As 5G network deployments approach, mobile developers and telecoms are starting to spin into gear. 5G is a major advance over the 4G/LTE networks that debuted earlier this decade, and multiple companies are talking about 10 gigabit wireless performance and new, seamless connectivity options.
There’s good reason to take all such claims with a grain of salt, but Qualcomm’s recent 5G testing announcement is a genuine step forward. A wide range of companies have adopted the X50 modem for 5G NR trials, including AT&T, British Telecom, China Telecom, China Mobile, China Unicom, Deutsche Telekom, Sprint, Telstra, and Verizon.
Qualcomm notes that its test platform incorporates the X50 modem into a reference design suitable for mainstream production that won’t sacrifice performance or capability on 4G networks. That last isn’t a trivial point — new modem standards have to be at least as fast on existing networks as the older versions in order to tempt customers into upgrading.
Don’t Expect Miracles (Or Even Much Improvement)
There’s an ugly truth about 5G that isn’t being talked about much, but is going to become increasingly important in the years ahead. At peak transmission speeds, yes, 5G can blow 4G LTE out of the water; PCMag reported on a Samsung demo last year in which a 28GHz “millimeter wave” system hit speeds of 4Gbps. That’s 500MB/s, a transfer rate typically sustained on an SSD, not a wireless network.
But at least initially, US cellular providers are targeting 28GHz and 38GHz bands. This means the first devices to support 5G aren’t going to offer the kind of bandwidth improvements you might like unless you’re wearing the base station like a hat. As the image above shows, higher frequency signals attenuate at much shorter distances than lower frequencies. This makes 5G service a non-starter unless you’re quite close to the deployment, and it’s simply not clear how much telcos are going to pay to wire up neighborhoods. If you live in a major metropolitan area you may see 5G benefits relatively quickly, but the rest of us will be waiting a year or four.
Long-term, 5G is expected to use lower frequencies in the US (3100 – 3550 MHz and 3700 – 4200 MHz) according to the GSA, but in the short term this isn’t technology you’ll see deploying very far. 5G signals are also more susceptible to attenuation by weather conditions; high humidity, fog, and rain will lower performance more than you’d see in an equivalent 4G network.
5G still has the potential to be vastly quicker than anything LTE brought to the table, but the number of factors that need to fall into place to make next-generation cellular happen are higher than they used to be.
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