5G Wireless Is Coming, and It’s Going to Blow You Away

A massive FCC spectrum release—and new advances in wireless technologies—accelerate an era of incredibly fast data.

Jul 27, 2016

Mobile data consumption is soaring, but a broad set of technology advances is poised to transform what today’s smartphones and other wireless mobile devices can do—ushering in high-resolution video and fully immersive, 3-D environments.

At the NYU Wireless lab in Brooklyn, students are testing prototype equipment—forerunners to next-generation phones—that are able to transmit a blazing 10 gigabits of data per second, all while moving around crowded courtyards. And Samsung recently showed how a car traveling at 25 kilometers per hour could maintain a gigabit-per-second connection as the car moved in and out of range of mobile transmitters called base stations. 

Both achievements are roughly 100 times faster than what current commercial mobile phone technology can do. 

These are demonstrations of the kinds of astonishing capabilities that will be unleashed thanks to this month’s release of vast amounts of high-frequency spectrum by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission—a move that will make available several times more spectrum than has ever existed for wireless telecommunications—and a $400 million research effort announced by the White House.

The next-generation technology will eventually be defined in a standard that will be known as “5G.” It is expected to provide Internet connections at least 40 times faster—and with at least four times more coverage worldwide—than the current standard, known as 4G LTE. 

This Intel chip, called a "massive antenna array," includes 64 antennas and can be expanded to 256, allowing ultra-high-capacity millimeter-wave frequencies to be sent in specific directions.

The new technology is expected to use so-called “millimeter wave” radio spectrum, or wavelengths above 24 gigahertz. The FCC’s move in mid-July made the United States the first country to make far more of this spectrum available for commercial use, as opposed to primarily for radar and military systems.

Higher frequencies carry significantly more data. But they are also far more easily blocked by buildings, foliage, and even rain, making their use for mobile communications quite challenging (some existing systems use these frequencies for fixed point-to-point wireless connections with clear lines of sight).

But thanks to advances in signal processing, chips, and antenna technologies, Samsung, AT&T, Verizon, Ericsson, and other companies will be able to use this spectrum for next-generation mobile connectivity.

Already, some startups are using these tricks to pursue new business models. One is Starry, a company beta testing a home Internet access service in Boston. But such efforts are intended for stationary devices.

The NYU and other demos are showing how millimeter wave signals can be used for mobile communications and get around the biggest problem: they’re blocked by objects that come between transmitter and receiver.

Arrays of tiny antennas on chips or on miniature circuit boards can “steer” a signal in specific directions and mitigate this downside. This is known as “phased array”; Samsung, for example, has already prototyped a 32-antenna phased array in handheld wireless devices. Samsung, Ericsson, and Nokia all have equipment they are preparing for trials.

“There’s a tremendous amount of work being done at all the major telecom companies, big and small. You see a lot of good activity happening throughout the industry, realizing that the millimeter wave future is coming very, very quickly,” says Ted Rappaport, who heads wireless research at NYU.  

The first commercially available handsets with such technology could appear in two to five years. “I call this the renaissance of wireless. There is a confluence of events that will change the world much faster than anybody believed a few years ago,” Rappaport says. 

Underpinning the new wireless technologies are remarkable advances in microchips. First, the smaller feature size on chips will allow much more data processing without killing off your battery. And second, such chips are being overlaid with a second layer of materials that act as antennas, minimizing signal loss and energy consumption.

Manufacturing advances are making these advanced capabilities possible on standard silicon, paving the way for cheap consumer devices, says Ken Stewart, chief wireless technologist at Intel. “What the consumer will see are ever richer experiences and high-resolution video on mobile devices,” he says. “Instead of playing Pokémon Go while watching phone screens, they’ll be doing it in fully immersive, 3-D environments with fast refresh rates.” 

The groundswell of activity comes amid exponential growth in wireless data demands as billions of people expect more capacity in their mobile devices. Additional demand will come from machines like networked cars and smart power grids.