Why 5G cellular networks will change the world as we know it

“It will be absolutely revolutionary”

The next generation of cellular network technology, 5G, will be so life altering, Matt Hawn (Telecommunications Engineering Technology ’07) finds it hard to imagine the changes we’ll see.

“It will be absolutely revolutionary,” says the chair of NAIT’s Communication Technician program of the new network, which should be available in Canada by next year or 2021. “It takes a lot of technologies that previously we could only imagine and provides a framework, a sandbox, where we can build them.”

The early arrival of 5G phones, likely by the summer, is already generating curiosity about what the new infrastructure will look like and what the technology means for consumers.

How to identify true 5G

Some companies may say their network is 5G, meaning it’s their fifth generation of upgrades, but that’s not true 5G, says Golrooz Taef, chair of NAIT’s Wireless Systems Engineering Technology program.

The upgraded network comes with a specific set of standards – speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second, lag of less than one millisecond, and the ability to handle one million devices per square kilometre.

Like cellular generations before it, 5G will make your phone work faster – a lot faster. But its incredible speed – almost real time – will also allow for communication among machines and devices that was once the stuff of science fiction. Imagine vehicles, traffic lights, agricultural, industrial and medical equipment, all with sensors collecting and transmitting data to one another instantaneously.

“A lot of the excitement about fifth-generation technology is that we don’t know exactly what it’s going to be used for,” says Hawn. “But it’s going to be cool.”

How does it work?

rocket full of data on the 5g networkThe “G” in 5G stands for “generation” (not to be confused with 5G Wi-Fi, in which “G” means gigahertz). It’s part of an evolutionary chain of cellular technology: 1G enabled talking on the wireless network, 2G allowed for texting, 3G ushered in the age of the smartphone, and 4G enabled video streaming.

5G is so much faster because the technology is different, using small cells instead of big transmitters. Each one will be about the size of a shoebox and built into the existing infrastructure in high-density areas – on utility poles, street lights and inside buildings – delivering the cellular signal within smaller areas.

“It enables that kind of network where you can have a million devices in one square kilometre that are able to communicate with each other in virtually real time,” says Hawn.

"You can have a million devices in one square kilometre that are able to communicate with each other."

Canada will need about 270,000 small cells instead of the 30,000 towers currently in our network, he adds. The current big three carriers, Telus, Rogers and Bell (and Freedom, to a lesser extent), will pay to build the infrastructure and consumers will pay them for cell service.

The result will be a network that operates at a speed 20 times faster than the 4G network.

Golrooz Taef, Wireless Systems Engineering Technology program chair, explains it this way: Downloading a two-hour movie on the 3G network took 26 hours; on the 4G network, it takes about five minutes. With 5G, it will take 3.6 seconds.

“The key is the quick response time to a command – one millisecond. That’s 400 times faster than the blink of an eye,” says Taef. “To be honest, I’m in this industry and even I wonder how it can work that fast.”

While some providers have done trials of 5G – at the Winter Olympics in Korea, for example – no country has a 5G network yet. We should start seeing 5G phones available this summer, but Canada won’t see 5G service available for those phones until 2020 or 2021, says Hawn.

The 5G world to come

internet of things on the 5g networkWhen it arrives, the 5G network could bring major benefits, and not just to those looking to download videos faster than ever.

“If 4G was a huge boost for people, this is a huge boost for our machines and infrastructure, which is going to enable a lot of our innovation going forward,” says Taef.

"This is going to enable a lot of innovation going forward.”

The Information and Communications Technology Council, a national centre of expertise for the digital economy, estimates 5G will have an impact of up to $26 billion on the Canadian economy, creating up to 82,000 jobs by 2030.

The downside of 5G?

Privacy is a growing concern when networks can communicate so much information so quickly and accurately, pinpointing individual signal locations much more accurately.

So too is the potential health risk of having so many wireless signals around us. Hawn says the federal government has looked extensively at wireless exposure limits and will ensure all carriers comply with those rules.

It will also advance the Internet of Things, that interconnectedness of Wi-Fi-enabled devices, which will in turn support smart cities that use data to increase efficiencies and sustainability.

In industries such as oil and gas, 5G could help reduce equipment failures, maintenance costs and unplanned downtime while increasing safety, says Taef.

“In medicine, you’ll see robots doing surgery – a doctor in Toronto controlling a robot that’s doing surgery in Yellowknife, for example.”

For NAIT, the imminent arrival of 5G means reviewing and renewing curriculum, he adds.

“We have to prepare students because the technology is coming, and the whole cellular infrastructure needs to be changed. Can you imagine how many cells will have to be installed, and then powered and maintained? That will create a lot of jobs.”

While we won’t be seeing smart cities and autonomous vehicles by the end of the year, 5G will bring incredible change in the future, Hawn adds.

“Where 5G is really going to shine is over the next 10 years. That’s where people aren’t quite understanding the difference between 4G and 5G. It’s not a ‘Hey cool, my phone is faster’ technology. It’s more about what is possible with the infrastructure and the technology that fifth-generation cellular gives you.”

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