The world’s biggest cell-phone maker, Samsung, caused a stir last week by announcing an ultrafast wireless technology that it unofficially dubbed “5G.” And the technology has, in fact, been tested on the streets of New York.
The system is impressive but is still in development—which is true of all the technologies that will underpin the next generation of wireless communications. When 5G does arrive, it will likely combine new wireless protocols with new network designs, spectrum-sharing schemes, and more small transmitters.
Samsung says its new transceiver can send and receive data at speeds of more than a gigabit per second over up to two kilometers—and it could deliver tens of gigabits per second at shorter distances. This compares to about 75 megabits per second for the latest standard, known as 4G LTE. The Samsung technology relies on 28-gigahertz frequencies, which can carry commensurately more data but can be blocked by buildings, people, foliage, and even rainfall.
Samsung says it has greatly mitigated these problems by sending data over any of 64 antennas, dynamically shaping how the signal is divided up, and even controlling the direction in which it is sent, making changes in tens of nanoseconds in response to changing conditions (among other features, it can catch stray reflections of signals that had bounced off an obstruction). The company did not grant an interview request, but the technology is described in this 2010 patent filing.
The everyday reality for consumers is that in many cases, high-speed data is better when it’s coming from Wi-Fi hot spots, not 3G and 4G networks, whose peak speeds are not always available everywhere or at all times of the day. This begs the question: Are faster cellular data speeds really what we need, or would we be better served if 5G improved what cellular standards do better than Wi-Fi, which is wide area mobility and seamless connectivity? Despite the high data speeds on 3G and 4G networks, we all still suffer from dropped calls and poor coverage in many places.
One technology that could provide better coverage by hopping between different frequencies and different wireless protocols is known as cognitive radio. On a second-by-second basis, such a radio would detect and exploit available spectrum holes. In the mid term, this is a more likely solution for high data rates and mobility than using higher frequencies.
While Samsung’s technology may form part of the 5G future—an ultrafast network technology running in hot spots—a larger mix of technologies and strategies will be needed to deliver data more quickly and reliably. Standards are set by the International Telecommunications Union, a United Nations body. It will be several years until even all of the 4G LTE versions are rolled out. Samsung said its technology could be ready by 2020.