So what might 5G technology actually look like? That's not known for sure, but experts like Craig Mathias, a well-known wireless consultant and Network World blogger, think there are clues out there.
He says that the key factor in 5G and other future developments is limited spectrum availability.
Wireless communication works best between 600MHz and 3GHz. At frequencies lower than 600MHz, the waves are too large, and the size of receiving antennas becomes "problematic," he says, citing older VHF portable TVs with long, telescoping antennas. Above 3GHz, signals begin to dissipate quickly and become more directional, resulting in shorter effective range.
What this means is that we'll have to get creative with the spectrum available to us, Mathias says. One way this will happen in the future is the use of small cells, which do not provide as much geographical coverage as larger ones. If this sounds counter-intuitive, think of it as painting with a fine brush at any given frequency, an area could either be monopolized by a single large cell, or served by a dozen smaller ones.
"That's really what we want to do we're not getting any more spectrum, but we can re-use the spectrum in other words, make multiple use of it simultaneously given the geographic distance between the various cells," says Mathias.
In addition to a shortage of spectrum, he says, there's a limit to how much data can be stuffed into a particular block of it at any given time, a concept called spectral efficiency. Work-arounds like MIMO which uses multiple antennas and receivers to service a single stream of data have managed to dramatically increase spectral efficiency, to what Mathias considers a surprising degree.
"It sounds like absolute magic, and it really shouldn't work, but the denser you make a particular MIMO system ... the greater the spectral efficiency," he says.
Whatever the nature of the eventual 5G technology, IDC's Atreyam says that a couple of capabilities will be essential. It's not just a speed boost, although that will obviously happen, as well.
Automation could be one of the central features of 5G, for the sake of both end-user functionality and the health of the network itself. Built-in intelligence could be used to provide location-aware services turning on a home's climate control when the owner is detected leaving work in the evening, routing phone calls to different devices, depending on which is close by as well as self-configuration for maximum performance and reliability.
"You need a network which can handle tons of, as we call it, signaling information, because the network needs to know how to reach you, and how to get the information that you need ... so there's a lot of underlying messaging which happens in the background," says Atreyam.
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