The next generation of wireless – “5G” – It’s all about hype.

5G is just a marketing term. The connection we crave – cheap, fast, ubiquitous – wouldn’t have happened without the addition of fiber optic cable.


Phones “5G equipped” are on display at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this February. (Josep Lago / Getty Images)I remember an outdoor wedding in May 1989 in Los Angeles in which the sweating host held up a copy of Newsweek. “Race for combinations,” read cover. “Why is the stakes so high.” It’s the climax of the room-temperature frenzy of nuclear reactions, and the media obsess over how this “cold fusion” can solve all of our energy problems. The minister said something about marriage was a similar kind of miracle, and the crowd giggled. I think about that wedding every time I hear two syllables written as “5G”. Because when it comes to hype, “5G” is this year’s “cold combination”.

The meaning seems obvious – our current communication system is 4G, so of course we have to have the next generation. The telecom executives play on this perception. Lowell McAdam, CEO of Verizon, to speak 5G is “wireless fiber optic cable”. (And I think optical fibers are optical fibers.) SK Telecom said it will soon be able to transmit holograms and activate virtual reality over a 5G network 100 times faster than current 4G LTE connections. The noise about 5G is relentless and triumphant, a constant flurry of predictions that resound any day’s emergence of seemingly inexpensive, widespread, instantaneous, unlimited.

Promises are just as great as promises made to cold unity. But the science behind that “breakthrough” turned out to be a bankruptcy. Likewise, the “5G” story is much more complex, computational, and dependent than anyone in the carrier’s PR department wants you to know.

Here’s what you need to understand: “5G” is a marketing term. There is no 5G standard. The International Telecommunication Union plans to get ready by 2020. So now “5G” refers to a number of different types of technology that are predicted, but not guaranteed, will emerge at a sometime in the next 3 to 7 years. (3GPP, a combination of service providers that will contribute to the ITU process, said last year that until a de facto standard exists, “‘5G’ will remain the marketing & industry term that companies will use as they see fit.” At least they’re blunt.) For now, promoting something as “5G” means nothing more than saying it’s “lightning fast” or “next generation” – but because “5G” sounds technical, it’s good for sales. We are far from practical implementation.

Right now, the lack of standards won’t stop carriers from marketing “5G” technology in the meantime. But since we don’t have standards they won’t be responsible for what they offer.

Second, this “wireless thread” will never happen unless we haveā€¦ more strands. Real fiber, in the form of fiber optic cable to businesses and homes. (This is the “last mile” issue; the fiber is already running between cities.)

It is just simple physics. To work, 99% of any “5G” wireless deployment will have to be connected to fiber-optic cables that run very close to every home and business. The high frequency spectrum that carriers plan to use will fluctuate billions of times a second but travel over extremely short distances and are susceptible to interference. So it’s great to carry a wealth of information – every wobble can be imprinted with data – but can’t go very far. It can travel 100 meters, but only in clear air; Water, foliage, trees, buildings and people will all interfere with this spectrum. (You can think of people as big water pockets that block high-frequency signals.) You’d have to be really, really close to the base station to get the kind of bandwidth the carriers are talking about and the station. That root will in turn have to be connected to a fiber optic cable to carry the data tsunami that humans and sensors will generate and use.

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