5G roll­out is the big­gest ex­pan­sion of the In­ter­net yet,

Be­yond just faster stream­ing, it will re­spond to and pri­or­i­tize users’ ever-chang­ing needs


Ev­ery few years, mo­bile car­ri­ers prom­ise to tur­bocharge smart­phones with new “G” tech­nol­ogy.

Most re­cently, 4G be­gan re­plac­ing 3G, and peo­ple from coast to coast cel­e­brated the fact that they could watch cat videos with­out their screens lock­ing up (well, most of the time).

In the U.S. this sum­mer, Ver­i­zon and AT&T will start test­ing 5G. If this fifth-gen­er­a­tion mo­bile net­work works as ad­ver­tised, it could be far more trans­for­ma­tional than pre­vi­ous ver­sions, ac­cel­er­at­ing adop­tion of the In­ter­net of Things: smart homes, driver­less cars, sur­gi­cal ro­bots and more. Ac­cord­ing to one es­ti­mate, the num­ber of con­nected “things” could more than dou­ble to 50 bil­lion glob­ally by 2020 — and reach 500 bil­lion 10 years af­ter that.

The 5G roll­out rep­re­sents the big­gest ex­pan­sion of the In­ter­net to date and has the po­ten­tial to gen­er­ate bil­lions of dol­lars of busi­ness for the likes of Cisco Sys­tems, Nokia, Eric­s­son, Qual­comm and In­tel Corp. All are vy­ing to build the nuts and bolts of the new net­works; their abil­ity to lasso con­tracts could de­ter­mine whether some of these com­pa­nies sur­vive.

“5G is not about an­other G with su­per-fast In­ter­net,” says Eric­s­son chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer Hans Vest­berg. “5G is about be­yond smart­phones and tablets. We think 5G could pro­vide an ex­cel­lent op­por­tu­nity to trans­form our world.”

While 5G presents an enor­mous op­por­tu­nity for a range of in­dus­try stal­warts, lead­er­ship in one gen­er­a­tion of tech­nol­ogy is no guar­an­tee of dom­i­nance in the next.

Nokia failed to see the mo­bile web com­ing and lost to Qual­comm, Sam­sung Elec­tron­ics Co. and, ul­ti­mately, Ap­ple’s game-chang­ing iPhone. When 4G ar­rived, Sprint bet on Wi-Max but was forced to adopt tech­nol­ogy used by Ver­i­zon Com­mu­ni­ca­tions.

There’s no ques­tion 5G will hap­pen; it’s just not clear who’ll ben­e­fit most be­cause much of the tech­nol­ogy has yet to be tested in the real world.

As any smart­phone user can at­test, even the lat­est 4G net­works some­times strug­gle to han­dle mil­lions of peo­ple tweet­ing, watch­ing videos and play­ing games — leaving us grind­ing our teeth wait­ing pre­cious sec­onds for Google to re­turn search re­sults.

That’s not good enough when a self-driv­ing car needs to de­cide whether it’s safe to cruise through an in­ter­sec­tion and has to wait while some­one gets the next data packet for the Net­flix movie they’re stream­ing.

So for starters, the next net­work will have to be far more re­spon­sive. For years, the in­dus­try has largely fo­cused on the amount of data it can force through the sys­tem in a given pe­riod of time — a con­cept known as through­put — with only rudi­men­tary at­tempts to make sure ev­ery­one gets what they need dur­ing peak de­mand.

The new fo­cus is la­tency — how quickly a net­work re­sponds to a re­quest. To en­sure a ro­bot re­acts in­stantly to a sur­geon op­er­at­ing re­motely, 5G net­works will have built-in pro­cess­ing, store data closer to where it’s needed and use mul­ti­ple forms of ra­dio waves to send and re­ceive traf­fic.

All of this must be con­trolled by ad­vanced soft­ware that can dy­nam­i­cally adapt what gets sent where and when ac­cord­ing to rapidly chang­ing needs.

“La­tency mat­ters,” said Ak­shay Sharma, a Gart­ner an­a­lyst. “Would you rely on get­ting your data from across the coun­try or would you rather have it up­dated lo­cally as it hap­pens, within mil­lisec­onds?”

The next step is get­ting bil­lions of things talk­ing di­rectly to each other rather than go­ing through cen­trally con­trolled net­works, as most con­nected de­vices do now.

Once that hap­pens, whole new vis­tas open up.

For ex­am­ple, Eric­s­son and truck maker Sca­nia want to make it pos­si­ble for big com­mer­cial rigs to drive in tight for­ma­tion to re­duce wind re­sis­tance and burn less fuel — a sys­tem called “pla­toon­ing.” The 5G net­work would herd to­gether trucks, which would then “talk” to pre­vent high-speed crashes.

Fi­nally, de­vices them­selves will have to get smarter, work­ing out what traf­fic to send when. A wa­ter me­ter doesn’t need to clog up the net­work dur­ing a Soc­cer World Cup Fi­nal. Not ev­ery sen­sor in a build­ing needs to be able to call the fire de­part­ment when the tem­per­a­ture spikes. More in­tel­li­gent net­works will co­or­di­nate and pri­or­i­tize needs mak­ing sure they both min­i­mize traf­fic and as­sign the right pri­or­ity to pack­ets of in­for­ma­tion that need it.

None of this will come cheap. Spend­ing on 5G equip­ment will reach $400 bil­lion (U.S.) glob­ally, ac­cord­ing to an es­ti­mate by Chetan Sharma Con­sult­ing. Build­ing the 2G net­works in the 1990s cost a rel­a­tively pal­try $130 bil­lion.

Com­pa­nies ea­ger to ben­e­fit — and avoid be­ing left be­hind — are sali­vat­ing. Chip­maker In­tel sees a chance to fi­nally get into mo­bile and con­tinue its shift away from the shrink­ing PC busi­ness. Eric­s­son and Cisco are bring­ing their ex­per­tise to the party — mo­bile equip­ment for the for­mer, wired gear for the lat­ter.

Mo­bile car­ri­ers will make out, too. Chetan Sharma ex­pects them to be able to

“La­tency mat­ters. Would you rely on get­ting your data from across the coun­try or would you rather have it up­dated lo­cally as it hap­pens, within mil­lisec­onds?” AK­SHAY SHARMA GART­NER AN­A­LYST

charge five times what they’re charg­ing now. That’s not just from jack­ing up phone bills, but col­lect­ing ac­cess fees for wear­ables — think heart-rate mon­i­tors and high-def­i­ni­tion vir­tual re­al­ity glasses — and “smart gear,” in­clud­ing your drone col­lec­tion, cars, bikes and even dog col­lars.

Each con­nec­tion, though only a few bucks a month, could run up a hefty tab.

In­dus­try ex­ec­u­tives, of course, say the ben­e­fits will more than out­weigh the cost. In an e-mail, AT&T Inc. chief strat­egy of­fi­cer John Dono­van de­scribes a bright fu­ture with “new ex­pe­ri­ences in vir­tual re­al­ity, self-driv­ing cars, ro­bot­ics, smart cities, health care and so much more.”


There’s no ques­tion that 5G will hap­pen; it’s just not clear who will ben­e­fit most from the new tech­nol­ogy.

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