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.
Today’s 4G base stations have a dozen ports for antennas that handle all cellular traffic: eight for transmitters and four for receivers. But 5G base stations can support about a hundred ports, which means many more antennas can fit on a single array. That capability means a base station could send and receive signals from many more users at once, increasing the capacity of mobile networks by a factor of 22 or greater.
This technology is called massive MIMO. It all starts with MIMO, which stands for multiple-input multiple-output. MIMO describes wireless systems that use two or more transmitters and receivers to send and receive more data at once. Massive MIMO takes this concept to a new level by featuring dozens of antennas on a single array.
MIMO is already found on some 4G base stations. But so far, massive MIMO has only been tested in labs and a few field trials. In early tests, it has set new records for spectrum efficiency, which is a measure of how many bits of data can be transmitted to a certain number of users per second.
Massive MIMO looks very promising for the future of 5G. However, installing so many more antennas to handle cellular traffic also causes more interference if those signals cross. That’s why 5G stations must incorporate other new technologies, such as millimeter waves, small cells, full duplex, and beamforming.
With these 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 ultra-low 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.