NEW MOBILE networks come along once every decade or so. Starting around 1980, the first generation of cellular phones relied on analogue technology. When the second-generation arrived in 1991, the networks began to go digital. By 2001, the third-generation swapped clunky old circuit-switching for efficient packet-switching. Around 2010, fourth-generation networks adopted IP (Internet Protocol) technology in a big way, providing mobile devices with broadband access to the internet. Each generational change brought new frequency bands, higher speeds and greater emphasis on streaming data rather than simply transmitting voice.
Lately, wireless operators have begun wondering what to include in fifth-generation (5G) networks. There is a feeling of urgency as outside heavyweights like Google and Facebook threaten to upset their cosy business. If the mobile carriers can agree among themselves, they hope to have their fifth-generation networks in place by 2020.
That may be a bit ambitious. Years of haggling lie ahead while policy-makers and standards bearers lobby for technologies their national carriers and telecoms firms deem vital for their own wellbeing. However, the hope burns bright that, unlike previous generations of mobile technology, 5G will be a true global standard—allowing travellers to use their personal phones anywhere in the world, without the hassle of having to swap their SIM cards for local ones bought on arrival.
What to expect from 5G? At this stage, one of the few things that can be said about 5G with certainity is that—if it is to meet society’s growing demands for ubiquitous and instantaneous connectivity—such networks will need to have a “latency” (ie, response time) of about one millisecond. The speed at which two devices can begin to communicate with one another over today’s 4G networks is about 50 milliseconds, and around 500 milliseconds for the still widely used 3G services.
Even 4G is nowhere near fast enough for, say, cloud-based systems to transmit emergency instructions to driverless cars threading their way through traffic. Nor is it good enough to provide seamless language translation between participants sharing a teleconference, let alone to guide a scalpel while a surgeon is performing a life-saving operation remotely. Many real-time wireless applications will need latencies of a millisecond at most.
Another cornerstone requirement is going to be a data rate of at least one gigabit per second (1Gbps) to start with, and multiple gigabits per second thereafter. Mobile users will need such speeds if they are to stream ultra-high-definition (ie, 4k and soon 8k) video formats to their phones and tablets.
Read the rest of this story in The Economist here …