Techbeat: 5G debut

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: the latest in wireless tech.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s been several years since the big telecommunications companies began rolling out fourth-generation – or 4G – wireless technology. The increase in speed meant we could do a lot more with our phones than just voice and text. We could start streaming audio and video, for example. But you still needed cable or fiber-optic home broadband for really heavy-duty bandwidth.

EICHER: But now that may be changing. Next week, Verizon plans to launch what company officials are calling the first deployment of a fifth-generation—or 5G—network. The service promises to deliver speeds as high as 1 gigabit per second, or fast enough to download a full-length, high definition movie in minutes.

REICHARD: More 5G technology rollouts are likely ahead, so WORLD Radio’s technology reporter Michael Cochrane is here now to fill us in on what to expect and what it might mean for consumers. Michael, let’s start with the background. Can you walk us through the cellphone technology stages that brought us here, and how this is different?

MICHAEL COCHRANE, REPORTER: Sure. The very first generation (1G) of cellphones provided only basic voice communication. Second generation (2G) technology brought digital networks and text capability. Third generation (3G) networks let us view email and display web pages. Today’s 4th generation (4G) cellular networks are robust enough to handle streaming audio and video. 5G networks will use a different part of the radio frequency spectrum so they can handle much more data. Both speed and latency will improve.

REICHARD: OK, what is latency? And how much of an improvement in speed are we talking about?

COCHRANE: Latency is the lag between when you click on a link and when the network responds. 5G could reduce this time to about a tenth of what it is with 4G. As for speed: 5G could deliver download speeds as much as 20 times faster than even the best home broadband today. That’s why industry analysts are excited: 5G could be the technology that merges wireless and traditional broadband internet. One high-speed wireless network that you can use both at home and on a mobile device.

REICHARD: Does this new rollout mean that 5G has finally arrived?

COCHRANE: No, it’s still a work in progress. It’s more of a marketing effort. Verizon’s rollout is a form of 5G technology but it doesn’t use the standards the industry is settling on. Right now it’s a home broadband replacement service, not a mobile cellular service. But AT&T has announced that it will offer true 5G mobile service by the end of this year and T-Mobile says it will have a commercial 5G service next year. But those services will be limited to a few cities, and the actual speeds will be lower than what is theoretically possible.

REICHARD: So what has to happen for 5G to really take off?

COCHRANE: First, you have to have a 5G capable smartphone, and those won’t likely be available in the U-S until next year. Sprint is partnering with LG Electronics to launch a 5G phone in early 2019. But the biggest hurdle is going to be building the 5G infrastructure.

REICHARD: You mean as in cell towers?

COCHRANE: Exactly. Current 4G cell towers can broadcast for up to 10 miles, but the wavelengths used for 5G communications are short. So 5G towers have to be much closer together – less than a thousand feet apart. And that means there have to be a lot more of them to provide coverage. Plus, 5G radio waves can’t easily penetrate walls and windows, so consumers might need additional antennas to get the signal into their homes. So 5G networks will likely be a dense infrastructure of thousands of small, low-powered antennas placed on buildings throughout urban areas.

REICHARD: You mention urban areas. OK, but what about rural areas? You and I both live in areas with no broadband internet. It’s been painful. About the best you can get is a good 4G cell signal.

COCHRANE: It’s going to be a challenge deploying a 5G network that provides similar coverage to the current 4G LTE networks. But I’m going to be optimistic. It’s likely going to be easier to build a network of smaller cell towers than to lay underground fiber optic cable. That’s why it’s probably not going to be just the telecoms like Verizon and AT&T that will be rolling out 5G networks. The huge improvements that will come with 5G technology are going to completely disrupt how people get internet. Traditional cable companies such as Comcast will want to adopt the technology to compete with wireless-based companies.  So you’ll have a lot more companies involved in building out this new infrastructure.

REICHARD: Well, it can’t happen soon enough for me. It seems like this is going to be a really expensive investment for these companies, no?

COCHRANE: It will, but they’re willing to invest big into 5G because it’s not just going to be about getting faster download speeds on your smartphone. The real vision for 5G is all about digitally connecting things with other things. For example, the huge bandwidth improvement will allow autonomous systems like self-driving vehicles to communicate with one another. Meaning you could have a synchronized urban transportation network. So I think a viable 5G network will probably speed up the commercial deployment of self-driving cars.

REICHARD: Michael Cochrane reports on science and technology for WORLD. As always, thanks Michael!

COCHRANE: You’re very welcome, Mary.

(Manu Fernandez/AP Images for T-Mobile) Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray details T-Mobile’s plans to build a nationwide 5G network in the U.S. at Mobile World Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018 in Barcelona, Spain. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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