If you look at the corner of your phone, you’re probably used to seeing a little indicator that says 4G LTE, 3G, or, god forbid, 2G, and you’ve come to recognize that it probably has something to do with your phone’s connection to your mobile network. The higher the “G,” the faster the connection.
It’s pretty easy to follow: The G stands for generation, and each subsequent generation refers to a specific minimum speed, connectivity, and reliability necessary to classify the network as that particular generation. 1G let us talk to each other, 2G let us send messages, 3G gave us data and internet, and 4G/LTE made it a whole lot faster.
But all those networks will be things of the past, because on the horizon is 5G. And while you may be thinking that 5G is just a little faster, a little more reliable, and a little newer, it’s actually more than that. It’s a massive breakthrough that’s going to change the way devices connect to the internet, and more importantly, to each other. In fact, as 5G rolls out over the next two years, it’s going to change everything that uses a wireless connection; at this point, it is pretty much everything. So, what’s so special about a 5G future?
First of all, it’s fast. Like, really fast — 20 gigabits per second over wireless fast. That’s 100-to-250-times faster than 4G. By comparison, 4G provides average speeds of about 10-to-20 megabits a second. So, it’s like going from streaming one Netflix movie in HD, to streaming 400 films in 8k at the same time.
But what’s more impressive is 5G’s low-latency rate, or the amount of delay between the sending and receiving of information. Now, 4G tends to average about 100-200 milliseconds. To be fair, 100 milliseconds is fast; human reaction time is about 200-300 milliseconds. But 5G will get it down to 1 millisecond or less, which is almost real-time.
Self-driving cars may be one of the biggest breakthroughs to come out of 5G.
Being able to send and receive information that quickly means that we can use 5G to replace real-time interactions. What that means is, you’ll be able to interact with people, objects, or characters controlled by someone else, with no lag on either side. Play a real-time first-person shooter on your phone. Control virtual objects with other people simultaneously. Put on a headset and fly a drone or drive a car that’s somewhere else, in real life. Or, better yet, let it drive itself. It all sounds implausible right now, but that’s what’s capable with 5G in the future.
And self-driving cars may be one of the biggest breakthroughs to come out of 5G — sending data between one another, and communicating with traffic lights, road sensors, aerial drones, and so on. Think about it: Human reaction speed is 200 milliseconds, yet we still have accidents every day.
Imagine if your car could react and communicate its reaction to hundreds of cars around it, all within a millisecond. Not only could we prevent car accidents, we could end traffic jams altogether. Hundreds of self-driving cars that move in concert, with limited risk that they’ll hit each other because they all know exactly where they are in real-time and reacting to the actual world around them.
5G could also power the next generation of robotic devices. Surgeries could be performed from the other side of the world, with robot controlled in real-time by expert human surgeons — saving lives in situations where time and distance are the difference between life and death.
4G can go ten kilometers and barely lose signal. 5G maxes out at about 300 meters and can’t go through walls or rain.
Factories can be staffed by robots that can communicate their task and position to each other, allowing them to not only do more, but do it efficiently and wirelessly over a 5G network. Imagine a fleet of drones flying over a field of crops, using sensors on the ground to sort, pick, feed, and water individual plants – all on their own.
5G will revolutionize the future, and companies have already spent billions to set up their networks and to fund new technologies that can use it. But, that’s not to say 5G is perfect. One major drawback has to do with why it’s so fast. See, 5G uses a mix of frequencies, with most of the attention on millimeter waves compared to the 15-40 centimeter-long waves used by 4G. And shorter waves and higher frequencies have one big drawback: They don’t go very far. Whereas on 4G networks, you can go ten kilometers and barely lose signal. 5G maxes out at about 300 meters, and it can’t even go through walls or rain.
So, what does that mean? Well, it’s a gift and a curse. Having such a short signal distance means building a lot of transmitters, every couple hundred meters in every direction. On the other hand, it also means that you can pack more devices into one area. Currently, 4G allows connectivity to a million devices in 500 square kilometers. That’s about the size of Chicago. 5G, on the other hand, will allow a million devices in 1 square kilometer, or a bit smaller than Grant Park in Chicago.
Meanwhile, some companies like T-Mobile are claiming to have successfully managed to pull off 5G on the old 4G frequency of 600 MHz, which can serve hundreds of miles in every direction from a single tower. However, reports are mixed about whether or not they’ll be able to achieve the speeds and latency we’ve talked about here.