What is 5G and what does it mean for me?

The Qualcomm 4G/5G summit held in Hong Kong covered a lot of ground on mobile networks and the technology that enables them. By far the most important question the summit answered however, was: “What is 5G?”

The Qualcomm 4G/5G summit held in Hong Kong covered a lot of ground on mobile networks and the technology that enables them. By far the most important question the summit answered however, was: “What is 5G?”

To the average consumer and the layman, each generation of mobile network only means speed. 1G was analogue communication, 2G was GPRS and EDGE, 3G was 3Mbps speeds and 4G/LTE meant 20-60Mbps speeds.

To the engineers at Qualcomm, however, 5G is not just about speed. Yes, 5G promises ludicrous speeds that directly compete with wired “broadband” services, but 5G also means a vastly more efficient network and a more cohesive one.

We spoke to Peter Carson, Senior Director, marketing, Qualcomm, and Serge Willenegger, Senior Vice President, Qualcomm, who took the trouble to explain 5G to us.

What follows is a summation of the conversation we had with the two executives.

So what is 5G?

To put it simply, the use cases for 4G networks has expanded well beyond the initial scope of the standard. 5G is what you get when you reset the standard/design to cope with the increase in scope.

4G networks don’t just support mobile devices anymore. IoT (Internet of Things) devices are everywhere and the number of them is only going to increase. We’re seeing 4G modems in smart watches, in CCTVs and even in doorbells.

What is 5G and what does it mean for me?

The complexity of 4G.

The problem is that 4G was never designed to support such a varied set of devices and as a result, the 4G ecosystem is fragmented and also congested.

5G, as happened when the transition to 4G happened, will consolidate all these standards under one roof and accommodate for these expanding use cases.

Essentially, 5G is bringing all existing, fragmenting networking standards under one roof.

“5G is an iterative and progressive upgrade,” says Carson. The initial transition to 5G will, from a customer stand-point, be a bit muddled, but that’s good, says Carson. Qualcomm for one is making every effort to ensure that this transition is as seamless as possible in its initial stages.

Getting a little technical

Carson explains that while 5G does support the 28Ghz band (mmWave as they call it), it will also support all existing networking frequencies. The difference is that 5G is more efficient in every band as compared to 4G, resulting in the vast improvements in performance that 5G will offer.

To put the improvements in perspective, 4G currently offers around 100-150Mbps speeds, 5G can potentially offer over 1Gbps speeds at the same frequencies and even higher at 28GHz. Qualcomm even suggests that speeds up to 20Gbps (peak) can be achieved at mmWave bands.

But this is just about speed. What happens when a 4G or 5G network and a congested Wi-Fi/Bluetooth network are running in the same frequency band?

Carson says that in such a situation, your Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks will see an improvement in speeds when on 5G. He explains that 4G is less efficient than a theoretical 5G implementation. Even in a congested network, 5G will more efficiently handle the frequency bands, freeing up more bandwidth for say, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth networks.

What’s mmWave?

As a rule of thumb with wireless networks, the lower the frequency (or higher the wavelength), the higher the signal’s penetrative capabilities but the lower its speed. mmWave refers to an extremely high frequency (small wavelength) signal that can offer dramatically increased speeds and dramatically reduced penetration. As Carson put it, the signal won’t even be able to penetrate your window.

What’s the point of such a frequency?

Outdoors, the improvement in performance is significant. Carson also explains that the smaller wavelength also means that you can incorporate newer technologies like beam-forming and pack in more network channels. This will help the world of IoT as much as it does regular mobile networks.

What about legacy networks like 2G/3G?

Welleneger tells us that Qualcomm will continue to support all legacy networks for as long as people are using them. There is no question about that. These networks can reside alongside newer network standards like 5G.

What’s with the x50?

The X50 5G modem from Qualcomm will not even be available till 2018. But, Qualcomm says, it’s the first such modem to be announced.

Qualcomm 4G 5G Summit X50 Snapdragon Modem

Welleneger and Carson say that the modem is indicative of Qualcomm’s commitment to 5G as a standard, and indicative of their belief in their understanding of 5G networks.

They add that the modem also gives manufacturers and partners a chance to prepare for the technology and adapt their strategy accordingly.

5G power consumption: Will 5G kill my battery even faster now?

Right now, this is a bit of a grey area. Carson suggests that the net cost of using 5G, in terms of power, is should be around the same as using a 4G network, maybe even lower.

While it is true that 5G uses more energy per unit of data transferred, as compared to 4G, this data transfer happens much faster so it’s likely that the high power state will only be used for a fraction of the time when compared to 4G.

It’s too early to speculate on this, says Carson.

So there you have it. 5G is an umbrella standard of sorts that will attempt to consolidate the growing fragmentation in the 4G network. 5G will be more efficient and thus, offer far greater bandwidth to the user.

Disclaimer: Tech2 was invited to the Qualcomm 4G/5G summit at Hong Kong by Qualcomm. All expenses related to travel and accommodation were borne by Qualcomm. However, every effort has been made to keep the event’s coverage as impartial as possible.

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