The speed of light is the new benchmark for success in data speeds. The possibilities that new technologies like fiber optics and 5G bring to the table have actually put this mark in our sights, theoretically. But its one thing to match it on paper, and another thing to bring that sort of power to every internet user in the country. Still, falling a bit short of the mark could still be faster than the human mind can think gimme. Right?
The promise of fiber optics
With fiber optics, users have nearly instantaneous data transfer, even with extremely high volumes. 100 mpbs is fast enough to download a 4-min song in less than a second, and a 2-hour HD movie in less than 5 min. Fiber optics promises speeds of up to 1 gbps (1000 mbps), fast enough to download the same 2-hour movie in less than 30 seconds.
Fiber optics can also host a “symmetrical connection”, where upload speeds can be equal to download speeds. This signals a dramatic shift in the way we, the people, use the internet. No longer are we just the consumers of information put out by corporations. We’re now using the internet to produce our own content, to be shared with the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, fiber is still expensive to install. While it connects major cities to other cities, and one continent to the next, its a rarity in rural areas, and is even inaccessible to some residents in major cities. Much of the US is still on DSL, cable or the mobile network.
The promise of 5G
5G offers staggeringly high data speeds. At its most optimal, up to 100x more data can be transferred than by 4G. Users report speeds of up to 1gbps in areas with a strong signal, which is comparable to fiber. Providers boast that 10gbps will be possible. How can it be faster than light? There’s a couple factors to look at: first, the laser beams used in fiber optics are traveling through glass, rather than through space/air. So there’s attenuation, due to impurities. Second, 5G has extremely limited range --- the length of a city block at best. So while 5G is happening instantaneously, its not going very far. Fiber can transmit data across the ocean in roughly the same amount of time.
What that power is going to be used for
Besides the obvious consumer uses --- streaming, uploading and downloading files --- 5G will have widespread IoT applications. IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to things other than user devices like computers and smartphones. Appliances with smart technology are one example; if you can command your fridge or washing machine from your phone, its part of the IoT. Robots, sensors, and other equipment that can use wireless connectivity are being revolutionized.
Surveillance is a huge area of IoT that is going to be dramatically changed by 5G. Live video streams with crystal clear resolution will run flawlessly. Cables won’t be needed anymore. As the cost of technology goes down, home surveillance will become more accessible to consumers. Surveillance for commercial use and by government agencies will increase, too.
The same goes for sensors. The infrastructure will be constantly monitored by low-cost sensors with 5G connectivity. That means PUD won’t have to pay an employee to drive around and read everybody’s water meter. It also means leaks, breakdowns, jams, and all the other incidents that disrupt energy and water service will be detected and located immediately.
An infinitely complex IoT with 5G connectivity will accelerate automation beyond our imagination. 5G connectivity promises to be the missing link to fully autonomous cars. More jobs will be completely automated, driving the cost of goods down. New fields will arise with the emergence of new products and new technologies.
The augmented/virtual realities of science fiction are not just possible, but likely. There will be cheap wireless cameras, offering feeds in 4K, that can be installed in seconds. Drones watching and listening, everywhere. Equally utopian and dystopian, the future that was promised is here --- almost.
Complications and challenges
We advise against holding your breath while you wait for reliable 5G coverage to reach small towns like Monroe. Instead, take a deep breath and take a moment to enjoy not having the trappings of the future. As you, too, have probably realized, the future is usually not all its cracked up to be, and its usually a bunch of other things, besides. A little slowness in the step of progress can be read as a good thing.
Like every generation of mobile communication before, 5G still relies on cables. And for all of its breathtaking speed, 5G faces a challenge that its predecessors didn’t --- limited range. Cell towers are just a point of access to the grid, linked to the rest of the world by cables. For 5G to work, nodes and towers are going to have to be almost everywhere within a given area.
The 5G infrastructure is being installed by private interests, so there’s no guarantee it will reach rural areas at all. Fiber faces the same challenge. Low population density areas don’t offer as many subscribers for the providers to recover the costs of installation. Without government subsidies, the fantastically fast future is something that just might never happen for rural areas. And if you’ve ever tried to get a permit or a license for anything, you know how slow the government is at everything they do.
They say the future is going to be fast, but it looks like it’s going to take its sweet time getting here.