You’ve heard the claims: 5G will enable safe self-driving cars, streaming virtual reality, long-distance surgery, 3D holographic video calls, the $50 smartphone and the four-hour workweek.
5G will usher in the real-time enterprise (RTE), we’re told, transforming business completely.
The companies building 5G technology say real-world 5G speeds will be 10 to 20 times faster than 4G — realistically between 100 and 200 Mbit/sec.
More importantly, 5G should have much lower latency — from around 20 milliseconds for today’s networks to about 1 millisecond with 5G — so everything in the cloud will be more responsive and video calls will be a lot better.
Best of all, the new 5G phones are coming out next year, so all these benefits are imminent.
Hooray! We’re months away from a 5G-enabled Age of Aquarius!
Well, I’m sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but 5G isn’t going to be all that great anytime soon.
Before I tell you why, first let’s talk about how, when and where 5G will emerge, starting with the phones.
Here come the 5G phones
Motorola’s Moto Z3 is the only phone currently available that can be upgraded to 5G. That would require a 5G Moto Mod add-on, which more than doubles the thickness of the phone. Still, it’s technically true that the first phone that can support 5G is already on the market.
Xiaomi may introduce its 5G-capable Mi Mix 3 smartphone next month.
Oppo’s 5G-supporting OnePlus 7 is expected to come out in January.
Sprint and LG are partnering on a 5G phone that works exclusively with the Sprint network. The phone is expected in the first half of next year.
Huawei is expected to introduce foldable 5G smartphones by summer.
While Apple hasn’t announced anything in the 5G department, companies such as Mobile Viewpoint are working on iPhone-supporting add-ons that give 5G compatibility to existing iPhones (and Android phones).
Most or all high-end smartphones should support 5G by 2022. Most smartphone users in the industrialized world will probably have 5G phones by 2025.
Very soon we’ll have 5G-enabled phones. That means we’ll have 5G, right?
A towering problem
Sci-fi author William Gibson’s observation that the “future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed” rings especially true for 5G.
The Los Angeles Convention Center, which is owned by the City of Los Angeles, is the first venue in the U.S. to install a permanent 5G wireless network, which it did earlier this month.
The U.K. carrier EE is already testing 5G in London. It expects to roll out 5G coverage in the city next year or the year after.
T-Mobile promises to launch in 30 U.S. cities next year, and Sprint in six cities.
China and South Korea are expecting to roll out 5G next year as well.
Unfortunately, these rollouts sound better than they actually are. When carriers promise rollouts in cities, it’s easy to imagine citywide coverage. But that’s not how 5G works.
How 5G works
Importantly, 5G isn’t one technology, but a complex collection of technologies, many of which have not been sorted out by the standards bodies.
In general, however, it’s helpful to oversimplify the explanation about how 5G works. So here goes.
The technologies behind 5G enable the use of very high frequencies. The higher the frequency, the shorter the wavelength. Shorter wavelengths enable faster speeds and lower latency.
But there’s the catch: With shorter wavelengths, the distance between the device and the “tower” has to be much shorter, and the signal has a harder time penetrating through materials such as walls and trees. To get around those obstacles, companies need to deploy vastly more towers than existing technologies do. And companies such as Verizon are using beamforming to direct signals around objects and toward devices.
In order to have reasonable coverage, providers have got to build 5G antennas and towers all over the place, and very close to users. It’s time-consuming and expensive to place these devices everywhere, so the rollout will be slow and uneven.
When companies such as Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon say they’re going to roll out 5G in a city, what they mean is that 5G will be available in some limited pockets in that city.
Because 5G connections suck more power, the chips that power 5G will be designed to favor 4G and kick into 5G mode only when the application demands high bandwidth.
Because of the need to save battery, because of limited distribution of antennas and towers and because of interference issues, our 5G-enabled smartphones will face huge barriers to actually making 5G connections.
Let me be very clear: Five years from now your smartphone will be using 4G almost all the time, even when you’ve got a 5G phone in a 5G city.
Reliable 5G networks will be few and far between, and won’t often be available while you’re out and about. The consistent, fast and reliable 5G nirvana everybody talks about will be available in some offices, entertainment venues and other locations, but not generally.
The wireless carriers hope 5G will enable them to compete with or replace ISPs, cable companies, and satellite internet and TV companies. So that’s nice. But it will probably be more than 15 years before 5G replaces 4G for most users most of the time.
5G won’t be reliable enough anytime soon for companies such as Apple and Samsung to remove the supercomputer-like processing power from smartphones and move everything to the cloud. I’m afraid that $1,000-plus smartphones are here to stay.
And because of the way 5G works, rollouts will soon face another huge hurdle.
The coming health scare around 5G
A coalition of 52 grassroots organizations called Americans for Responsible Technology this week called on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to slow 5G infrastructure deployments until we can figure out the health effects.
The organizations refer to “emerging science linking exposure to RF microwave radiation with serious biological harm.”
Cities, including Mill Valley, Calif., are already passing laws to stop 5G installations.
We’ve been through this before, right? The question of whether smartphone antennas and even Wi-Fi are harmful to human health has been debated for decades.
But 5G is different. The technology comes with a requirement that towers be far greater in number and far closer to users. Some residents in North Potomac say more than 60 5G wireless towers have been installed less than 30 feet from their front doors.
It’s possible that definitive, widely accepted proof may emerge that clearly shows a health risk from 5G wireless equipment. It’s likely that debate over the health effects will continue.
But it’s not even remotely conceivable that everybody will agree that 5G is harmless.
The only questions are: How widespread will opposition to 5G become, and how effective will that opposition be in delaying deployments?
I think it’s entirely possible that anti-5G political action will massively slow widespread deployments and make them come years or even decades later than today’s optimists predict.
So if you take anything away from this column, take this: Rosy scenarios about how awesome the world of 5G will be in a few years are simply not realistic.
For the next decade at least, actual 5G connectivity will be very rare indeed.