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Illustration by Irene Wang

5G is close to becoming the new normal — and it’ll change everything

The next generation of cellular communications is poised to reshape the way we live, work, and play.

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When the Nippon Telegraph and Telephone company built the world’s first cellular network in 1979, it changed the way business was done. The system used analog radio waves to connect mobile devices — in this case car phones — all over Tokyo before eventually spreading through the country.

Since then, we’ve seen the evolution of cellular networks change the way we live, work, and play. The current generation, 4G LTE, has opened up a brave new world of endless entertainment and a diverse array of intelligent devices that have depended on the network’s combination of fidelity and speed. It’s been a welcome development for everyone from app developers to the people behind game-changing technology like cloud-computing, an advance that would have been impossible at lower speeds. But the next generation of wireless won’t be evolutionary, it’s going to be revolutionary.

“5G is not simply the next G in your phone. It’s so much bigger than that,” says Sandra Rivera, senior vice president and general manager of the Network Platforms Group at Intel. Rivera sees 5G having transformational potential across industries, from healthcare to agriculture to entertainment. Intel has been an integral part of laying the groundwork for 5G infrastructure, powering next-generation, cloud-based servers that can take full advantage of 5G’s spectrum. “Our future is going to be ‘data-centric,’” says Rivera. “And 5G will form our infrastructure in the same way that roads and power grids formed our industrial infrastructure.”

5G is defined by its frequency and its wavelength. 4G communications happen below the 6 GHz frequency range, while 5G will make use of the frequency band between 30 GHz and 300 GHz. Making use of those higher frequency bands means that 5G networks will be able to transmit greater amounts of data without bottlenecking. That also means that 5G will use more high frequency waves — specifically millimeter waves, which move faster and carry more data than the lower frequency waves used by 4G networks.

If the jump from 3G to 4G was like going from walking to running, the looming leap to 5G will be like strapping on a jet pack. Fourth generation speeds average around the 50 megabits per second range, and even that rate is dependent on time of day, location, and basically how many people you’re sharing the airwaves with. (The theoretical max for 4G is 1Gbps, though that speed is hardly ever achieved in the field.) 5G networks are poised to hit up to 5 gigabits per second when they’re rolled out fully, 100 times faster than today’s typical LTE speeds and five times faster than most terrestrial fiber optic networks.

5G architecture will require a lot of investment by telecom companies, including building a dense network of antennas that can deliver next-generation signals. Once that infrastructure is complete you can expect lightning-fast cellular connections — and new opportunities and environments in which to consume content — to be the new, astounding normal.

One area where 5G is poised to have a transformative impact is driving. The complex landscape of autonomous vehicles means that symbiosis between network operators, auto manufacturers, and technology companies will be more important than ever. That’s why, in 2017, Intel joined forces with Toyota and NTT DoCoMo, Japan’s largest mobile phone operator, to test connectivity. Intel was interested in assessing the viability of 5G networks in a moving car, and created a test in Tokyo to analyze just that. The early returns are promising: The vehicle was able to hit gigabit download speeds and able to stream 4K video while moving at 30kph, an achievement in connectivity that bodes well for a potentially autonomous future when passengers will want to stream 4K video or download large files while their car drives them to work.

The test in Tokyo proved that mobile connectivity with 5G will reimagine the commute, but it also has the potential to uncork data bottlenecks commonly seen at events with massive data traffic—like, say, the Olympics. The backdrop at the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics provided the perfect use case for 5G: it was an event where staying connected was imperative to the experience. Fans wanted to know what was happening in every second of every event, lest they miss out on some record-breaking cross-country skiing run or a perfectly landed triple axel in figure skating. South Korea is also the most digitally connected country in the world; 99 percent of the population has access to high-speed internet.

Intel worked with its partners to create 5G infrastructure around several Olympic venues, and set up activations that allowed fans to watch live events. The activations gave fans the ability to watch multiple angles of Olympic athletes while displaying data in real-time on devices. The immersive activations even included 5G-powered virtual reality viewings of live events, a development that has the potential to change how we experience live sports and events. It showed what 5G can do at an event with especially high data traffic, an issue that everyone who has tried to send a picture from a concert or sporting event can attest to.

The coming shift to 5G is primed to transform the way we think about communications. It has a chance to usher in technologies and innovations previously thought of as impossible, and will open the door for old-school industries that need a digital leg up. “5G opens up a whole new ball game in terms of usages,” says Intel’s Rivera. “Controlling machinery remotely will reduce risks for human workers, eSports players will be able to play from anywhere — finance, media, the advancement of smart cities and municipalities. It’ll all be affected.”

It’s a future that is full of compelling prospects, and taking full advantage of the looming cellular revolution will be key to staying competitive in a truly wireless economy. “History has proven that technology is the catalyst for massive societal transformation and that businesses need to adapt or risk failure — or worse, extinction,” says Rivera. “5G will do the same thing that digital business models did over the past decade. It’s going to push a lot of businesses out of their comfort zones.”

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