Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Five Giggity

For a variety of reasons, I've been investigating 5G, the fifth generation of mobile communications protocols.  Some of those reasons are pure curiosity and some of them are a bit more professional, but both lead to a "Great Googlie-Mooglie" reaction.  If they actually follow through on the promises this standard makes, then the world may actually change again.

The specs, taken at face value, do not tell the whole story:

  • Minimum 20Gbps down per mobile base station, and 10Gbps up.
  • One Million connected devices per square kilometer.
  • Wicked fast mobility from base station to base station.
  • Maximum 4ms ping times with the base station.

All they say is the usual more and faster story that each generation tells.  But these specs allow much more.  Read on.

[Had trouble feeling creative for the artwork.  Sorry]

The Obvious

The data rates are truly incredible, especially for a wireless technology.  This means streaming 4K video to a phone while connected to the tower, not to Wi-Fi.  Sort of.  After all, that 20Gbps is at the tower.  It will be split among all of the devices connected to that tower.

Of which, there will be plenty more.  That second spec, One Million devices per square kilometer, means that 20Gbps is going to get divided up a bunch.  But it also means that each device is more likely to stay at a higher data rate and not get shoved to the older standards just because the tower is crowded (like at busy airports or convention centers).  So much for today's pain points.

The Less Obvious

What the 5G spec hides a bit is how it is planning for the future.  Those million devices are not because people more people will be using their smart phones in crowded cities.  They will, but not to that density.  Instead, it is really for the IoT.

5G also calls for low and high power states with a quick transition from one to the other.  This is perfect for things like traffic lights and gas meters and bus kiosks that do not use a lot of data, but send small packets of data that are often time sensitive.  With 5G, instead of connecting to a local hub and then to a tower, each device can connect directly.

It also means that, with those data rates, home and small office internet may change (places that cannot afford a T1 line).  Instead of dealing with cable or DSL or even fiber, the option for a home 5G hub comes into play.  This solves many of the 'last mile' problems that plague ISPs as they only need a big trunk to the tower, not to each house.  It may even increase competition in certain areas, which would be good.  I'm doubtful, as most of the big ISPs are also the big cellular providers here in the US.

The What-If

The combination of low ping, high density and high data also sets up a world that may think fundamentally differently than we do.  Here are some off-the-cuff thoughts on where things might go:
  • GoPro style adventure videos no longer need to be stored locally and then uploaded when back in range.  They can go instantly to the cloud.  At great detail.
  • Drones will no longer be restricted to the range of their controller's antenna or to preset GPS coordinates.  Instead, they can be flown through the network and have a better than reasonable response time.  The dream of emergency response drones can be a reality.
    • The negative here is that police drones and other surveillance may also take advantage of this.
  • Autonomous vehicles fit in to the same space as Drones.  They will be able to integrate with regional traffic management and have the up-to-date information that they need when travelling at highway speeds.
  • The on-body network of devices that was the promise of Bluetooth will be dead.  Not that the devices will be dead, but instead of connecting to a smartphone, each device will connect to the tower and then back to the phone.  
    • The consumer benefit is ease of use.  The commercial benefit is more data to mine.
5G should be a true revolution for how we use technology, not just an evolutionary step to force us all to upgrade our phones.  Let's hope that it is a revolution closer in spirit to Ghandi or MLK and not some Robespierrian Reign of Terror.

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