If you look at the top corner of your phone, chances are you’ll see two characters that have helped drive the incredible mobile revolution we see today.
Since the 1990s, wireless companies have constantly found new and better ways to shift data quickly and efficiently across their networks. Such improvement and new innovation have been critical, too, given the massive proliferation of mobile devices and the amount of data we use.
It was only with the introduction of 4G that the speed and amount of bandwidth became sufficient to satisfy our growing demands. Starting with Verizon (VZ) in 2011, 4G speeds allowed video and audio to stream wirelessly and seamlessly. And it allowed all of our favorite desktop services to load at unprecedented speeds everywhere we go.
Well, get ready for the next “unprecedented” acceleration in wireless speed…
What’s Better Than 4G? 5G, of Course!
As revolutions go, 4G qualifies. In fact, when it first came out, it was as fast, or even faster, than the wired connections that some people got.
However, while 4G has continuously improved, wired internet connections have improved much more quickly. And while mobile devices are an increasingly important part of the whole wireless experience, there are some cases where they just don’t compare with wired connections for high-speed or high-bandwidth applications.
For example, you wouldn’t wirelessly join a community game of Gears of War. And while you can stream a movie from Netflix (NFLX), you’ll find that you can’t stream too many without getting a large bill for the extra bandwidth you consume.
Well, all of that is about to change for the better.
Almost as soon as 4G standards were completed, the wireless infrastructure industry started to plan for the next step in the wireless revolution – 5G. (The industry doesn’t spend much time thinking up new names for its new standards!)
Right now, it’s about halfway through the planning phase. And while a lot of work still needs to be done, we now know the basics of what it will look like – and it could be an even bigger step than 4G was…
The Future of Wireless
At the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the visions for 5G started to converge, and the world’s carriers are forming standardization committees.
Broadly speaking, 5G will offer 1,000 times more bandwidth than 4G, with 100 times faster download speeds. Latency – a measure of how long it takes between requesting data and first receiving it – should be reduced to near zero.
And here’s the real eye-opener: Your future mobile device will be faster than your current wired internet connection.
While the wired networks will undoubtedly increase their speeds over time, too, 5G should provide all the bandwidth that most people will ever need.
That means your wireless company just might provide competition to your wired carrier and put pressure on prices. After all, why pay $50 per month for cable internet when your wireless company will give you all the bandwidth you need for the same price? And you get to take it on the road, too.
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The Superhighway for the Internet of Things
5G is the wireless industry’s play of choice for the much-discussed Internet of Things (IoT).
You see, most “things” are connected to the internet today with either a direct wired connection, or an indirect wired connection using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or another short-range technology to cover the gap between the device and the wired connection.
But if 5G meets expectations, “things” can be untethered from the wired internet. Any device within the wireless network could be placed anywhere and connected via all the bandwidth that providers are promising.
Plus, wireless connections are able to better monitor and control various systems in places where it’s not practical to provide wired connections. For example…
- Remote monitoring and control of places like sewage plants that are “off the grid” suddenly become possible.
- Mobile robots will be freed from the short distances allowed by Wi-Fi and similar technologies.
- And 5G will underpin the driverless car revolution. The 5G network, as planned, will be sufficiently robust to allow a car to send its data continuously to a network, which can reroute cars to manage traffic, identify road dangers, and solve problems too complex for a car’s on-board computer to handle.
The Timeline for 5G… And Will the Government Ruin It?
The first 5G network is a few years away. We’re talking sometime between 2018 and 2020. And before deployment can happen, there’s still much to debate and decide between the carriers and hardware manufacturers.
Among the biggest issues are what frequencies to use. Some advocate using “millimeter wave” frequencies – i.e., those above 50 GHz. These frequencies have the advantages of not already being used, plus being able to carry an enormous amount of data in any given frequency range.
However, those frequencies suffer from degradation over long distances. Either carriers will need to have many more cell sites than they have now, or hardware manufacturers will have to design new equipment that allows the use of those frequencies over longer distances and through obstacles such as walls.
But these technical challenges will be resolved in time – and 5G will become a reality soon enough.
The bigger problem – at least in the United States – is the dreaded “R” word: regulation.
Will carriers actually be able to utilize 5G systems to ignite a robust new world that’s not only faster, but also safer, more convenient, and more sophisticated?
Right now, it looks like they’ll have to go begging to the U.S. government for permission to introduce many of the new services that 5G promises. This is tied into the FCC’s botched net neutrality decision that I discussed last week – and how that future may belong to other countries, due to the short-sightedness of most consumers and the government.
To living and investing in the future,