5G: ultra high speed, super low latency – and totally dependent on developers. Part 1

Why was there a cow at Mobile World Congress 2019? OK, it wasn’t a real cow. It was a plastic one! But why was it there, gazing moodily at the 110,000 mobile execs pounding the vast expo space in Barcelona?

Simple answer: 5G.

The next-gen mobile network is nearly here. It promises insanely fast broadband speeds across vast distances – and huge capacity too. In short, 5G will make it possible to connect virtually everything virtually everywhere.

For this reason, the network tech has the potential to transform industries that were historically ‘analog’. Thanks to 5G, farmers will be able to track behaviors of their livestock – no matter where the animals are, no matter how many.

Hence the plastic cow.

Unsurprisingly, the mobile industry is rubbing its hands at the prospect of 5G. It sees the new technology as far more than an incremental upgrade on LTE, HSPA+ and the other flavors of 4G. 5G is not just a bit faster. It promises huge bandwidth with no discernible latency.

This is why the industry believes 5G will change the world.

Here’s what chip giant Qualcomm said: “In 2035 when 5G’s full economic benefit should be realized, a range of industries – from retail to education, transportation to entertainment, and everything in between – could produce up to $12.3 trillion worth of goods and services enabled by 5G mobile technology.”

So what marvels will 5G lead to in the smartphone space?

Well, that’s your job. Yes, you: mobile developers.

This is the way it has always been. Giant companies didn’t look at 2G and invent ringtones. They didn’t study 4G and come up with Uber or Tinder. Indy app makers did.

So there’s no doubt, developers will be the ones to tease out the non-obvious potential of 5G. Before we get to that, let’s re-cap the tech.

First, a history lesson.

In the mid-1980s was 1G. It was for voice calls. The data transfer speed in 1G was about 1.9 kbit/second.

In the 90s came 2G (GPRS). It was digital and supported SMS messages and (very slow) connectivity – 10 kbit/second.

Around 2005, 3G arrived offering functional web access and data transfer. Then came 4G, averaging 20 Mbps. As we all know, 4G makes it possible to have Netflix, Spotify, Facebook Live and other rich media applications on a phone.

But get this: 5G could run at 10Gbps to 50Gbps. It has even reached 1 terabit per second in a test environment. That’s 65,000 times faster than 4G.

However, there’s more to 5G than speed. There’s also capacity. On average, 4G supports around 2,000 connected devices per .38 square miles. If you’ve tried to connect at a gig or sports event, you’ll know what problems this can cause.

5G can support up to 1 million connected devices in the same space.

Taken together, these two 5G properties deliver one crucial result: URLLC (Ultra Reliable Low-Latency Communications).

Here’s an example of URLLC, again exhibited at Mobile World Congress.

On the NTT Docomo stand, a guitar player performed songs with a keyboard player. However, only the guitarist was physically present. The pianist was in a remote location, represented on a hi-def life-size video screen. The absence of any latency meant the two could play together seamlessly.

But there are further benefits for 5G. It’s far more precise than 4G. 5G uses higher radio frequencies (in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range) and shorter wavelengths than those used by 4G. This will make GPS-enabled applications, for example, more targeted.

And the above features should extend battery life too.

Of course, none of these wonders are available now. While it’s true that some networks in the US, Korea, Sweden and elsewhere have rolled out 5G, the launches are mostly trials. And anyway, there are no 5G phones to support them (until later this year).

It will take a while for 5G to bed in. The mobile trade body GSMA expects the network tech to account for 15 percent of global mobile connections by 2025 (30 percent in developed economies) – that’s 1.4 billion.

So, to return to the big question, what can ingenious app developers do with ultra-fast, always on, low power, near zero latency connections?

In part 2, we’ll dive deeper into the possibilities…

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