The next generation of cellphone service is intended to provide speeds 20 times faster than what we have now. It also is expected to reduce the latency that makes videoconferencing so difficult, and to have almost unlimited capacity. It’s called 5G.
And there’s no idea when Idaho will get it. Rural Idaho may not get it at all.
“5G sets out to solve all the problems we discovered with 4G,” said Lindsay Notwell, senior vice president of 5G strategy and global carrier operations for Cradlepoint, based in Boise. In the same way that 4G technology let cellphones run applications, 5G will support a new family of applications, such as self-driving cars and other Internet of Things devices communicating using 5G technology and remote healthcare with videoconferencing, he said.
While 5G testing shows results of up to 32 gigabits per second, that’s in a lab setting under perfect conditions, Notwell said. “Realistically, what I believe you’ll see is half a gig per user without breaking a sweat,” he predicted. In comparison, 4G provides download speeds between 5 and 12 megabits per second (Mbps) and upload speeds between 2 and 5 Mbps, according to Verizon
To be clear, nobody is getting true 5G anytime soon. While all of the major carriers have announced that they intend to support 5G, the technical specification isn’t completely done yet. Consequently, cellphones supporting 5G aren’t likely to come out before 2019 or 2020.
But like existing cellphone service, 5G requires infrastructure. It uses a different type of infrastructure from that used by the existing 4G. Instead of gigantic towers, 5G is built to use small cells — much smaller boxes that are much closer together, such as on utility and light poles. The Federal Communications Commission voted on March 22 to make installing small cells easier, and several states – though not Idaho – have also passed laws taking away cities’ ability to slow down 5G implementation. Cities most likely to get 5G first are the ones that make it easiest to install the infrastructure, such as Sacramento, Notwell said.
“You won’t see a nationwide footprint of small cells for five years,” predicted Peter Rysavy, president of Rysavy Research, in Hood River, Oregon. “It’ll be a five to ten year process to get out the million-plus small cells that we’re going to need.”
The four major carriers – AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon – have all committed to supporting 5G, but none would make any commitments about when and where. “We will see commercial launches in 2018,” Notwell predicted. “Both AT&T and Verizon are in a death match to be first.”
The carrier most likely to provide 5g to Idaho first? T-Mobile. “Their stated intention is to light up the nation,” Notwell said. “That will include Idaho.” While that might happen in 2018, 2019 is more likely, he said.
But for rural areas? Not so much. The fact that 5G typically requires the small cells closer together also makes it less likely, not more, that rural Idaho will be able to take part in the 5G revolution.
“5G is really focused on improvements in wireless for the urban environment,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a 44-year-old Minneapolis nonprofit focused on community development policies. “There are a lot of lobbyists pretending that 5G will solve rural problems. If you do not have good wireless today, 5G is not going to be much better.”
There is one way in which rural Idaho might be able to take advantage of 5G – eventually. While most 5G is expected to travel over very short waves, some carriers might offer 5G over much longer waves as well (see box). While the short waves used in cities can be stopped by something as simple as a leaf, the long waves can travel much further without interference.
T-Mobile, in particular, has been purchasing access to spectrum – not just in metropolitan areas such as Boise and Twin Falls, but also in places like Swan Valley, near the corner of the state closest to Jackson. Then again, T-Mobile might have acquired spectrum in that region just for testing or for providing better 4G service in that area, said Brian Goemmer, president of AllNet Insights & Analytics, a Seattle consultancy. A T-Mobile spokesman who asked not to be named said that the lower spectrum could be used as a basis for providing 5G – including in rural areas – by 2020.
The other problem with 5G? Because the waves are so short, not only can they be stopped by something as simple as a leaf, but they aren’t so good at going through buildings, either. If you have to cuddle up to a window in your office now to be able to use your cellphone, that’s even more likely with 5G. This is where Cradlepoint comes in: it hopes to sell boxes that help transmit the signals within buildings, Notwell said.
Finally, there’s the question of price. Will it be affordable? “That’s the million-dollar question,” Notwell said. “Pricing is always one of the last things.”
The nerdy part of 5G
What makes 5G so much faster? Part of it is that the frequency is so much faster, with much smaller waves. Moreover, with so many more small-cell transmitters, fewer people will be sharing a single one. “A wireless access point will only be shared by tens or hundreds of devices, rather than thousands,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a 44-year-old Minneapolis nonprofit focused on community development policies.. “The whole point of 5G is to reduce the number of people sharing.”
But there is another option. Some carriers are looking at using 5G over other frequencies, such as 600 MHz and 800 MHz. “T-Mobile won an auction last year for $8 billion on the 600 MHz frequency,” said Lindsay Notwell, senior vice president of 5G strategy and global carrier operations for Cradlepoint. “That’s where the old UHF television stations were.” And when using 800 MHz spectrum, transmitters can be up to 35 miles apart from each other, and are much less subject to interference. “They may not be super super fast – not fiber-like speeds you might get in the urban core – but they’d still be plenty fast, a couple of hundred megabits per second,” he said.
“If you could get analog television, you could get this,” Mitchell said.
Some people also worry that, because the waves used by 5G are so short, they could cause more damage to people. While testing of radiofrequency radiation released earlier this year from the National Toxicology Program showed increased tumors in male rats, those tests used 2G frequencies and didn’t cover the spectrum to be used by 5G, so it’s not clear whether 5G would be more or less dangerous.