You almost surely use a 3G or 4G wireless network with your mobile phone to make calls and send texts, and maybe surf the web and stream music and movies. If you’re like many North Phoenix residents, the quality of your coverage has declined in recent months. Better days are ahead, but don’t toss that 4G-compatible phone just yet.
SPECIAL REPORT: WIRELESS WOES
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3G and 4G technologies are in the Dark Ages compared to the technological promise of 5G. Yet as wireless networks struggle under an increasing data load—demand doubles every two years and networks are getting bogged down—5G remains a much hyped, little understood pot of data gold at the end of a radio-bandwidth rainbow. No carriers have yet announced 5G plans for the Phoenix area, yet Arizona leads the way on regulations that encourage deployment of 5G infrastructure.
What is 5G?
Simply put, 5G stands for 5th generation wireless technology, the next leap after 2G, 3G and 4G. Beyond that, things get highly complex. In fact, there is no single coherent definition of 5G, and each wireless company is developing its own version. In a nutshell, 5G will rely on different wavelengths of the radio spectrum and vastly updated infrastructure that will include oodles of smaller new antennas spaced 1,000 feet apart or closer.
How Fast is 5G?
For context, 4G LTE is 10 times faster than 3G, according to Verizon.
Proponents say 5G will be 100 times faster than 4G, according to CTIA, an association of wireless carriers and technology firms. The speed is expected to compete with cable-based home internet services. And 5G will support 100 times more devices. Think of a pathway that’s not just fast but wide.
To borrow an analogy from the early days of the Information Superhighway: If 4G is a one-lane, rut-ridden dirt road, 5G is a smooth eight-lane highway. Or, as the editors of Wired magazine put it, 5G will be “faster than 4G, but not as fast as teleportation.”
It’s worth noting, however, that new technologies don’t always live up to expectations. Just look at 4G: In practice it’s often nowhere near as fast as touted, because data-transfer speeds depend significantly on a slew of factors, including which flavor of 4G your carrier uses (4G is not just one standard but many, such as the LTE variety), how clogged a network is, buildings and other obstructions, even the weather.
- 83.2 Mbps (Megabits per second): Average home broadband download speed in January 2018, according to the Speedtest Global Index.
- 27.4 Mbps: average U.S. wireless customer download speed.
- 5 Mbps: Threshold for consistent streaming of HD video, according to Verizon.
- 56.9 Mbps: Fastest wireless download speed among seven sites tested around North Phoenix using Verizon and AT&T phones.
- 1 Mbps or less: Download speeds we found at three locations around North Phoenix [Details].
- The slowness is caused largely by the increasing number of users who are each demanding more data, experts say.
How fast 5G will be depends on who you ask. By all accounts, 5G speed will be at least 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps). A Gibabit equals 1,000 Megabits. Some analysts expect speeds of 10 or even 20 Gbps. Small tests have already demonstrated speeds of around 4 to 5 Gbps.
Importantly, 5G will also come with a five-fold reduction in the time it takes a network to recognize a device’s requests, or what’s called latency. That will be vital for technologies like self-driving cars, where even the slightest delay could be deadly. As an example, provided by CTIA: With 4G, a self-driving car would travel 4.6 feet before applying the brakes after a situation was recognized. With 5G, it would travel just 1 inch.
“5G promises to be a game-changing technology,” according to Cisco’s Visual Networking Index report.
But First …
With great speed comes a great need for new infrastructure, because the higher-frequency bandwidths that allow faster speeds are effective only over shorter distances.
“5G is really really fast but doesn’t travel very far,” James Nguyen, who works for Wilson Amplifiers, told North Phoenix News. Wilson makes boosters for the home that act like megaphones, capturing a weak wireless signal and strengthening it. That’s not unlike what an entire 5G network will do.
5G networks will use millimeter waves in the radio spectrum, which are really short (just millimeters long) compared to wavelengths used for 4G, which are measured in tens of centimeters. Millimeter waves “have difficulty getting around mountains, buildings and other obstructions. Nguyen said concrete, steel and even energy-efficient homes are all the enemy of a 5G signal. Even weather.
CTIA engineers have said 5G antennas may cover a couple hundred yards—the length of two football fields. For citywide deployment of 5G, wireless carriers need to install thousands of small antennas—including atop buildings, utility poles and even street lights. Creating this new infrastructure will take years.
And there’s this: “The sheer number of small cells required to build a 5G network may make it hard to set up in rural areas,” points out the tech site IEEE Spectrum. What that means for the suburban neighborhoods of North Phoenix, including Anthem, remains to be seen, but already carriers have made it clear that dense urban areas will be their initial targets.
When Will 5G Save the Day?
Cisco estimates only 0.2 percent of mobile connections will be 5G in 2021. None of that 0.2 percent is likely to be you.
AT&T plans to roll out 5G in up to 23 major metro areas this year. Phoenix is not among them. It’s also not known how widespread these 5G coverage areas will be. Each 5G cell may be only 1,000 feet wide, says PC Magazine editor Sascha Segan.
Verizon plans to launch 5G in Sacramento, Calif. and up to four other as-yet-unnamed cities later this year, but it will involve at-home wireless networks only, aimed at competing with wired, broadband internet providers.
And therein may lie one of the significant benefits of 5G. When it comes to North Phoenix, even if just for in-home use, it could mean competition for Cox Cable’s internet service.
To make calls with 5G, you will of course need a new phone. 5G phones are expected to be 4G-compatible, and would presumably switch between standards as a user moves in and out of 5G-capable areas.
Wireless companies are poised to invest $275 billion to build 5G networks, according to the analyst firm Accenture. The stakes are high, not just for you but globally:
“America’s leadership of the industries of the future—from connected health care to autonomous vehicles and more—is at risk, says Meredith Attwell Baker, president and chief executive officer of CTIA. “A global race to be the first to deploy 5G … is underway, and China, Japan and South Korea, among others, are doing everything they can to win.”
Wireless companies need two things to make 5G happen: new high-frequency bandwidths via auctions by the Federal government, and new regulations that allow dense deployment of small antennas.
“Rather than the 200-foot towers of today, tomorrow’s networks will rely on small wireless cells about the size of pizza boxes,” Baker wrote in an opinion piece last year. “Updating the rules associated with installing these devices will accelerate deployment across the country.”
Arizona is Ready
Arizona is leading the way on these laying the political groundwork for 5G, with regulations already in place that invite investment.
A new state law (HB 2365) went into effect Aug. 9, 2017, allowing wireless carriers to install small antennas in city and town rights-of-way, which includes street-light structures. Maricopa County passed a new ordinance in 2014 that allows antennas on just about any structure as long as certain design and setback guidelines are met.
“The first states to modernize siting policies will be in the best position to maximize the investment, jobs and economic growth that 5G will bring,” Jamie Hastings, CTIA’s SVP of external and state affairs, told North Phoenix News. “By enacting HB 2365, Arizona clearly demonstrated it is focused on being competitive in the technology landscape and that it understands the importance of meeting residents’ growing demands for mobile data.”
One ray of near-term hope: Before 5G comes to North Phoenix, the installation of smaller antennas could improve service in some slow areas and dead spots. All four major carriers told us they are working on improvements.
SPECIAL REPORT: WIRELESS WOES
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