Today’s mobile users want faster data speeds and more reliable service. The next generation of wireless networks—5G—promises to deliver that, and much more. Right now, though, 5G is still in the planning stages, and companies and industry groups are working together to figure out exactly what it will be. But they all agree on one matter: As the number of mobile users and their demand for data rises, 5G must handle far more traffic at much higher speeds than the base stations that make up today’s cellular networks. Beamforming is one of the burgeoning technologies that will help get us there.
Beamforming is a traffic-signaling system for cellular base stations that identifies the most efficient data-delivery route to a particular user, and it reduces interference for nearby users in the process. Depending on the situation and the technology, there are several ways to implement it in 5G networks.
Beamforming can help massive MIMO arrays, which are base stations arrayed with dozens or hundreds of individual antennas, to make more efficient use of the spectrum around them. The primary challenge for massive MIMO is to reduce interference while transmitting more information from many more antennas at once. At massive MIMO base stations, signal-processing algorithms plot the best transmission route through the air to each user. Then they can send individual data packets in many different directions, bouncing them off buildings and other objects in a precisely coordinated pattern. By choreographing the packets’ movements and arrival time, beamforming allows many users and antennas on a massive MIMO array to exchange much more information at once.
For millimeter waves, which are high-frequency waves expected to play a key role in 5G networks, beamforming is primarily used to address a different set of problems: Cellular signals are easily blocked by objects and tend to weaken over long distances. In this case, beamforming can help by focusing a signal in a concentrated beam that points only in the direction of a user, rather than broadcasting in many directions at once. This approach can strengthen the signal’s chances of arriving intact and reduce interference for everyone else.
With beamforming and other 5G technologies, engineers hope to build the wireless network that future smartphone users, VR gamers, and autonomous cars will rely on every day. Already, researchers and companies have set high expectations for 5G by promising ultralow latency and record-breaking data speeds for consumers. If they can solve the remaining challenges, and figure out how to make all these systems work together, ultrafast 5G service could reach consumers in the next five years.