With each new generation of wireless networks, faster speeds and more functionality have been delivered to our smartphones. The first mobile phones operated on 1G, text messages and USSD only became widespread with 2G technology, while 3G brought us online and 4G delivered the speeds many of us enjoy today. As more users come online, 4G networks have just about reached a limit of what their capabilities for a time when users want even more data for their smartphones and devices.
The next logical step in the evolution of wireless is 5G, which technically would be able to handle 100 times more traffic than today's networks and it will be up to 10 times faster than 4G LTE speeds today.
If you can imagine downloading a full 720p movie in under a second on a wireless network, then you've only just begun to imagine the capabilities of 5G. It will inevitably be the foundation for virtual reality, autonomous driving, the Internet of Things and many technologies that we probably haven't imagined yet.
It begs to question what exactly a 5G network is. Experts can't tell us what 5G actually is because they also can't agree.
That being said, there are currently 5 technologies that are currently poised to usher in 5G as we begin to imagine it.
The frequency on which your smartphones and other electronic devices in our homes are getting crowded. This frequency is usually limited to frequencies 6GHz and under. Carriers are limited in the amounts of bits of data they are able to squeeze on the radio frequency spectrum. As more devices and people it is likely that with the current infrastructure we will see slower services and dropped connections. Researchers are investigating the viability of migrating to shorter millimeter waves, those that lie between 30GHz and 300GHz. This section of the spectrum has never been used before for mobile devices and opening it up will mean more bandwidth, for everyone.
But there is a catch: millimeter waves cannot travel well through buildings and other obstacles and they tend to be absorbed by plants and rain.
To get around this problem, we'll need technology number 2.
Small Cell Networks
Today's wireless networks rely on large high powered cell towers to broadcast their signals over long distances, but remember, higher frequency millimeter waves have a harder time travelling through obstacles, meaning if you move behind one, you will lose your signal. Small Cell Networks would solve that problem using thousands of low powered mini-base cell stations. These abse stations would be much closer together than traditional towers forming a sort of relay team to transmit signals around obstacles. This would be especially useful in cities. As a user moves behind an obstacle, his smartphone would autimatically switche between base stations in better range of his device allowing him to keep his connectivity.
Multiple Input Multiple Output or MIMO. Today's 4G base stations have about a dozen ports for antennae that habdle all cellular traffic, but massive MIMO stations can support about 100 ports. This could increase the capacity of today's networks by a factor of 22 or more.
Ofcourse massive MIMO comes with its own complications. Today's cellular antennae broadcast information in every direction at once. and all of those crossing signals could cause serious interference.
Beamforming is like a traffic signaling system for cellular trafffic signlas. Instead of broadcasting in every direction, it would allow a base station to send a focused stream of data to a specific user. This precision prevents interference and it is way more efficient. That means stations could handle more incoming and outgoing data streams at once.
Here's how it works: Say you're in a cluster of buildings and you try to make a phone call, your signal is richoceting off surrounding buildings and criss-crossing from users in the area. A massive MIMO base station receives all of these signals and keeps track of the timing and the direction of their arrival. It then uses signal processing algorithms to triangulate exactly where each signal is coming from and plots the best transmission route back through the air to each phone. Sometimes, it'll even bounce different packets of data in different directions off of buildings or other objects to keep signals from interfering with one another. The result is a coherent data stream sent only to you.
If you've ever used a walkie-talkie, you know that in order to communicate you have to take turns talking and listening. That's kind of a drag! Today's cellular base stations have that exact same hold-up: a basic antennae can only do one job at a time, either transmit or receive. This is because of a principle called reciprocity, the tendency for radio waves to travel backward and forward along the same frequency. To understand this it helps to think of a radiowave like a train loaded up with data. The frequency it's travelling on is like the train track. If there's a second train trying to go in the opposite direction on the same track, you're going to get some interference. Up until now, the sollution has been to have the trains take turns, or to put all the trains on different frequencies where you can make things alot more efficient by working around reciprocity. Researchers have used silicone transistors to create high speed switches that halt the backward roll of these waves. It kind of like a signaling system that can momentarily re-route two trains so that they can get past one another. This would allow alot more getting done on each track alot faster.
While we are still working out any of the kinks in all of these technologies, all of 5G remains a work in progress. It will likely include other technologies too. Making all of these systems work together will be a whole other challenegShould experts figure it out in time, ultra fast 5G service could arrive in the next five years.