It’s easy to be cynical about 5G, the next wireless technology that is starting to generate buzz, given that many of us are still getting used to 4G.
Mobile phone manufacturers and service providers can, after all, come off sounding like television makers when selling the latest tech, talking up gimmicks and incremental improvements that nobody really needs or asked for in the first place.
It doesn’t take much to confuse 5G with 3D in that regard.
But 5G, or fifth-generation wireless, is different. It isn’t expected to become a reality until about 2020 but early tests suggest it’s going to be the real deal – a new technology that will have major ramifications.
5G’s biggest selling point is not just higher download and upload speeds for phones, although those will be a bonus. Its key attribute will be low latency, or the delay that communications inevitably encounter when travelling over networks.
Internet service providers, whether wired or wireless, usually put download speeds at the centre of their marketing. But they almost never mention latency, which is actually incredibly important.
You might, for example, get a 100-megabit download connection, which is pretty fast, but it won’t be much good if the latency routinely clocks in at several hundred milliseconds.
Applications that depend on real-time connections, such as Skype calls or video conferencing, would stutter or buffer in such a situation.
4G networks, also known as Long-Term Evolution (LTE), have low latency and are a big improvement over predecessors.
Average LTE delays clocked in at about 98 milliseconds in the second half of 2013, according to a global study from the wireless tracking company OpenSignal, or less than half the delays on 3G.
With 5G, network equipment makers are aiming much lower – zero latency, or as close to it as possible.
It seems like a minor technical improvement, but success will mean transformative applications, especially when it comes to machine-to-machine communications.
Cars and traffic grids, in particular, will be big beneficiaries.
The march to autonomous vehicles may not be possible without ultra-low latency wireless communications.
If robotic cars are to “talk” to each other and to traffic lights, they’re going to need instantaneous transmission and reception.
Anything less – a delay of even a few milliseconds – could have disastrous consequences.
The larger Internet of Things will also greatly benefit from such connections, with devices having faster and more reliable interactions with each other.
Calls on your video doorbell, for example, aren’t likely to face delays in reaching your phone like they do today, meaning fewer missed visitors at your door.
Lower latency will also mean more and better games on mobile devices.
Fast-moving shooting and racing games, which are popular on videogame consoles connected to home networks, will become more viable on wireless networks.
So will real-time virtual reality – interacting with friends around the world without stutters and delays will be doable.
And of course, Skype calls will be better.
To that end, technology companies and wireless operators showed off some impressive demonstrations of 5G’s low-latency capabilities at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month.
Samsung and Deutsche Telekom, for example, had a robot arm set up to catch balls dropped in front of it.
The arm used 4G and 5G wireless connections to sense the ball, but it only successfully made the catches on 5G.
It’s an easy test to transpose into a real-world scenario where the difference could be connected cars either colliding or avoiding each other with ease.
A worldwide, interoperable 5G standard isn’t expected to be established until at least 2018, but many major wireless carriers are already experimenting with the technology.
Governments have also joined the push.
South Korea, for one, wants to have a network up and running in time for its winter Olympics in 2018, while Japan has similar plans for its 2020 summer games. The US wants to be a world leader in 5G. Its two biggest carriers – Verizon and AT&T – are already testing it.
In the UAE, wireless carriers have announced 5G tests and leadership aspirations. Etisalat wants a nationwide roll-out by Expo 2020, while du has shown off demos at trade shows with its partner Nokia.
So 5G is an important technology that is going to arrive quickly.
In fact, it looks like it’s going to arrive without delay.
Peter Nowak is a veteran technology writer and the author of Humans 3.0: The Upgrading of the Species.
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