INSIGHTS | 5G is coming

5 min read
(Image credit: Bigstock/LPStudio)

A version of this first appeared in our members-only newsletter on July 6, 2019. Freely available on our site now, it soon won’t be. Become a member and read it first.

5G is everywhere… or at least talk of it is. At the recently concluded Mobile World Congress Shanghai, we were overwhelmed by the number of companies talking big about their 5G initiatives. We were, however, also struck by the lack of actual real world implementation. But unlike blockchain, 5G is definitely not vaporware and its showcase at MWC Shanghai is a bellwether for things to come.

I was initially taken by this topic because of the amount of hype and uninformed discussion taking place. Skeptical at first, after doing some research (the product of which can be found below), my opinion of 5G has changed to be a bit more optimistic. Indeed, this is the kind of future-thinking that keeps me engaged with the technology industry.

Bottom line: Everyone’s talking about 5G but there’s still a lack of understanding of what it is, and can do, among the general public. While many carriers in the US have already rolled the new networking standard out on a limited basis, we expect major Chinese cities to see substantial coverage during 2020. 5G, like AI, is a critical infrastructure technology that promises better productivity, city management, and connectivity for the consumer mobile internet. 5G is even more fundamental than AI: every other emerging technology will need its speed and ubiquity to be effective. However, like most technology, 5G is value neutral: that is, it’s up to people to decide how to use it and, in China, how it’s going to be used won’t match Western Enlightenment values.

What is 5G: Development of fifth-generation wireless technology began as early as 2008, but what we know as 5G—technically 5G New Radio—wasn’t officially defined by 3GPP, the standards body for mobile communications, until 2017. In concise terms, 5G technology will provide faster download and upload speeds as well as lower latency (the time it takes for data to go from sender to receiver). This is made possible by using three different frequency bands as well as some interesting engineering.

3 different bands

  • Low-band spectrum
    • Any frequency below 1 GHz
    • Peak speeds of 100 Mbps
    • Used by many carriers for 4G and LTE service.
    • T-Mobile in the US will use 600 MHz for its 5G services.
  • Mid-band
    • Frequencies between 1 and 6 GHz
    • Peak speeds of 1 Gpbs
    • Chinese carriers currently use bands between 1.8 GHz and 2.6 GHz to provide LTE service
    • In December 2018, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology issued the following licenses for commercial deployment:
      • China Mobile: 2.515 GHz to 2.675 GHz and 4.8 GHz to 4.9 GHz
      • China Telecom: 3.4 GHz to 3.5 GHz
      • China Unicom: 3.5 GHz to 3.6 GHz
    • In the US, Sprint will be using mid-band for their 5G services.
  • High-band
    • Also known as mmWave
    • Any frequency above 6 GHz
    • Peak speeds of 10 Gpbs and latency as low as 1-4ms
    • Chinese regulators have identified 24.75 to 27.5 GHz and 37 to 42.5 GHz as potential bands, but have not yet granted any licenses.
    • AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile will use high-band for their 5G services.
    • Drawbacks: Short range and can’t penetrate walls—meaning more sales of routers, base stations, and repeaters.

Key innovations

  • Beamforming: targeted signals
    • In previous generations, cell towers would radiate radio signals in all directions.
    • With beamforming, cell towers can target and track devices as they move, even bouncing signals off other surfaces.
  • Massive MIMO: more connections per station
    • MIMO = multiple input, multiple output
  • In 4G networks, the maximum number of transceivers (transmitter + receiver) in one base station was four.
    • Huawei and ZTE have demonstrated Massive MIMO cell towers with 96-128 transceivers.
  • Small cells: antennas everywhere
    • Low power, short-range base stations used in high- and mid-band deployments to increase coverage area.
    • Can be installed in existing public infrastructure and can be used indoors.

5G in China: Companies providing key hardware for 5G rollout in China are still reliant on US suppliers, creating a vulnerability to US strategic tech policy. However, that doesn’t seem to be slowing overall deployment. Here’s what 5G will look in China:

  • Smart devices
    • Users with 5G-enabled devices can expect connections with response times faster than their own reaction times.
    • So far, Huawei, ZTE, Meizu, Xiaomi, Oppo, and Vivo have all announced 5G enabled phones, with some of them already available for purchase in the EU.
    • Samsung has announced a 5G phone and Apple is rumored to plan the release of two 5G phones in 2020.
  • AR/VR: With the speeds enabled by 5G, AR and VR will finally be able to come out of the home and onto the streets. Given China’s tech giants ability to gamify pretty much anything, expect some interesting applications in the consumer space.
    • Alipay has already experimented with AR red envelopes.
    • Tencent launched their version of Pokémon Go, “Let’s Hunt Monsters,” in April.
  • IoT
    • Effective IoT networks require ubiquitous connectivity.
    • High-band 5G and its supporting technology will finally provide the infrastructure necessary for massive IoT rollout on the streets and inside buildings.
    • Sensor communication networks means potentially better traffic control, more efficient public transportation, and a better understanding of how public and private infrastructure (streets, buildings, etc) are used.
  • Autonomous vehicles
    • Testing has started before 5G roll-out, but AV could be made much safer and more efficient through constant communication between cars and streets.
    • With greater connectivity comes potentially greater performance from data collected and delivered to other cars as well as to automakers.
  • Smart cities
    • A catch-all term used to refer to cities powered by next-gen technology, China is serious about getting these cities up and running, all powered by 5G.
    • Since the concept’s inclusion in the 12th Five Year Plan in 2010 and their first pilot in 2012, China has gone on to create 500 pilot projects around the country, making up half of the global total and leading in total number of pilots.  President Xi Jinping said at the 19th Party Congress in 2017 that smart cities were part of a “deep integration of the internet, big data, and artificial intelligence with the real economy.”
    • We just published a great breakdown of smart cities in China. Check it out for more details.

Looking past the hype: After covering tech and startups for as long I have, I know better to take the word of 5G companies at face value. In China, any time you see the term “smart city,” remember that these projects are the potential culmination of the government’s vision of how to manage the country.

There are some upsides: more efficient water and electricity use, increased air and water quality, and overall increases in quality of life as citizen needs are rapidly identified and met. The downsides, however, are ones we can read in almost any headline about China: ubiquitous surveillance, immediate punishment for transgressions via social credit scoring, and increased “harmonization” of public behavior. And don’t forget that the West is engaged in a similar project—led by private companies not governments.

As the old joke goes, you put a bunch of engineers in the room to solve a problem and no one is going to ask about the ethics of it. While the tech does have the potential for lasting positive benefits, as is typical in the tech industry, there’s not enough discussion of the downside. That wouldn’t be a good sales pitch.