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This is 5G's moment -- four years early

Stephen Lawson | Feb. 25, 2016
5G, coming in 2020, is all the rage at Mobile World Congress this year

True 5G mobile networks and devices won't be here until 2020. That may seem like a long time to you or me, but for the carriers and network equipment makers at Mobile World Congress, it's time to get cracking.

There are field trials going on at most major network vendors and operators, and a number of demonstrations in the MWC exhibition halls show how they think the next generation of mobile will work.

The mobile industry's been through this before, but this time it's better prepared than ever, according to people who helped define previous generations. This time they have a better grasp of both the demands users will place on the system and the technologies to meet those demands.

Applications that consume a lot of data, like streaming video, are already hugely popular and getting more so. Self-driving cars are tooling around the roads of Silicon Valley, while industries are adding more sensors to their equipment. Meanwhile, radios and antennas keep getting more powerful while researchers learn how to use incredibly high frequencies.

Some power players, like Nokia CEO Rajeev Suri, think 5G will essentially be done long before it's official in 2020. A few carriers are talking about limited commercial deployments in 2018 or even 2017. But there are some big hurdles to overcome before true 5G is a reality.

5G will be much more than a mobile voice and data system for phones and tablets like 3G or 4G. Virtually everyone here is talking about the same new demands: top speeds 100 times above LTE for video, minimum speeds low enough for years of battery life, shorter delays for machines to respond in real time, connections for more devices, and management software to make one network perform all these stunts at the same time.

First, the big numbers: A live demonstration of potential 5G technology by Nokia and South Korean carrier SK Telecom is showing throughput around 20Gbps (bits per second), according to the real-time results monitor in SK's booth.

Ericsson pre-standard 5G gear at the show has reached 26Gbps, CEO Hans Vestberg said Monday morning. In T-Mobile's booth, a monitor shows a live feed of a lab in Germany where a Huawei base station is delivering about 70Gbps.

Test results vary partly because some trial networks use more spectrum than others. In each case, those speeds would be shared by everyone using the cell. But they're all huge jumps from LTE, which is just reaching 1Gbps in its fastest forms these days.

Low latency is another big feature 5G is supposed to have. It's a bit more complicated. Latency is the delay between when a cell sends a bit and a phone receives it, and vice versa. It's going to be more important when things like robots and connected cars get on cell networks.


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