5G Is Going To Change The World.
Here’s What You Need To Know

by Lee Gruenfeld*

It’s not just another speed improvement, but a whole new set of technologies that will make possible major advances in everything from self-driving cars to automated cities.

Imagine you’re driving along a two-lane highway late at night and a cement truck heading in the opposite direction blows a tire and veers over into your lane. If you’re both doing 70 mph and are a hundred feet apart, you’re going to meet-quite unhappily-in about half a second. That’s not much longer than it takes to blink, so the odds of you noticing the developing situation and taking appropriate evasive action are effectively zero.

Even if you’re at the wheel of a self-driving car with a collision avoidance system, you’re still in trouble, because it’s going to take a little bit of time for that system to figure out that the cement truck hasn’t just moved over a little but is actually coming into your lane.

The ideal solution is for the car and the truck to communicate with each other, so the truck can tell the car it’s out of control even before either driver notices. In order to do that, both vehicles need to be connected via the Internet to a central system that receives signals, interprets them, and sends the results back so that corrective action can be taken. Even better, they should be able to talk to each other directly, bypassing the Internet altogether.

If you’ve ever waited for your phone or tablet to start a movie or connect to Yelp or determine your location, you know that there’s not going to be enough time for the above scenario to resolve itself before a collision takes place. The only over-the-air communication system we have now that will work in moving vehicles is the cellular system, and even the latest 4G technology doesn’t come close to being capable enough.

This is where 5G comes in. That it’s far faster than anything we have now has been greatly hyped to consumers, but 5G is fundamentally different from all the earlier cellular technologies in a number of mind-blowing ways. Each of those ways will enable powerful new applications, including preventing accidents like the one above.


Low Latency

How fast data can flow between the Internet and a device is one thing. How long it takes before it starts flowing is called “latency” and is another thing entirely. Think of it in terms of a garden hose. How much water flows through the hose is speed. How long it takes for the water to appear after you turn on the faucet is latency. In the case of viewing a Harry Potter movie on your phone, it doesn’t really matter if it takes a second or two before the film starts flowing. But if you’re in that car heading for that cement truck, milliseconds (thousandths of a second, abbreviated ms) matter.

If your current phone has a solid, strong connection using today’s cellular technology (called “LTE”), average latency is around 50 ms. That’s impressively fast, but nowhere near fast enough for critical applications. The 5G goal for consumers is 4 ms, but for other applications it’s lower: The target for “Ultra-reliable low latency communications” (URLLC) is down at the 1 ms level. This will make self-driving cars truly feasible, and will make it possible to effectively and reliably control time-sensitive industrial machines and even aircraft.


Density & Simultaneity

Have you ever been at a football or baseball game and tried to access the Internet on your phone while 40,000 of your bleacher mates are trying to do the same thing? It’s like hooking up 40,000 television sets to the cable box in your bedroom, each one showing a different channel. Neither the cellular system nor the stadium’s WiFi is capable of accepting that many connections, nor could it push enough data through to service them all even if they could connect.

Outside the stadium, the challenge is the Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT consists of everything connected to the Internet that isn’t a phone, tablet or computer. It includes industrial machinery, the smart thermostat and alarm system in your home, streetlights, power plants, and thousands of other types of devices.

Right now there are close to 30 billion of these things hooked into the Internet, and about 130 are added every second. There’s no telling which ones are going to be screaming for attention at any given moment, so the 5G system needs to be able to deal with a lot of them screaming at once, all while adhering to the low latency requirement. That’s a tall order but the interconnected world isn’t going to work unless that order is filled. The idea of the “smart city,” in which every streetlight, train, bus, power plant, police car and firetruck is part of a fully integrated system, will rely almost completely on 5G.



Unless 5G has unprecedented reliability, there’s no sense even bothering with the other features. Reliability is expressed in two ways. The first is uptime, meaning how much of the time the 5G network will be up and running. According telecommunications consultant and Bell Labs alumnus Dr. Rick Baugh, for medical devices, automated factories and self-driving vehicles, uptime is going to have to be somewhere around 99.9999%, or no more than about 31 seconds total downtime per year.

The other expression of reliability is lost data. Everything transmitted on the Internet is divided into small blocks of data, called packets, which can travel along various paths depending on network traffic, and are re-assembled at the destination. Sometimes they get “lost” and have to be re-transmitted. For applications requiring 1 ms latency, the 5G reliability standard is no more than one lost packet out of every 1 billion transmitted. That’s achievable but expensive in terms of network development, and right now, it’s not clear how revenues are going to cover those costs.


What will 5G mean for you?

First, a caveat, from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler: “There is a potential to overhype and under-deliver on the 5G promise. If anyone tells you they know the details of what 5G will deliver, walk the other way.”

That said, here are just a few of the ways 5G is likely to affect your life over the next few years.

Speed: The first place consumers will directly experience 5G is on their mobile devices. Downloads will be several times faster than the fastest you can get now. Some of those larger apps that took minutes to get transmitted to your phone will takes seconds instead, and the response time from most over-the-air services will seem nearly instantaneous. These are all improvements in what’s called the “customer experience,” but given how fast LTE already is, they’re not apt to be game changers, at least with respect to the kinds of apps you’re used to using. “[D]espite all the hype, [5G] won't represent a radical break from the current mobile experience,” says Wharton School professor Ken Werbach. “[T]he new capabilities of 5G are best suited to non-consumer applications.”

Here’s another thing that doesn’t get much mention: No matter how fast the network, we’re still limited by how fast the computers at the other end can respond and send data. So even though the network might be capable of downloading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica in two minutes, it’s a moot point if the computer it resides on can’t serve it up that fast. And even if it can, ten users trying to do the same thing simultaneously might slow things down to a crawl.


