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We can talk about virtual reality, self-driving cars, AI, and robots all day – but the truth of the matter is that none of these amazing technologies will work in the world as we all hope and envision unless we have one thing first. There’s a deceptively tiny word for this thing – two-characters: one number followed by one letter. But don’t be fooled: it’s HUGE.
Today’s highlight: 5G

What is it?

Short for Fifth Generation, 5G is the next wave of wireless network technology. 1G gave us the cell phone, 2G gave us the capability to send texts, 3G gave us mobile web, and 4G LTE made everything about 10 times faster. 5G hasn’t quite arrived on the scene just yet, but it’s supposed to be right around the corner. Your phone will be able to get 10 gigabits per second, which is 600 times faster than the typical 4G speeds on today’s mobile devices, and 10 times faster than Google Fiber’s standard home broadband service. By being this fast, it means we’ll be able to communicate in almost real-time, with 1 millisecond of lag.

But it’s not just our phones. The future, as envisioned in the concept of the ‘Internet of Things’, is going to be fully computerized and data-driven in all the devices and appliances within our environment – our thermostats, our cars, our streets, our cities. We’ll be going from 300 million connected devices to 3 billion, and many will have imbued intelligence with integrated voice control and ambient interfaces with the ability to personalize an experience for each unique user. Everything will talk to everything else, sending data back and forth. Even the trees will likely have sensors that communicate via a network. Right now, the only way we can reach the necessary speeds to bring about this new interconnected future is through a wired connection. But that won’t work, of course. Wires and cables can’t link everything up. The solution to all this is 5G wireless. Once 5G arrives, the science fiction future we imagine will be possible.

Without 5G, we will never see:

  • Smart cities
  • Self-driving cars
  • VR and AR on mobile devices
  • Remote surgeries via robots

5G is so exciting that in recent surveys, industrial companies rank it above Artificial Intelligence (AI) as an enabler of digital transformation. Its importance has caused the equivalent of a space race to begin. If a country gets to 5G first, Wired Magazine points out, “its burgeoning tech industry will create the next global mobile platform.” China having 5G would give them an edge in other important industries, too, such as AI. You’ve heard the expression: “The one who has the gold, has the power”? The reality is, “The one who has the data, has the power.” And 5G means more devices, and more devices on a network means more data, and since AI needs data for its training, more data means better AI. It all comes back to 5G. Potentially, it could also unify all services (wireless, wireline, and satellite) under a common digital structure.

Where are we now? And what does it take to get there?

Right now, the most privileged of us have 4G – which uses spread-out cell towers that can broadcast at great distances. It’s not capable of the speeds we need to reach though. To get 5G we will want to use “millimeter waves”, the very high end of the wireless spectrum, where there’s plenty of unused bandwidth. The problem is this technology is not good at long distances where there’s disruptions like trees, people, and even rain. To make it work, it requires a huge amount of access points, or base stations, rather than a few big cell towers. And those access points are connected to a wired network infrastructure, a fiber one. So despite calling 5G a wireless solution, it’s powered by fiber in the ground with a tiny cordless last mile. No fiber? No 5G.

Diagram that shows underground fiber cabling enabling 5G wireless with small cell technology.
5G requires frequent base stations supported by extensive underground fiber network

Here area few things to be aware of as we enter the Age of 5G:

> It will take longer to arrive than we think.

Although the year 2020 was thrown around for a while as the year 5G would make its appearance in our lives, it needs more time than that. Even now, Verizon and AT&T have launched what they’re calling 5G in some cities, but this may be deceptive as they’re still technically using 4G technologies. PC Mag writes, “AT&T has started to call its 4G network ‘5G Evolution,’ because it sees improving 4G as a major step to 5G. It’s right, of course. But the phrasing is designed to confuse less-informed consumers into thinking 5G Evolution is 5G, when it isn’t.” For AT&T, the 5G speeds will be capped at 2 Gbps. Very fast, but not quite the 10 Gigabits per second 5G is supposed to provide.

To make 5G happen it’s going to take a lot of investment and a massive deployment of hardware, which is all very time-consuming. 5G requires much smaller cell stations every few blocks in order to bring coverage, rather than the cell towers that 4G uses that could deploy signals for miles. It requires local approval, and there are often huge regulatory fights. Instead of thinking it’s going to launch next year, we should re-frame it as an investment for the next decade. Despite how fast it will be, 5G is going to be slow on arrival.

> It may widen the digital divide even further.

Can we really expect 5G to come to the rural and underprivileged areas any time soon? As Wired writes, “less oversight and fewer carriers could translate into higher prices and less availability for 5G… [and] without oversight, carriers might opt not to build 5G networks in low income or rural areas that could prove less profitable.”

As I mentioned before, the great wireless revolution requires a fiber backbone in the ground to run. Rural areas often don’t have the fiber that’s required.

Another frustrating possibility is that efforts to bring about 5G could actually reduce rural coverage even more than is already present:

“[To move to 5G] Verizon has recently discontinued activating 3G handsets and has been decommissioning 3G equipment, but not always replacing coverage in those areas, which leads to many people in the marginal coverage areas having no access at all.”

– Deborah Simpier for BroadbandBreakfast.com

The step to 5G could actually be skipping a step, since it’s not like the existing 4G is meeting the current needs across the country. It’s hard not to agree with Christopher Elliott who wrote in Forbes, “It would be nice if the providers could provide rural areas with consistent 4G service first.”

> It may be bad for your health.

Many have pointed out the possible health risks of having so many 5G cell stations and their electromagnetic radiation near people’s homes. Although they are often referred to as “small” and only the size of a pizza box, the technology to justify this terminology isn’t quite there yet. We can expect more of a refrigerator size for the time being. The aesthetics, psychological effects, and just general property value for the people living among these rows and rows of small fridges attached to practically every rooftop, utility pole and lamp post may have negative consequences on human and animal lives.

> It could throw off weather forecasting.

5G is on the same wavelength as weather forecasting so those using it would be competing with these services. This interference could decrease accuracy by 30% – setting us back four decades to the lower quality forecasts we had in the 1980s. It means you may not hear about the hurricane coming to your area in time. It’s a major concern recently brought up by NASA, NOAA, and others, and needs to be addressed.

> It could further threaten our personal data and privacy.

If 5G is what brings about the Internet of Things – with massive communication happening on a constant basis with our personal devices and the environment, then it could herald the beginning of intrusive digital advertising that occurs not just on the computer browsers within our homes, but out in the world as we’re moving about. Without oversight, marketers using this technology may not respect consumers’ privacy. Also, as Fast Company pointed out, with 5G’s smaller coverage areas, “anyone with access to your ISP’s cell tower data will be able to hone in on your exact location far more precisely than they can today under our 4G networks.” You will no longer connect to a distant 4G tower a mile way, but a 5G one right near you, and as you move around, you will quickly connect to the next one closest to you. Your whole path can then easily be tracked and your location accurately determined at any moment simply by knowing which 5G tower you’re next to at any given moment – even down to the building you’re in.

Graphic of a confused person

Final Note:

There are definitely issues with 5G to work out, but don’t let this list scare you. It’s best to be aware of what’s coming and face it head on. Don’t keep your head in the sand; stay vigilant, ask questions, and don’t fear the future. It’s our duty as librarians.

Remember that:

  • You personally don’t have to know everything
  • Everyone is learning
  • You just have to be open to finding the answers.

It’s the librarian way.

One thought on “HHH: 5G

  1. This was so informative. Sounds like 5G is the new moon race, only the stakes are higher.

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