Those crazy-fast 5G networks are right around the corner.
Unfortunately, they also come with their own vocabulary of tech jargon and buzzwords that wireless industry executives throw around a little too casually.
First off, a quick definition of 5G: It’s the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology which promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking about? Think 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection, and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (You’ll be able to download a season’s worth of “Stranger Things” in seconds.)
It’s not just about supercharging your phone’s connection to the network either; 5G is seen as the underlying technology allowing self-driving cars to talk to each other, or for people to wirelessly stream super high-definition virtual reality content into their headsets.
In other words, it’s going to be huge.
Early 5G networks will pop up as soon as this year from carriers including Verizon andAT&T, but expect broader availability in closer to 2019 to 2020, as network equipment gets upgraded and 5G-compatible phones are released.
But as the hype and reality of 5G crash upon us now, you’re going to start to hear references to terms that don’t sound like they belong in the English language. Fortunately, CNET is here to decipher the wonkiest of words for you.
5G NR: The 5G bit is pretty obvious, but the NR stands for New Radio. You don’t have to know a lot about this beyond the fact that it’s the name of the standard that the entire wireless industry is rallying behind, and it just came out in December.
That’s important because it means everyone is on the same page when it comes to their mobile 5G networks. Carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile are following 5G NR as they build their networks. But Verizon, which began testing 5G as a broadband replacement service before the standard was approved, isn’t using the standard — yet. The company says it will eventually adopt 5G NR for its broadband service, and intends to use NR for its 5G mobile network.
Millimeter wave: All cellular networks use airwaves to ferry data over the air, with standard networks using spectrum in lower frequency bands like 700 megahertz. Generally, the higher the band or frequency, the higher the speed you can achieve. The consequence of higher frequency, however, is shorter range.
In order to achieve those crazy-high 5G speeds, you need really, really high frequency spectrum. The millimeter wave range falls between 24 gigahertz and 100 gigahertz.
The problem with super-high frequency spectrum, besides the short range, is it’s pretty finicky — a leaf blows the wrong way and you get interference. Forget about obstacles like walls. Companies like Verizon are working on using software and broadcasting tricks to get around these problems and ensure stable connections.
Sub-6GHz: Given how troublesome really high-band spectrum can be (see the “Millimeter wave” section), there’s a movement to embrace spectrum at a much lower frequency, or anything lower than 6GHz. The additional benefit is that carriers can use spectrum they already own to get going on 5G networks. T-Mobile, for instance, has a swath of 600MHz spectrum it plans to use to power its 5G deployment. Prior to sub-6GHz, that would’ve been impossible.
That’s why you’re seeing more carriers embrace lower frequency spectrum.
But lower frequency spectrum has the opposite problem: while it reaches great distance, it doesn’t have the same speed and capacity as millimeter wave spectrum.
The ideal down the line will be for carriers to use a blend of the two.
Latency: You’ll hear this word mentioned A LOT. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, sending the request up to the network, and when the network responds and gives you your website or starts playing your video.
It doesn’t seem like much, but that lag time can last around 20 milliseconds. With 5G, that latency gets reduced to 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash in a normal camera to finish.
That responsiveness is critical for things like streaming a live sports game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco.
Gigabit LTE: You’re hearing more about Gigabit LTE as a precursor to 5G. Ultimately it’s about much higher speeds on the existing LTE network. But the work going toward building a Gigabit LTE network provides the foundation for 5G.
MIMO: An acronym for multiple input, multiple output. Basically, it’s the idea of shoving more antennas into our phones and on cellular towers. And you can always have more antennas. They feed into the faster Gigabit LTE network, and companies are deploying what’s known as 4×4 MIMO, in which four antennas are installed in a phone.
Carrier aggregation: Wireless carriers can take different bands of radio frequencies and bind them together so phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 can pick and choose the speediest and least congested one available. Think of it as a three-lane highway so cars can weave in and out depending on which lane has less traffic.
QAM: This is a term that’s so highly technical, I don’t even bother to explain the nuance. It stands for quadrature amplitude modulation. See? Don’t even worry about it.
What you need to know is that it allows traffic to move quickly in a different way than carrier aggregation or MIMO. Remember that highway analogy? Well, with 256 QAM, you’ll have big tractor trailers carrying data instead of tiny cars. MIMO, carrier aggregation and QAM are already going into 4G networks, but play an important role in 5G too.
Beam forming: This is a way to direct 5G signals in specific direction, potentially giving you your own specific connection. Verizon has been using beam forming for millimeter wave spectrum, getting around obstructions like walls or trees.
Unlicensed spectrum: Cellular networks all rely on what’s known as licensed spectrum, which they own and purchased from the government.
But the move to 5G comes with the recognition that there just isn’t enough spectrum when it comes to maintaining wide coverage. So the carriers are moving to unlicensed spectrum, similar to the kind of free airwaves that our Wi-Fi networks ride on.
Network slicing: This is the ability to carve out individual slivers of spectrum to offer specific devices the kind of connection they need. For instance, the same cellular tower can offer a lower-power, slower connection to a sensor for a connected water meter in your home, while at the same time offering a faster, lower-latency connection to a self-driving car that’s navigating in real time.