5G is coming. What is 5G anyway?

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By all accounts, the future will bring a beeping hive of smart devices into our lives. Doorbells and washing machines and thermostats will be connected to each other, managed by a robotic housekeeper. Your car will check its own oil, alert you when gas is running low, and drive itself. Your shopping will be delivered by drone.

But the current communications architecture — the channels along which our smartphones communicate — isn’t rigged up to support that variety and volume of cross-talk.

Our hope lies in a more advanced setup – 5G, or “fifth generation” architecture. Like extra lanes on a highway, the plan is that it will make more room for the multitudes of devices that will come to life. Telecoms, chipmakers, device makers expect that it will be ready to go live by 2020, and are researching ways to build it efficiently and cost-effectively.

Among the first to take the plunge is Verizon Wireless, which announced this week that it would begin field trials of 5G technology next year at facilities in San Francisco and Waltham. Naming Alcatel-Lucent, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, Qualcomm and Samsung as partners, Verizon said in a release that the goal was to stay ahead of the curve, and beat the industry estimate for when the new wireless communication technology would go live.

But researchers gathered in Boston this week at the IEEE Vehicular Technologies Conference tacitly agree that the real date of deployment is much farther away. Among the hurdles that may cause delays: Federal green-lighting of new “lanes” or frequency bands that are fair game to use.

How do you define 5G anyway? “Anything we cannot do today is de facto part of 5G,” said Reinaldo Valenzuela director for wireless communications research at Bell Labs, Alcatel-Lucent, and a speaker at panel session.

The expectation is that as devices become more networked, and as our reliance on them grows, the more we’ll need to communicate outside of home or office Wi-Fi networks.

Part of the promise: Faster response times, so that when you and your neighbor play in a virtual band using your VR headsets and keyboards, slow transfer times won’t throw either of you off sync.

“The Internet of Things is a big application area which is not served well by 4G today,” said Monisha Ghosh, a research professor at the University of Chicago, who led a panel on 5G architecture. “Today it’s not very easy to hook up your thermostat to your cell tower.”

The “IoT” family of devices will communicate in short, snappy information packets. But the current 4G and LTE networks, which grew out of a need to send the human voice across airwaves, is not optimized for that.

There’s also sheer volume to be accounted for. Today’s 4G systems have trouble keeping up with a stadium-full of fans tweeting, sharing photos, streaming videos, all from one place. Along with all the other expectations, 5G is expected to ease that kind of congestion on the airwaves. Ghosh said that such high-profile closely watched events like the Olympics will be occasions for telecom providers to show off their latest stuff.

But it’s going to take creative business planning as well as engineering to support this transition. Valenzuela said during a panel session that people who own smartphones are hungry to use more data — but research suggests we don’t want to pay any more than we already do. It’s going to fall to the telecom providers to find other sources to make it worth their while.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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