, which promise to be significantly faster than their predecessors. How fast? Users accessing 4G networks can download one feature-length film in eight minutes, The New York Times reported. Those equipped with 5G connections would be able to complete the same activity in fewer than five seconds. Even so, the technology is still in its early stages, as carriers and software and hardware providers search for workable methods to replicate the early successes they have achieved in the laboratory out in the real world, according to The Times.
"The only way of learning is by doing," Mats Svardh, director of networks for the Stockholm-based telecommunications firm Telia Company, told the newspaper. "It's about putting pressure on ourselves to move forward with specifics, not just theories."
Navigating new networking terrain
Fifth-generation mobile networks offer much potential. However, their core architecture presents serious problems from an implementation standpoint. Fourth-generation networks use low-frequency waves, which easily travel long distances and circumvent large obstacles such as buildings or dense forests, according to Wired. Consequently, carriers create vast 4G networks without installing large numbers of antennas. The 5G networks in development, on the other hand, operate within the higher frequencies of the wireless spectrum and rely on millimeter waves to transmit data. These waves do not travel as far as those emitted in 4G setups and have a tougher time navigating physical obstacles. This necessitates more antennas – a tricky requirement for telecommunications teams.
Some carriers are attempting to address this challenge by combining millimeter and low-frequency wave technology. Qualcomm announced such an initiative last year and Intel recently unveiled a 5G modem that would work within this combined multi-wave framework.
Even with this complication, those involved with the development of fifth-generation networks are passionate about the technology as it opens up exciting new networking opportunities. For instance, 5G users would be able to leverage networking power from multiple antennas, increasing both connection speed and capacity.
"Basically, 5G will provide a wider pipeline and faster lanes," Marc Tracey, a spokesperson for Verizon, explained in an interview with Wired.
Early experiments show promise
Some carriers have moved their 5G development efforts out of the lab and into the field. The University of Surrey near London is one of the major testing grounds for the technology, The Times reported. Here, major companies like Fujitsu and Samsung are working with telecommunications partners to deploy early 5G networks, testing their speeds and toying with implementation methods. Rahim Tafazolli, Ph.D., director of the school's 5G Innovation Centre, organizes much of this activity, according to The Economist. Approximately 44 5G antennas crowd the University of Surrey campus, mirroring the packed field of competitors hoping to roll-out industry-leading technology and put a stranglehold on the market.
"A lot of the technology already works in a laboratory environment," Tafazolli told The Times. "Now, we have to prove it works in real life. In the race to 5G, everyone wants to be first."
Innovators fight for first place
Myriad companies across a variety of sectors are rushing to design, develop and release functioning 5G technology.
Verizon was one of the first carriers to commit to the race for fifth-generation mobile networking technology. The company announced its efforts nearly two years ago, publicizing an internal push to become the first to field test 5G, according to CNET. More recently, the carrier beat out AT&T in a bidding war to purchase Straight Path Communications, which produces millimeter wave technology, Reuters reported. Verizon acquired the company for $2.3 billion in an effort to bolster its 5G development efforts. However, AT&T is holding its own in the 5G arms race. In April the organization made 5G wireless access available to Austin, Texas-based customers with Samsung devices and announced plans to launch the technology in 19 other metros, including Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco, by the end of the year, according to a press release. Earlier this month, the carrier debuted another 5G trial in the Austin area exclusively for DIRECTV NOW users.
In May, T Mobile took the pursuit of 5G technology to a new level, announcing the forthcoming deployment of its own nationwide fifth-generation network. Like Qualcomm, T Mobile will leverage a combination of low-frequency and millimeter waves to deliver the service, which it says will debut sometime in 2019.
Of course, carriers are not the only ones exploring the market for 5G. Technology firms like Google and Samsung are also looking into supporting fifth-generation connectivity. The former has a particularly fantastical strategy in the works. In January of last year, technology community insiders caught wind of an ambitious secret project called SkyBender in the works at Google, The Guardian reported. Engineers involved with the initiative are working to develop solar-powered drones capable of beaming 5G connectivity back to earth. However, the search giant is not the first organization to look into such fixtures. The U.S. military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pursued a similar strategy back in 2014 via a mobile hot spot program involving unmanned aerial vehicles. No matter the origins of the idea, SkyBender holds serious potential not only for customers in developed nations but also those in less established states.
Governmental agencies are also jockeying for position in the 5G arena, according to The Economist. Japan and South Korea are most active due to their hosting duties in upcoming Olympics. The former hopes to introduce 5G prior to the summer games in 2020, while the latter works with a more condensed timetable as 2018 winter contests in Pyeongchang approach.
Deployment in sight
With all of these entities hastily pursuing fifth-generation networking technology, many wonder when consumers might have access to such high-speed networks. U.S. carriers are collectively working toward a launch date of 2020, according to Wired. Ericsson estimates there will be at least 150 million active 5G subscriptions across the globe by 2021.
Once 5G becomes available on a large scale, users can expect more than increased connection speed. This technology will have the power to support all kinds of connected devices, from biometric trackers and mobile augmented and virtual reality setups to advanced light detection and ranging solutions installed in driverless cars.
"Where you saw a growth in 4G was around data-centric, smartphone-centric use cases," Rob Topol, general manager for 5G operations at Intel, told Wired. "We're looking beyond the smartphone for 5G."
Everyday users and business customers have much to gain from this latest advance – a development with the potential to transform mobile networks across the globe and streamline modern communications.