Written by James Kadtke

Illustration redesigned by Devin Thorpe

The Global Race to Deploy 5G Network Technologies

Defining 5G

a connected city

Like its predecessors 3G and 4G, 5G or, more specifically, the 5th Generation of Wireless Network Technology is not, in fact, a single technology. Rather, it is a set of guidelines that define characteristics of the hardware, software, data encryption, operating parameters, and other specifications that tell telecom companies and hardware manufacturers what the standards are and what their technologies need to have/do to access and utilize a 5G network.  The core group which develops these standards is called the 3GPP, a consortia of seven

telecom standards organizations which began in 1998 when it created the standards for 3G. They have since been continuously developing the standards resulting in 4G and, now, 5G, with the most recent set of 5G standards being published in June of 2018. However, these negotiations must also include a wide variety of other international organizations which have an impact on the global telecom industry, for example the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, which allocates radio spectrum that telecom companies broadcast over, and the International Telecommunication Union, the specialized agency in the UN responsible for information and communication issues.  With these international agreements in place, businesses worldwide now have clear specifications and goals for deploying their 5G compatible networks, cell phones, and other devices. So the race is on!

What 5G Brings to the table

5G wireless will have some truly revolutionary improvements over existing networks. Firstly, it will operate at much higher radio frequencies, for example up to 39 gigahertz as opposed to the current 600 megahertz of 4G. This translates into much faster network speeds for 5G, between 100 and 250 times faster. The total amount of data that can flow through an entire 5G network (which is what providers like Verizon and AT&T worry about) will also be huge compared to 4G.

Another, perhaps equally important, improvement will be in network latency.  Latency, put simply, is the built-in delay in the network between sending some data and getting a response, which is affected by a variety of factors such as processing time, encoding, etc. Current average latencies for 4G networks are in the range of 100 to 200 milliseconds (about the reaction time of the average human), but 5G latency times are predicted to be less than 1 millisecond.  Such a short reaction time is essentially “real time” for most applications. It means, for example, that driverless cars navigating on 5G wireless networks will be able to react far faster than human drivers.

Yet another major improvement will be the number of devices that can typically be connected to any given 5G wireless network.  Because 5G networks will need to have nodes (routers, hotspots, etc.) spaced much closer together, and will also have the network throughput capacity to support many more devices, the geographic density of the devices can be far higher.  Currently, 4G networks can support about a million wireless devices in approximately 500 square kilometers, meanwhile, 5G will be able to support a million devices in about 1 square kilometer.  This has vast implications for the Internet of Things, smart infrastructure, and other coming technological marvels.

5G Will Enable the next Big Things

Companies, and even countries, always pay close attention to new developments in telecom and wireless technologies simply because they are a big economic sector and a lucrative market.  But the benefits of deploying 5G will go far beyond that. Because of their data speed, low latency, high density of nodes, and devices which can be smaller and less energy hungry, 5G networks will enable the development of other radically new technologies which today are not yet feasible.  For example, most wired broadband might become a thing of the past, being replaced by dense wireless networks. Downloading or streaming full movies in 4HD and 8HD will be almost instantaneous. Even virtual and augmented reality environments could be supported through a smart phone connection.

5G Applications

Beyond that, constellations of smart online devices in the home, in neighborhoods, and even throughout whole cities could become ubiquitous and will work together seamlessly with almost zero latency.  Driverless cars could instantaneously communicate between themselves as well as with pedes trians, smart roadways, and other civil assets or infrastructure. Factories and logistic systems could be almost fully automated and seamlessly integrated. 

