Tea on Tech: 5G connectivity

by Nikita Senthil (’23) | November 16, 2020

Art by Sofia Ruiz (’22)

Despite its initial introduction in October 2018 by Verizon, the buzz over 5G has only recently picked up steam, with internet service providers and countries alike competing to provide reliable and advanced technology for both individuals and corporations. Before we can consider the future of 5G and its potential impact on the world, we need to know what 5G really is. Let’s break it down. 

The term “5G” refers to fifth-generation wireless network technology, the development of which is currently in progress. The first 1G (first generation) network was launched in Chicago in 1983 by Ameritech’s Motorola DynaTAC mobile phone. Each successive generation was released within a decade of the previous one, improving upon the last in significant ways. For instance, 2G allowed for encrypted phone conversations as well as SMS text messaging, while 1G only allowed for “analog” voice transmission, similar to a walkie-talkie.

Fast forward to 5G, and we can expect improvements upon 4G in three key categories: speed, capacity, and latency. Developers project that 5G will work at speeds 100 times faster than 4G, an improvement made possible by the increased frequency of the airwaves upon which 5G networks are built. 

In addition, 5G will eventually have increased capacity, allowing for many more devices in the same area to connect to the same network without increased lag time. It may also expand the reach of the highly anticipated “internet of things” era, which we’ll discuss in a future article. For now, think “smart” toothbrushes or street lamps, which can pass data back and forth in real time. 

Lastly, the tech industry expects 5G to decrease latency, the amount of time it takes data to pass between either two devices or a device and the server. Although latency is already quite low for 4G (in the milliseconds), even a small difference can go a long way when transmitting large amounts of data, such as in a video. 5G could also help ensure the safety of passengers inside a self-driving car by helping it communicate effectively with a computer in the cloud. Another possible application is in robotic surgery, allowing surgeons to remotely operate on patients across long distances, which may increase the quality of treatment as well. Since 5G networks promise to transmit large amounts of data more effectively, more data may be accessible to the public, leading to more accurate artificial intelligence models and algorithms. 

These prospective advantages have put into motion a worldwide race to build the fastest and biggest 5G network. Last October, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows expressed his support for a plan that would back one private service provider to operate a 5G network for the government, using airwaves “owned” by the United States Department of Defense. Representatives Frank Pallone, Jr., and Mike Doyle, members of the Congressional Energy and Commerce Committee, have expressed their disagreement with the proposed plan, claiming that “[n]o government agency owns spectrum [airwaves]. Users are allocated spectrum based on need, and if there is a higher use, spectrum can and should be reallocated.” While free-market proponents have opposed this government subsidization, such a plan could help the U.S. gain a lead in the worldwide race.

Regardless of this controversy, we have already witnessed several barriers to 5G worldwide. Individual 5G plans are more expensive even after purchasing a 5G-compatible device. Also, high-band networks increase speed at the cost of coverage since high-frequency waves cannot easily pass through the walls of buildings, trees, or hard surfaces. To circumvent this issue, carriers implementing high-band networks must work city by city to install many small cell sites on walls and poles close to each other. In fact, the average user will probably never need to use the high speeds offered by 5G since they will use 4G in most cases, even with a 5G device. As tech increasingly shapes our interactions with the world around us, however, 5G will play a significant role in the future, benefiting both individual consumers and corporations alike.

Categories: Column, Science

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