Telecom Experts Plot a Path to 5G

The ITU is sorting through likely approaches to the next-generation mobile standard

Even before the 4G technology your smartphone uses was rolled out in earnest, telecommunications experts were dreaming of the next generation: 5G. But what 5G will do and how it will do it have remained pretty nebulous. “5G is a plethora of technologies that people are trying to bring together. What technology should be prioritized in what way?” says Thyaga Nandagopal, the director of the Networking Technologies and Systems program at the U.S. National Science Foundation.

But pressure to answer that question is mounting: Within five years, mobile service providers will need the new networks to power the Internet of Things, where just about everything, including smart cars, homes, thermometers, and portable sonar fish detectors, will be online.

In October, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) will try to give 5G a definition. The ITU’s IMT-2020 Focus Group reviewed more than 60 research proposals and will pitch the first 5G network blueprint. The draft lays out major gaps in the 5G wire-line network infrastructure, such as software and high-level network architecture, according to Peter Ashwood-Smith, chairman of the focus group. It will suggest potential technology improvements and a timeline for when each component of 5G needs to be ready before deployment, he says.

In June, the working group released goals for 5G such as support for data rates up to 20 gigabits per second, the ability to allow massive armies of devices to connect in a small area, and reduced energy consumption. With all the combined network upgrades, surfing the Web on 5G may be even faster than using your laptop’s Wi-Fi. Theodore Rappaport, director of the NYU Wireless research center, in New York City, says 5G will be like “fiber optics in the air.”

“As wireless devices become more plentiful, we’re going to need more data and more spectrum,” Rappaport says. Mobile data traffic across the globe grew 69 percent between 2013 and 2014, reaching 2.5 exabytes (over a billion billion bytes)per month, according to Cisco. And analysts expect data consumption to climb to 24.3 exabytes per month by 2019. 4G LTE, today’s technology, “can never accommodate this new demand,” says Rappaport.

Ashwood-Smith expects that the group will produce an even clearer picture of the wire-line broadband requirements by December 2015. “5G is going to affect us all,” he says.