And other revolutionary IT intensive applications could be easily supported, such as precision farming, virtual reality gaming, telemedicine, and large scale energy management. Deployment of these technology systems, supported by 5G, will result in big increases in the efficiency of societies and subsequently higher levels of economic growth, security, and further technological innovation

The Race for 5G: Domestic Efforts

Because 5G will provide increased technological quality of life, pave the way for newinnovations, and, of course, generate huge financial returns to those businesses and regions that lead the deployment of 5G-related applications, there is intense competition these days to be the first to roll out functional 5G networks. These efforts are being made by many governments worldwide, and also by a wide range of private corporations. Within the U.S. all the major wireless providers have announced plans to deploy 5G networks sometime in 2019, but the picture is a bit more complicated.  For many providers, 5G networks will only be deployed in a few major cities until the bugs are worked out.  In 2017, AT&T announced deployment of a network called 5G Evolution, which really wasn’t 5G at all, but they are now expected to roll out an actual 5G network shortly. T-Mobile and Sprint, currently in the process of merging, plan to have 5G capability in 30 test cities early in 2019, and a full nationwide rollout of 5G by 2020. Verizon, however, has taken a somewhat unusual approach preferring to roll out its initial 5G capabilities for home broadband access with true mobile access coming a bit later.

5g map

5G Test Cities for Different Providers, as of late 2018/early 2019

While the main thrusts towards 5G in the U.S. are in the corporate world, the Federal Government and many state governments are actively pushing 5G along. The U.S., for all practical purposes, invented modern IT and infrastructure, and our legal and policy frameworks for IT infrastructure are well developed. However, the U.S. also deals with issues because of its legacy systems and other bureaucratic concerns, for example that local communities are often the ones approving zoning rights for new cell towers. Still, the major urban areas of the U.S. are likely to have 5G access as soon as anyone in the world.

The Race for 5G: International Efforts

Outside of the U.S., being a leader in deploying 5G technology is increasingly becoming a point of competition among countries.  The reason is simple – once deployed, the wide range of the aforementioned technological developments and products become feasible: autonomous factories, driverless cars, smart cities, as well as blindingly fast information flows, all of which could lead to what some are calling the next industrial revolution.  Countries that widely deploy 5G first will likely see large increases in productivity, industrial capacity, health, safety, security, and a range of other social and economic benefits. So much so that they may leap ahead of other regions for years to come.

5g world map

So which countries are embracing the 5G revolution? Not surprisingly, some of the wealthier
and more high tech countries, particularly in Asia, are leading the pack. South Korea has fully embraced providing cutting edge network capabilities to its citizens for years, and 5G is just the next step.  Similarly, Japan’s government has made a commitment to rolling out 5G nationally. Despite being somewhat behind the curve at present, they still hope to rollout 5G by 2020. Arguably, the biggest player in Asia is, of course, China which has announced its intention of making 5G commercially available by 2020. But because their government tightly controls deployment, it may be considerably slower than other countries, as was the case for 4G. Still, some analysts think 40% of global 5G users may be in China by 2025.

Outside of Asia, Scandinavia is moving forward quickly with 5G deployments happening now in Sweden and Finland, as well as Estonia.  Surprisingly, Turkey is working to deploy 5G nationally by 2020 by working through a public-private partnership led by some of its government agencies. And in Europe, the European Commission and members of its IT industry have created the 5G-PPP, a large public-private partnership to coordinate research and deployment of 5G networks across Europe.

On the corporate side, a number of foreign telecom companies are making major efforts to become 5G leaders, at least regionally, and often in close cooperation with their governments. However, there are a few companies that seek to become major global 5G tech providers, such as China’s Huawei, Finland’s Nokia, Sweden’s Telia, Korea’s SK Telecom, and Japan’s Samsung. At the moment, which companies will come out on top globally is anybody’s guess, as we are still in the early stages of 5G deployment.  

Our 5G Future

Regardless of who takes the lead in the race for deploying 5G networks, everyone will end up a winner. Once 5G networks become widespread, other advanced technological systems will follow close behind.  And because these systems can be integrated more easily across national borders, it will likely result in even greater economic globalization. 5G will, in a real sense, eventually result in greater well-being for citizens across the globe.

Featured Header Image Source: Jamesteo Hart

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