Commentary: How 5G Technology Will Transform the Way We Live

By THEODORE S. RAPPAPORT, Fortune Magazine

Over 40 years ago, humanity was introduced to on-the-go communications with the first generation of clunky cellphones that looked like bricks or came in backpacks. These phones were heavy, with batteries that would last only an hour, and the simple voice-only calls were routinely intercepted over police scanners. Back then, few expected the cellular phone industry to fundamentally change our human existence forever, the way the printing press or pencil and paper did. In fact, Bell Labs, the pioneering research center of AT&T (T, +0.94%), famously hired a consulting firm to estimate the eventual size of the cellular telephone market, which was predicted to not exceed 1 million people.

Today, there are more active phone numbers than people on planet earth, and mankind now relies on wireless communications as a fundamental fabric of our human existence. Now in its fourth generation (4G) of cellular technology, the wireless industry has become one of the largest segments of the global economy, estimated to be about $6 trillion annually, almost as large as the global construction industry.

The immense improvements in capabilities in today’s 4G smartphone, as compared to the early bag phone, mirror the evolution of the personal computer and the transistor. Continual improvements in speed and features follow the famous law coined by Intel(INTC, +0.33%) founder Gordon Moore, which predicted that the speed of a transistor would double every 18 months while its size would decrease by half over the same period, thus leading to today’s super complex microchips that are stuffed into every electronic device we use.

Approximately every 10 years, a new generation of cellular technology is introduced to the world. The fifth generation (5G) of wireless is currently being developed at a furious pace, much faster than the industry has done before, with companies around the globe vying for patents and innovations that can be incorporated in the global standards (dubbed “3GPP”), which ensure all cellphone equipment can operate with each other throughout each of the world’s markets.

5G promises almost unimaginable capabilities that have never been available before, as it will bring the power of the Internet and ubiquitous fiber-optic communication speeds to the pocket of every human being. Immersive virtual reality, real-time television viewing, see-in-the-dark cameras, hard drives that provide nearly infinite content for instant downloads from any location, and virtual meet-ups with friends and family—where they appear in the space in front of your phone—are just some of the many features that we will experience with 5G. The massive bandwidths and ever-increasing processing power of cellphones (thanks to Moore’s Law) will enable 3-D volumetric displays, such as those depicted in Star Wars when R2D2 displayed Princess Leah’s emotional plea: “Obi Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Even factories, for instance, will be able to remotely operate robots and machinery, while doctors will be able to perform remote surgeries using a phone to operate machinery in the hospital.

These powerful new capabilities, sure to change the human experience and our behaviors over time, will be made possible since the radio channel bandwidths of 5G will be more than 50 times wider than today’s 4G networks. Think of the 5G airwaves as super highways, with 50 lanes of traffic instead of today’s single lane of traffic. And while companies like YouTube, Facebook (FB, -0.44%), and Uber have exploited the improved data rates of 4G, far more exotic and far-fetched capabilities, such as massive content transfers, 3-D streaming video, augmented reality, and self-driving cars, are sure to arrive with the unheralded communication speeds of 5G.

The stakes for intellectual leadership in wireless are far greater than ever before, as demonstrated by the U.S. government’s intervention to stop Singapore-based Broadcom from taking over wireless innovator Qualcomm (QCOM, -1.36%) earlier this year. America has uniquely positioned itself as the leader of 5G through aggressive rulemaking at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 2016, the FCC spurred on the mobile industry by opening up the world’s first frequencies above 24 GHz, a range of frequencies in the millimeter-wave bands that are much higher than ever before used by the cellular telephone industry. These new mobile millimeter-wave radio frequencies are about 10 times higher than current global cellular frequencies, and enable the much greater radio channel bandwidths that will carry the super-fast data transfers of 5G. While 4G can, at its best, send data at a lightning-fast speed of a few hundred megabits per second or so, 5G will enable data transfer rates of 20 gigabits per second—several hundred times faster, and faster than most any fiber optic cable transmission speed available today to consumers.

There is a major technical hurdle to overcome, however, while moving to these higher millimeter-wave frequencies. At such high frequencies, the transmitted radio wave has much greater difficulty penetrating walls or bouncing off buildings. To compensate for these physical propagation factors, future phones and base stations will use “smart antennas” that instantly form very directional beams, using a concept similar to that used by deep space telescopes to find far-away stars. Mobile equipment will use dozens of tiny antennas, and base stations will have hundreds of antennas, that work in concert to create very narrow time-varying beams that continually move to stay locked onto the desired signal to ensure a high-speed connection—something that has never been done in previous generations of cellphones. This high-gain antenna-tracking feature creates the reliable radio links that enable the vastly greater data rates of 5G.

This fall, the FCC is planning to auction off licenses to millimeter-wave airwaves that will support 5G networks, and major U.S. carriers will be bidding. Other countries have watched and rapidly followed the U.S. example, with Korea, China, and many European countries opening up airwaves at the millimeter wave bands. Aggressive trials of early 5G equipment are being conducted throughout the world, with carriers AT&T and Verizon (VZ, +1.01%) leading the way in the U.S.

Chipmakers and cellphone equipment makers are currently undertaking massive investments to develop the software, algorithms, radio amplifiers, signal processors, antennas, batteries, and displays needed to implement 5G, even as the global standards body are still in the decision-making process to codify a 5G standard. Within the next few months, the initial mobile 5G standard will be ratified, and the semiconductor industry, infrastructure vendors, and phone makers will then begin a massive ramp-up in production.

Already, AT&T is testing “fixed wireless” access to a major shopping mall (the Silos) in Waco, Texas, and offering residential and business high-speed wireless connectivity to residences and businesses in Austin, Kalamazoo, Mich., and South Bend, Ind. Early results are exceeding expectations, with user download speeds exceeding 1 gigabit per second (faster than the fiber services available in those markets) throughout all markets. Perhaps more importantly, the latency (e.g. time lag) in the transmissions from the serving base stations to the portable users is less than 10 milliseconds, a critical metric where such small delays become indistinguishable to the human brain.

Carriers and content providers are scrambling to own a part of the business ecosystem that will be 5G. The value of intellectual property has never been greater than it is now in the wireless industry, and the potential for wireless to radically transform our world has never been as real. Countries around the world are taking notice, as the leaders of 5G are likely to be the leaders of the global economy.

Theodore S. (Ted) Rappaport is the founding director of NYU WIRELESS and the David Lee/Ernst Weber Professor of Electrical Engineering at the New York University Tandon School of Engineering. He has advised numerous companies and authored numerous books in wireless communications, including several widely used textbooks.