Every ten years or so, something big happens in mobile. Once a decade, a new generation of mobile network technology comes along: the first mobile networks appeared in the 1980s, GSM followed in the 1990s, 3G arrived at the turn of the century, and LTE began rolling out in 2010.
Each generation has set out to fix the flaws of its predecessor: GSM fixed the security weaknesses of analogue telephony, 3G was meant to sort out GSM’s lack of mobile data and, given it didn’t much succeed, 4G was needed to finally make consuming data less of an unpleasant experience.
Now fifth generation 5G wireless technology is rolling out in the U.S. and elsewhere globally. These much-hyped networks are still about phones, especially in early deployments when the emphasis is on faster speeds for high-definition video streaming and instant access to workplace apps via the Internet cloud.
But as 5G matures, it’s about connecting a lot more than just smartphones. The technology has been designed to create a fabric for fast, reliable and secure connectivity to things ranging from driver assisted cars to health-care devices to smart cities infrastructure.
“There is probably no technology right now that is more talked about in terms of what impact it will have on the future than 5G because all the things we want to do are dependent on connectivity, and right now it is the fastest, most reliable connectivity being built,” said Daniel Newman, principal analyst at industry consulting firm Futurum Research.
Out of the gate, 5G is expected to deliver peak speeds up to five times faster than today’s 4G LTE. Over the long haul, 5G aims to deliver speeds 20 times faster.
And it promises to eventually deliver a 10-fold improvement in transmission lag times, enabling cellular to power things sensitive to delays such as virtual-reality headsets, immersive mobile gaming and industrial robots.
5G has its skeptics. They doubt whether the technology delivers enough improvement over 4G LTE to become a must-have service for consumers, at least in the early years.
The promise of 5G
With 5G, connected power grids could tap cloud computing to create artificial intelligence algorithms so when a tree falls on a line, the grid automatically adjusts to minimize outages and heal itself.
5G connected cars could sync to stoplights and other infrastructure to improve traffic flow, while vehicles automatically track the movements of other cars and pedestrians nearby to help avoid accidents.
Factories could leverage 5G to more easily reconfigure equipment to produce different products – boosting efficiency and lowering costs. Connected assembly line robots could instantly reposition an off-center part. Massive cranes at ports could adjust on the fly to the weight of cargo being loaded on ships.
Logistics, fleet management, education, video security with facial recognition, medical imaging, enterprise storage as a service and even retail are some of the industries that could mine the speed, bandwidth, reliability and low latency of 5G to disrupt the status quo.
The race to 5G
Because 5G has the potential to connect infrastructure and transform industries, it has emerged as a bit of an arms race among nations, particularly the U.S. and China.
The technology has been at the center of the Trump administration’s national security concerns over the growth of Chinese-made equipment in telecommunications networks globally, which it believes could be used for cyber espionage.
China was mostly on the sidelines during the 3G and 4G cellular standard setting process, where Qualcomm, Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung were among the major players contributing technologies used in networks globally.
But Chinese companies have been much more active in standard setting for 5G.
Huawei – the Chinese multinational technology company that makes telecommunications equipment – has declared more patent families as relevant to the 5G standard than anyone else, according to intellectual property research firm iPlytics.
In an internal memo seen by Bloomberg News, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei said the Chinese company’s dominance in 5G has been cited as motivation for a U.S. campaign to contain its growth.
“The U.S. doesn’t use the most advanced 5G technology,” wrote Zhengfei in the memo quoted by Bloomberg. “That may leave it lagging behind in the artificial intelligence sector.”
But Qualcomm and Samsung were the first companies to deliver 5G silicon to devices on the market today. Qualcomm’s chips support both millimeter wave and mid-band 5G frequencies.
Huawei’s self-make 5G silicon is 50% larger than Qualcomm’s first generation 5G chip, according to industry research firm IHS Market. Huawei 5G chips don’t support millimeter wave.
Not all contributions to standard-setting organizations are created equal, according to analysts. Qualcomm has been working on 5G for nearly a decade. The company says it has developed many foundational technologies that are part of the 5G standard.
“5G is the (cellular) transition that everyone should pay attention to,” said Qualcomm CEO Steve Mollenkopf. “Qualcomm’s focus on 5G has not only provided others with the 5G foundation to build on top of and capitalize on, but we have put ourselves in a strong position.”