When Will We Get 5G? – Science Friday


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Last week, President Trump announced a new initiative to push forward the implementation of 5G, the next generation of wireless connectivity for smartphones and other devices. Under the plan, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will auction off sections of high-frequency radio spectrum, and pour more money into rural broadband connectivity—all in the name of winning an international race to build wireless networks that could be up to 100 times faster than the current generation, 4G LTE.

How is this faster speed possible, and how quickly will it become accessible to consumers? Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung explains the innovations that would enable greater rates of data transmission—plus the current progress of both the U.S. and international rollout. (Read an F.A.Q. on what 5G is all about with Fung below.)

But Harold Feld, a lawyer and consumer advocate, says not everyone will benefit equally from 5G as plans currently stand—including rural communities.

One of the top technology candidates for 5G relies on higher frequencies and bringing more smaller-signal base stations much closer to the people using them. But what does research say about how it will affect human health? Researchers review what the literature has suggested so far about non-ionizing radiation from 2G and 3G, including a 2018 study from the National Toxicology Program (NTP) that found an increase in tumors for male rats. The NTP’s John Bucher and Jonathan Samet of the Colorado School of Public Health join Ira to discuss the data, and the limitations of research to date. Plus, toxicologist and epidemiologist Devra Davis of the Environmental Health Trust provides a statement on the health concerns of 5G.

Frequently Asked Questions About 5G

Science Friday spoke with Washington Post technology reporter Brian Fung before the Friday show to ask commonly asked questions about the next generation of wireless networks.

What does “5G” stand for?
“5G” stands for the fifth generation of wireless networks. 5G is essentially the successor of 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), the mobile data network used by your devices today, says Brian Fung, technology reporter at the Washington Post, in a call to Science Friday ahead of the show.   

What will the first push of 5G look like for everyday users?
Proponents of 5G say that its ability to transmit a lot of data very quickly, “makes it perfect for applications like self-driving cars, potentially, or a burgeoning Internet of Things, where you have lots of smart appliances or smart home devices that are connected to the internet,” says Fung.

“5G is basically opening up a whole new class of applications and new technologies, which right now are pretty limited,” says Fung. “It’s not just self-driving cars, but truly wireless virtual reality and augmented reality [among some of the potential technologies].”

How much faster will 5G be than 4G LTE? Or 3G?
In the 3G era, consumers were able to get access to email and browse the web on their phones, says Fung. With the upgrade to 4G, people could start using their phones to actively participate online “instead of consuming the internet passively,” Fung says—using apps, watching and uploading videos, posting on Instagram, and so on. The shift from 3G to 4G may not have felt as dramatic, because users could still engage in richer media consumption online using wireless internet at home. “The switch from 4G to 5G is going to be a bigger deal than 3G to 4G,” Fung says.

5G speeds have been predicted to be as high as 100 times faster than a mobile device using 4G, according to carriers such as AT&T, says Fung. At its theoretical peak, users will experience estimated maximum download speeds of 1,000 megabits per second, compared to 10 to 15 megabits per second with 4G LTE, says Fung.

5G speeds have been predicted to be as high as 100 times faster than a mobile device using 4G.

When can we realistically expect 5G to roll out?
Most analysts don’t think we will have widespread 5G networks available in the United States until at least late 2019 and more likely 2020, says Fung—but even then, “there aren’t even very many phones that are capable of taking advantage of this technology in the United States.”

What is millimeter wave technology?
There are many different telecommunication technologies on the table for supporting a 5G network. One of the popular options is tapping into millimeter wavelengths—relieving the increasingly more congested radio bands that our devices currently use to transmit data. Millimeter waves are a higher frequency wavelength than radio waves. Not only would broadcasting over millimeter waves free up the overcrowded spectrum, but it would also mean “you can pump a lot of information through it over a given period of time,” says Fung.

However, the problem with millimeter waves is how far they travel and how penetrable they can be: “Lower frequency airwaves that we have been using to date are pretty good at going through walls and going through buildings, so that’s why you can get a cell phone signal in your office,” Fung says. “But the thing with millimeter waves is that they are not very good at penetrating these barriers, and what they typically do instead is bounce off.”

The industry is working around this issue by creating small cell networks—groups of stations a fraction of the size of traditional cell towers—that would work together to pass off signals, avoiding any dropped transmissions that would be blocked by objects. Some small cell networks are already used for 4G, but more would be a crucial component for 5G, says Fung. A few  carriers, like Verizon and Sprint, are currently building their 5G networks on medium-frequency airwaves. Check out a 2017 guide to candidate 5G technologies at IEEE Spectrum.

“The switch from 4G to 5G is going to be a bigger deal than 3G to 4G.”

How does the U.S. fare in the race to 5G?
Countries around the world are vying to implement 5G networks. Earlier this month, three South Korean wireless carriers switched on a nationwide 5G network that currently covers 85 cities, while companies in China like Huawei are upping production of 5G technologies.

“What we have in the United States is not nearly as advanced,” Fung tells Science Friday. Verizon launched 5G service in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis, and companies like Sprint say they are on track to switch on a 5G network by the end of the first half of the year in select cities.

“Part of the reason why the U.S. is so focused on trying to ‘win this race’ is not just because of the economic advantages, but also because if you have an economic lead you’re able to set the terms of debate about how this technology evolves—who’s in control, what kind of rules surrounding national security are wrapped up in this,” says Fung. “At a more abstract level, it’s essentially about control over the future of the internet.”

Further Reading

  • Read Brian Fung’s story on China’s Huawei and how it is competing with 5G companies in the U.S. on the Washington Post and find more of his reporting on 5G here.
  • Get a complete breakdown of 5G and the technologies involved through IEEE Spectrum’s guides, graphics, and videos
  • Read how skeptics say 5G might not be enough to support autonomous vehicles in EDN Network.
  • Read the full National Toxicology Program study on cell phone radio frequency radiation on rats.
  • Read The Verge’s take on carriers’ hype for 5G.
  • Find out why 5G has rekindled the decades-old fight over cellular health risks in Motherboard.
  • Check out Undark’s reporting on the history of the health concerns of cell phone radiation.

Segment Guests

Brian Fung

Brian Fung is a technology reporter with the Washington Post in Washington, D.C..

Harold Feld

Harold Feld is senior vice president at Public Knowledge in Washington, D.C..

Jonathan Samet

Jonathan Samet is the Dean of the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado-Denver, in Denver, Colorado.

John Bucher

John Bucher is former associate director and a senior scientist at the National Toxicology Program, in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina.

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor is an associate producer for Science Friday. Her day involves diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata is Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

About Lauren J. Young

Lauren J. Young is Science Friday’s digital producer. When she’s not shelving books as a library assistant, she’s adding to her impressive Pez dispenser collection.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science Friday. His green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

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