Augmented Reality (AR): You might already be familiar with Virtual Reality (VR). You don special goggles and suddenly you’re in an airplane or driving a race car. These immersive experiences are great fun, but AR is a more serious productivity tool. Suppose your car starts running funny. You slip on your VR goggles, pop open the hood and see not only the engine, but little labeled circles and arrows pointing to the air filter, transmission fluid port and fuse box with each fuse individually labeled. As you move around and change your perspective, the circles and arrows move right along with you. The VR headset connects to the car’s diagnostic system and you see a blinking red X over spark plug five, along with instructions that appear in mid-air and guide you through replacing it.

All of this depends on great speed and low latency, because images lagging your movements are not just annoying but nausea-inducing. 5G will ensure that everything moves smoothly and seamlessly, whether you’re repairing your car or the #3 engine on a jumbo airliner or the control rod actuators in a nuclear power plant.

AR has more prosaic uses, too, like letting shoppers see themselves in clothes they point to on the rack or allowing fans at a football game to select from multiple angles and see real-time game stats scroll by. If you’re wondering whether watching a game in AR at home might be better than going to the stadium, you’re in for a nice surprise. You’re finally going to find out what on-court seats at a Laker game or the front row at a Stones concert are really all about.


Remote Health Care: Telemedicine is available now, and saw increased usage following the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, but it’s slow, clumsy and limited. 5G’s fast speeds, enormous data capacity and ability to handle millions of devices simultaneously will make it possible for physicians to provide a far greater range of patient services. Unmanned electroencephalographs, electrocardiographs, blood analyzers, stethoscopes, medicine infusers and even robotic surgeons, all bound together within an artificial intelligence framework communicating over 5G, will increase the reach, enhance the accuracy, and reduce the costs of providing health care.


Home automation: This is a reality right now, but it’s limited and messy. You might have your alarm system and thermostat operating on WiFi, your lights and front door lock on Bluetooth, your garage opener on the cellular system. Things don’t talk to each other, and that makes for an uncoordinated mess that’s not as useful as it should be. There are technical reasons why a fully integrated system is difficult to achieve right now, starting with hard limitations on how many devices can be hooked up at once, and a degradation in performance if you get close to even those narrow limits. All that goes away with 5G, when you’ll be able to control everything in your house—garage openers, door locks, televisions, sound systems, heating and air conditioning, lighting, surveillance and alarms, kitchen appliances, windows, even your car—from a single, centralized control unit that happens to be your phone. And it’s all integrated: If the system detects and confirms an intrusion, it can switch on every light in the house and in the yard, start your car horns blaring, and call the police and tell them exactly where in the bad guy is, along with a photo.


Smart Cities: A big city is like an extremely complicated machine, consisting of many intricate systems that are partially autonomous but also co-dependent on other systems. In a city like New York, “systems” include the buses, subways, water, gas, electricity, steam, traffic lights, street lights, bridges, tunnels, police, fire, emergency medical, and many others. If the electricity fails, so do the street and traffic lights. If a steam pipe breaks in February, buildings are going to be evacuated, overloading the bus and subway system. And if a bridge has to be closed during rush hour because of a major accident, the impact will ripple all across the city.

A “smart city” running on a foundation of artificial intelligence and 5G can use millions of low-cost sensors to gather an ocean of real-time, detailed data about the status of each of the city’s interdependent systems. A smart city can detect a failing generator in enough time to start up a standby facility and pour more power into the grid so the dying generator isn’t even noticed when it fails.

More efficient traffic control is one of the more eagerly anticipated benefits. Within seconds of detecting an accident on an inbound bridge, the system can start flashing signs directing drivers to alternate ways of crossing the waterway. It can turn a four-lane by four-lane highway into a two-way by six-way to accommodate the larger number of cars going north instead of south. It can control every traffic light in the entire city to minimize delays and the total number of miles driven. It could even direct taxis to the theatre district when shows let out in anticipation of increased demand.


What’s the Status of 5G?

It’s in its infancy. At the consumer end, 5G-capable phones were only introduced within the past year, and Apple didn’t get around to a 5G-ready iPhones until last October. There were about 200 million 5G subscribers at the end of 2020, but the 5G systems of the big carriers—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile—are not fully built out yet: There are wide swaths of the country that don’t have it, and those that do don’t have its full capabilities implemented. If you have a 5G phone already, you’re not likely to be wowed by the increased speed, but by the time another 2.8 billion subscribers sign on in the ensuing five years, most of them industrial and IoT users, it will have substantially improved.

There are, of course, downsides to 5G as well. The more our dependence on it grows, the higher the potential for disaster if it breaks. A technically savvy bad actor with the right access could plunge a hospital or the stock market or a major city into unprecedented chaos. There are also profound privacy implications: There will be rivers of personal data flowing over the airwaves, and with them the temptation to hack in. The time, effort and money we put into developing 5G-enabled technologies need to be equaled by the resources we pour into securing them. Unfortunately, the security side of things has lagged the capability side ever since the first personal computers were announced in the mid-70s. With the enormous amount of money to be made in 5G—according to the World Economic Forum, $3.6 trillion in economic output and 22.3 million jobs in just the global value chain by 2035-it’s doubtful that security and privacy concerns are going to impede the juggernaut very much.

The potential benefits are truly enormous, but it’s going to take an unusual level of cooperation among industry users, government regulators, network operators, equipment manufacturers and service providers, as well as among the industrialized countries, to ensure that 5G lives up to its promise and does so safely.

When that happens, our world is going to look very different.


* © 2020 by Steeplechase Run, Inc. - All Rights Reserved
A shorter version of this piece appeared in the December, 2020 issue of Newsmax Magazine.