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Tech Explainer: When will 5G deliver on its promises?

Kevin Jacoby's picture

by Kevin Jacoby on 03/15/2021
Blog Category: devices

5G mobile technology is hot. Maybe too hot.

To be sure, 5G is pushing smartphone sales to new highs. Market watcher IDC expects 5G to account for 40% of all smartphone sales this year. That could translate into as many as 539 million 5G-enabled smartphones shipping worldwide this year, according to Gartner.

Yet 5G is also still in its infancy. Over-hyped marketing messages make more promises than the mobile tech can deliver.

Yes, 5G will eventually deliver on its promises of high-speed cellular broadband, life-saving telemedicine and autonomous vehicles. Yes, 5G will eventually connect some 50 billion IoT devices. And yes, 5G will eventually obviate wired cable, DSL and fiber-optic internet connections.

But all those changes are in the near-to-middle future. For now, you’ll want to read the fine print. Because first, we have some antennas to install and some physical barriers to overcome.

Not ready for prime time

For an example of how 5G gets hyped, take a look at Apple’s recent introduction of the iPhone 12, the company’s first smartphone to support 5G. Apple sure knows how to make a splash.

During the iPhone 12’s unveiling, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg strutted his stuff next to Apple’s Tim Cook, both of them extolling the virtues of 5G. They might have been delivering a miracle cure to a long-beleaguered populace. But the only cure they offered was for their own smartphone sales figures, which have been declining since early last year.

Apple iPhone 12

Apple iPhone 12: Connects to a 5G signal—if you can find one

Were Hans and Tim lying about the brilliance of 5G? No, they just neglected to mention how much time will be needed to achieve it.

3 ways to 5G

To understand why 5G is still a work in progress, it helps to know a bit about the technology. One important fact is that there are actually 3 types of 5G networks:

> Low-band 5G: Uses a frequency range similar to 4G (600 to 800 MHz), but offers slightly better performance by delivering 30 to 250 megabits per second (Mbps).

> Mid-band 5G: Currently the most widely deployed 5G signal, it operates on 2.5 to 3.7 GHz microwaves and offers speeds of 100 to 900 Mbps. It’s a speed bump, to be sure, but not the one we’ve all been waiting for.

> High-band 5G: The most widely anticipated and yet least deployed version. Its 25 to 39 GHz millimeter waves are capable of delivering download speeds that would be world-changing—if only they could travel through walls and windows.

Hide and seek

5G is here now, kind of. Your snazzy new iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S20 can jump on a high-band 5G signal right now—if, that is, you can find one.

Big metropolitan areas such as New York City and Philadelphia have a few millimeter-wave antennas here and there. If you stumble onto the right spot, connecting to one of these antennas is as easy as waking up your phone. But keeping that delicious high-speed goodness? That’s another matter entirely.

Millimeter waves are notoriously weak. They don’t like to travel long distances. And unlike their lower-frequency brethren, they can’t float through solid objects.

So if you’re lucky enough to find a high-band signal, you’ll have to enjoy it while standing still. Walking half a block could demote you from gobs of gigabits to a mild megabit mélange.

A 5G future

Like any new technology, 5G will need to get through its growing pains. Then it can mature into the basis for vast, reliable high-speed networks.

In the near future, low-band 5G will be relegated to emerging nations. The industrialized world will perfect mid-band coverage while also taking successive steps towards wider deployment of high-band 5G.

5G for smart transport

Qualcomm envisions a 5G-connected smart city

When that near future comes to pass, we’ll start to see a wave of disruption in a wide range of verticals. For example, gaming will finally cut the cord and begin to live its best mobile life. Similarly, ISPs will wake up to the harsh reality that we don’t need their gigabit pipes anymore. (Why would we, since we’ll just grab those gigabytes out of the air?)

5G should also make smart cities a reality. A great, silent conversation will begin between smart devices—including smart cars, phones, sidewalks, traffic lights and billboards—and the businesses that line Main Street, USA. If that sounds today like a sci-fi flick, tomorrow it’ll just sound like home.

For now, we’ll have to satisfy ourselves with only marginally faster mobile data. Until the eggheads in Verizon’s basement figure out how to bring millimeter waves to the masses, it’s mid-band all the way.

Is that all we hoped for? Is that all we were promised? No. But it does let us peek into the not-too-distant future of high-band 5G. For now, that’ll have to do.


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