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Now I Get It: 5G cell networks

David Pogue
Tech Critic

We’re hearing a lot about 5G lately — but that’s nothing compared to the bombardment of 5G marketing you’ll get in 2019.

5G, of course, is short for “fifth generation cellular network” You had your 2G, and then your 3G, and then your 4G. The cell carriers will turn on 5G networks in a handful of cities this year, and the first phones with 5G will be out early next year.

The first cool thing about 5G is its speed. In cities, it will be 20 times faster than 4G — probably faster than your internet at home or at work. In rural areas, it’ll be seven to nine times as fast.

5G will also have huge capacity — bandwidth — to the point where all cellphone plans will be unlimited. Really unlimited. You won’t get lower-quality video when you’re on cellular. You won’t have to wait till you have Wi-Fi to download a big app.

All that speed and capacity will affect the creation of apps, too. Your “pipe” to the internet will be so fast that it will feel like a wired connection — to much bigger, faster computers than you could ever fit into a phone. We’ll be able to use apps that require far more powerful processors.

Beyond the cellphone

Finally, 5G is the first network standard designed for much more than cellphones.

“The idea was to invent a technology that would run the gamut, from connecting a very simple sensor that needs to send only a few bits of data infrequently, to giving you multi-gigabit-per-second internet access in the palm of their hand,” says Sherif Hanna, Qualcomm’s (QCOM) director of 5G marketing.

“How do you design one technology that can scale those two extremes? How do you use that same technology to do things like enable autonomous cars to communicate with each other, or a pilot on the ground to communicate with a drone that they’re flying a few miles away? We architected 5G to comprehend all of those. That was never done with any previous generation of cellular.”

With 5G, Hanna says, “We’re truly trying to aim for a world where you don’t have to think twice about adding cellular to any object. There’s gonna be a low-power, low-cost option for anything you can imagine. Why would I make this tracker work only with Bluetooth, when I can throw a 5G modem in there and now it’ll work anywhere in the country?”

Millimeter wave

So where on earth is the 5G industry going to find available frequencies of the radio spectrum that haven’t already been snapped up? After all, the cell carriers pay billions of dollars for whatever frequencies that become available.

Qualcomm decided to focus on a set of previously worthless and unused frequencies called millimeter wave.

Why unused?

“It’s really hard to use millimeter wave,” Hanna says. “It’s very finicky, very tricky. Everything blocks millimeter wave. If you stand in front of it, you block the signal. You put your hand on the antenna, and you kill the signal completely. And it behaves erratically. It bounces and scatters off hard surfaces— the sides of buildings, or cars, or even lampposts.”

Furthermore, the signals don’t travel very far. Today’s 4G LTE “small cells” (the transmitter boxes on utility poles) are usually spaced about half a mile apart. But millimeter-wave small cells would have to be 500 feet apart to provide solid coverage.

Qualcomm wasn’t sure it could solve these problems. “It was a risky bet. It was a bet-the-company kind of bet,” Hanna says. “If we could get millimeter-wave signals to behave, the payoff could be huge. I’m talking about real-world speeds in excess of a gigabit per second, with 5-millisecond latency. Ridiculous, insane speeds that most people in the U.S. don’t have access to even at home or at work. And we’re gonna try make that available in your city!”

Qualcomm solved the blockage problem by ricocheting the millimeter-wave signal off of buildings. “The small cell will figure out where the device is, will create a beam, almost like a focused laser beam, and will literally bounce it off a building and get around the corner to where the device is,” Hanna says. “The device will do a reverse trick shot — will figure out which angle the beam is coming from, and will generate one in the same direction to return back to the small cell.”

As for the short range: There’s no solution except to put up a lot of small cells (transmitter boxes) on light poles and utility poles.

Fortunately, in dense cities like New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, cell carriers have already built an appropriate density of these cells, for 4G, just to keep up with our data demands. “All of those investments they’ve already made in urban areas will pay off immediately in 5G,” Hanna says. “They can go to those same street lamps and clip on a 5G radio. Then they’ll have to add a few more.”

What kind of speed?

Because of the requirements to bounce the signals (and put up a lot of boxes), millimeter-wave 5G will be available only in big cities. (And that’s only if resident lawsuits don’t stop cell carriers from installing all those new boxes.)

Everywhere else — in residential and rural America — will get a much slower flavor of 5G, giving you a seven-times or nine-times speedup instead of 20 times.

That, however, is still an enormous acceleration — one that, Hanna believes, will usher in a new world of fast, instantaneous, super-powered cellular data. It should be fast enough and unlimited enough to last us the rest of our lives —or at least until 6G comes along.

Disclosure: Yahoo Finance parent company, Verizon, is currently rolling out 5G.

David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes comments below. On the web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s poguester@yahoo.com. You can sign up to get his stuff by email, here.

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