5G wireless networking explained

5G will power the Internet of Things – and governments

It’s by no means complete yet, but the transition to a mobile IT environment in government is well established. Parallel with that, however, is the expectation that mobile communications will be able to deliver all that society expects in the way of seamless audio, video streaming and fast transfer of multi-megabyte data files.

Third-generation (3G) wireless technology, which many people are still using on their cell phones, is clearly not up to the task. 4G service is the current version, and it offers much broader capability. However, with the inevitable increase in bandwidth demand, eventually even that won’t be enough. Enter 5G, still some ways over the horizon, but something government will have to grapple with – and incorporate into its networks—sooner than later.

For the United States, according to the Congressional Research Service (CRS), it may be a competitive necessity. Already a leader in the deployment of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless, the most widely adopted standard, the country could maintain its edge by moving to 5G by 2025. If it doesn’t, CRS warned, development of 5G technologies already demonstrated by other countries could erode that lead.

For most agencies, however, 5G probably isn’t on the horizon because 4G seems like it will deliver what they need to cover their current concerns.

Today, 4G is certainly becoming a necessity for agencies, said Warren Suss, president of Suss Consulting. “But with so many near-term issues, I don’t think many of them have put a lot of thought yet into 5G.  Most of their focus right now is on things like the cloud, and how to provide access for their users to the data that’s contained in the cloud,” he said.

Starting in the early 2000s, 3G mobile delivered a minimum of 200 kilobit/sec, bumping that up over the years to several megabit/sec. That was a decent speed for mid-decade services – which comprised mainly voice, email and web browsing – but pokey even by the time the early 4G networks started to appear in 2008.

4G mobile service has now been adopted widely throughout North America and Europe, and by much of South America. Based mainly on the LTE specifications first proposed in 2006, it offers current smartphone users average download speeds of between 15 and 30 megabit/sec, with peak speeds up to 300 megabit/sec. So-called Advanced LTE could provide speeds of up to 1gigabit/sec.

Newer mobile devices support 4G by default, though so far it’s not just a matter of agencies ordering the service from carriers. Government requirements such as strong security and mobile device management aren’t usually included with 4G service, so agencies still have to buy those tools separately and manage them internally.

So far, service is also mostly limited to urban areas. City governments, therefore, seem likely to be the ones to benefit the most from early deployments of 4G, using the technology to collect data from parking meters and lights, and to connect that to city wide area networks.

The small cell infrastructure that’s often used for 4G in cities, with a range of up to two miles for each low-powered network node, is ideal for city environments but not for the much greater distances rural users operate in. For that reason, in February 2012 the federal government created the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), whose primary goal is  to build out a 4G mobile network for public safety organizations throughout the United States.

The 4G technology FirstNet uses operates in the 700 MHz spectrum, which is lower than what urban 4G networks use, but which gives better signal penetration that can carry for greater distances. A year before the law creating FirstNet was signed, President Obama outlined a plan to get as much as 98 percent of the U.S. population access to 4G.

However, the eventual limitations of 4G are becoming evident. Because of the heavy demands by some users, carriers are already “throttling” bandwidth use at times. As the kinds of content that government and others users seek to provide through mobile services increases, that problem will only become more acute.

5G technology is still at a nascent stage of development. Specifications and standards haven’t been agreed upon, but there’s a broad understanding that it could offer speeds up to at least 100 times that of current 4G LTE. In October, Samsung said it had recorded a speed of 7.5 gigabit/sec over its 25 GHz test network. Earlier, Swedish vendor Ericsson said it had posted 5 gigabit/sec on its network.

5G will also have the capacity to simultaneously connect the billions of sensors and other devices that will be linked in the emerging Internet of Things.

What’s clear, however, is that 5G will probably be using millimeter wave frequencies over 24 GHz. To that end, the Federal Communications Commission in October opened a Notice of Inquiry to find out what bands above 24 GHZ would be best for 5G mobile wireless purposes. The results will set the table for the appropriate licensing needs for that spectrum.

In a blog post about the notice, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wrote that mobile wireless services have traditionally been targeted at bands below 3 GHz due to technological and practical limitations. Those bands are now heavily used, and there’s little spectrum available.

However, he said, “there have been significant developments in antenna and processing technologies that may allow the use of higher frequencies – in this case those above 24 GHz – for mobile applications.”

Those wave bands haven’t been used before for mobile services because they lose energy faster than lower band frequencies over long distances, and are easily absorbed by environmental elements like rain and trees.

But technologies now being worked on – Samsung, for example, uses a “beam forming antenna” that it said can transmit data over distances up to 2 kilometers – promise to get around those limitations.

If those innovations prove out in real-world applications, 5G could ultimately provide throughputs of up to 10 gigabit/sec, “orders of magnitude” greater than that available today, Wheeler said.

About the Author

Brian Robinson is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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