I don't know about you, but I’ve been around long enough to remember the sound of a modem dialing, as it attempted to connect me to a blazingly fast connection. I heard that sound many, many times a day, and remember feeling excited when we got to the silence part, because it meant that I had successfully connected to whatever service I was using, probably AOL or Prodigy, at the blazingly fast speed of 4800 bits-per-second. Man, I was livin’ large. But how times have changed.
The Conversation Changes to 5G
Today, the conversation is all about 5G, the latest and greatest wireless or mobile technology. The pace at which wireless evolves is breathtaking—it seems as if we just got 4G, what we call LTE. But here we are: 5G will ABSOLUTELY be a good thing, and it WILL get here, but it’s gonna take a little while. So, while we’re waiting for it to arrive, let me clarify a few things about what it is, and what it is not.
First, for those of you who aren’t addicted to technology acronyms, it’s called 5G because it’s recognized as the fifth generation of wireless technology that’s come about. Fourth generation is here now and has been for a long time, but we know it as LTE, which is an acronym for Long Term Evolution. LTE was a real game-changer for both wireless providers and their customers. Why? Because it was built on the assumption that the network that underlies its abilities is based on the Internet Protocol(IP), which is the set of networking rules that make the global Internet work so well. And second, it’s really fast—like, Wi-Fi fast. That’s why you can stream movies to your phone or play interactive games so well.
Today, we’re about to get 5G, and with it comes a whole family of technologies that include the Internet of Things (IoT), analytics, and Big Data. So let me introduce you to them before I go any farther.
New Ways People are Using Data
All day long, people do stuff. They wake to an alarm on their phone, they check social media and e-mail and the weather, they go out for a run or head to the gym, and they drive to work, stopping at their favorite coffee shop for a drink. Once they arrive at work they badge into their company’s building, and for the rest of the workday they move around, attend client meetings, go to lunch, meet friends after work for a drink and perhaps dinner, and finally go home in the evening. On the way home, driverless cars communicate with other cars on the road, to ensure proper vehicle separation to avoid accidents.
In a nearby house, a young mom receives a text message on her mobile phone, telling her that her sleeping baby’s diaper needs to be changed. In the next room, her husband practices his golf swing, while a sensor on the head of the club captures all the data about his technique: speed, angle, open vs. closed club face, and so on. That data is combined with historical data to show how much his swing has changed based on the lessons he’s been taking, and how much he has improved relative to his friends.
This may sound like science fiction to you, but everything I just described is happening right now. The things in the Internet of Things are all the sensors that now surround us and that respond to everything we do throughout the day. That exercise band on your wrist, your smart phone, the tracking devices in your car, your music player—anything that’s connected to the Web is a thing in the Internet of Things. Those things generate data, all day long, in response to human activity. That data makes its way to a data center, where sophisticated software analyzes it for relevant information, and then sends the results off to a decision-maker, an executive, a sales person, or a marketing organization, for action. What kind of action? Order more of those. Lower the price. Show the person they’re lagging behind their friends on steps and should get a move on. Call a nurse to raise that patient’s bed to improve respiration. Go get that car fixed. Lock that elbow on your swing. And for heaven’s sake, go change that diaper.
The number of sensors that are deployed even today, at this very early stage in the development of IoT, is staggering. Today there are about (and this is a pretty loose number, because nobody really knows) ten billion sensors out there. But by 2020, that number goes up—WAY up.
So What Does This Have to do with 5G?
Today, mobile devices connect via the cellular network, and to make that work, your phone connects wirelessly to a local antenna that sits on top of a cell tower. We’ve all seen them. And while the number varies, a typical cell tower can handle hundreds of connections. But what happens when IoT rears its head and starts vying for thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of connections? What happens then? We’re talking about a data tsunami that will overwhelm the existing infrastructure.
One thing to keep in mind is that IoT devices don’t need a lot of bandwidth. They’re not data hogs, like streaming video or interactive gaming. They’re more like dainty data sippers. But they sip often, which means they need to be connected all the time. And, there are an awful lot of animals sipping at the water hole.
So, what does this really translate to? It’s pretty simple—and it makes a lot of sense. We’re not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Rather than being a replacement for fourth generation LTE, fifth generation 5G will coexist with 4G for a long time to come, and the two technologies will evolve simultaneously, side-by-side. Basically, 4G LTE will provide traditional, wide area coverage, just like it does today, while 5G will initially be rolled out in select areas, like high-density cities, stadiums, conference centers, amusement parks, and shopping areas, to guarantee availability of high bandwidth and the ability to support enhanced, high-demand applications.
Another thing we’re going to see is the deployment of a vast number of small cells—as in, cell sites that live in your house. Think about it: the original cellular network design was based on the assumption that mobile phones are these big boxy things that live in cars, which means that they needed to cover areas that were traversed by fast-moving vehicles. But when Motorola and others began to roll out pocket-sized phones in the early 90s and mobility evolved to include people walking around, that also opened the door for a network redesign. This meantthe introduction of much smaller cells, since people don’t walk as fast as a car can drive. So, if you think about it, you’ll conclude that the wireless network is mostly used by people who are indoors, not out and about in their cars. What this means is that we now need to augment the network to include more indoor cells to guarantee solid indoor coverage. This has the added advantage of decongesting the much larger outdoor cells, which balances the transmission load more effectively.
The truth is that 5G, when it gets here, will be a massive game-changer in terms of bandwidth availability and support for media-rich applications like streaming video and TV, interactive gaming, and support for virtual and augmented reality. But don’t expect 4G to disappear; the two will work in concert to guarantee that service is ubiquitous, seamless, and rich. And that pretty much covers the waterfront.
Resources: To listen to Dr. Shepard’s podcast on this topic, click here.
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