SALT LAKE CITY — Behind the industrywide hyperventilation surrounding the coming 5G generation of wireless connectivity, some truly remarkable advancements are on the horizon.

A unique, “city-scale, living laboratory” that extends from the University of Utah campus into downtown Salt Lake City just earned a critical designation from the Federal Communications Commission that will help advance research on the platform.

The experimentation that will take place there will play a vital role in how the new, ultra-fast fifth-generation networks are designed and what new devices and applications may be developed to take advantage of the connectivity.

In other words, cars will get smarter, connecting to the road and its environs, but your cellphone might get dumber — because the network it’s connected to will get, well, smarter and contain everything you’ll need.

Understanding “G” evolution

Here’s a primer: Since around 1980, the connection bandwidth plateaus for wireless devices have been advancing at roughly decade-long increments, with new applications that take advantage of speed upgrades generally chasing soon after.

  • The 1G of the 1980s allowed for over-air analogue signals to connect phone calls on handsets the size of lunch boxes;
  • 2G in the 1990s supported the addition of text messaging (on your flip-phone, of course) to the mobile communications mix;
  • 3G came along in the new century and made connection to the internet possible,
  • 4G launched just a year after the iPhone showed up and changed the game in 2007, accommodating true broadband-level performance and opening the door for content access like streaming hi-definition video.

Bandwidth is a measure of the volume of information that can be moved through a network connection while latency is a measure of the time it takes for information to get from one point to another.

So, how much faster is 5G than the current 4G/LTE networks of today? The early deployments of 5G are operating at only a fraction of what a fully built-out system will deliver but a report from Deutsche Telekom noted it would take a user around 13 minutes to download the content of a DVD (4.7 GB) over a home broadband connection with an average download speed. A 5G-enabled smartphone or laptop could download the content of an entire DVD over a mobile 5G data link in just four seconds in the best-case scenario. 

The same report cites self-driving cars as an example of how important low latency is. When it comes to connected driving, data must be transmitted and a reaction triggered in real time, because decisions have to be made in fractions of a second. Only in this way can the car stop before hitting an obstacle or take evasive action, the report reads.

The reaction time of a human driver detecting a hazard and pressing the brake pedal is one second. An automobile doing 60 m.p.h. travels around 88 feet in that time. 

An autonomous vehicle, which can analyze data with a latency of one millisecond, reacts 1,000 times faster than a human and can apply the brakes in under one inch. One millisecond is an attainable goal with 5G, versus 4G which is about 20-30 times slower.

While 4G antennas can handle an average of around 4,000 individual connections, some new 5G technology will handle about 1 million, greatly increasing the reliability and consistency of connectivity.

Near-zero latency coupled with high data-transfer rates on a widely deployed and very reliable network could enable the advancement of numerous technologies that have been stymied without the performance capacities of 5G.

Here’s what it means:

  • Autonomous vehicles, already plying the roads in numerous test efforts, could be networked with each other, the roadway and sensor inputs that could read, and react, to situations in something very near real time.
  • The ability to do things via remote control advances wildly with potential to allow for remote, robotic medical procedures, and operating machinery.
  • The explosive growth related to things like home appliances, cooling/heating systems, window/door locks, light controls and many more — the so-called Internet of Things — could be both accommodated and interconnected in ways that are currently untenable. A report from Swedish telecom giant Ericsson predicts there will be 29 billion connected devices globally by 2022, of which 18 billion will fall into the Internet of Things category.

Rise of the dumb phone?

And the ubiquitous mobile phone, a device becoming more powerful, feature-rich and expensive with each passing year could, potentially, make a quantum leap backward. The bandwidth and low latency of 5G would, technically, accommodate a mere keyboard/screen in a “dumb” combination that could by very inexpensive and have fantastic battery life as a device that would rely on the vast processing and storage resources of the cloud to do all that we’ve come to rely on it for.

David McQueen, a London-based researcher who specializes in consumer technology and strategic technology for ABI Research, said a so-called “dumb phone” would be a feasible possibility if coupled with 5G technology.

“It could certainly allow it, as everything you might need could be accessed in the cloud,” McQueen said. “With a 5G, low-latency connection, whatever you’re working on, just go grab your files. It could make sense to take everything off your phone and put it in the cloud.”

But McQueen also pointed out that some of the applications one can see coming along with 5G connectivity, and those yet to be innovated, will require the on-board computational power of the modern smartphone.

“The virtual reality, augmented reality, machine learning and artificial intelligence-driven applications that are coming will need that computing power,” McQueen said.

McQueen said new iterations of devices we have now, as well as the innovation of future devices, will be driven by the advancement of 5G technology, but he doesn’t see the obsolescence of the smartphone on the near horizon.

“There may be some desegregating of the current functionality ... but I don’t see the cell phone going away any time soon,” McQueen said.

Utah’s contributions

The process of creating new devices and processes, be they some unknown new personal communicator, a rebirth of “smart glasses” that have so far failed to find a viable consumer market, vastly connected smart cities or a smart manufacturing process that doesn’t begin to make a product for you until the moment you order it, may be developed with the aid of a real-world, city-size wireless test platform that launched this year in Salt Lake City.

University of Utah professor Kobus Van der Merwe is the director of the Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research, or POWDER, which launched last April.

An in progress telemetry node sits on a table in the Powder Platform offices at the Merrill Engineering Building on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. The group is planning to attach the telemetry nor to several busses throughout the area. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News

The $27.5 million project will take about three years to completely install and, when completed, include 26-nodes distributed over 2 square miles of the university’s campus, a 1.2 square mile segment of downtown Salt Lake and a 2-mile corridor between the two quadrants. While it will be capable of handling a large volume of data at very fast speeds, it won’t be accessible to, or used by, the general public.

Consumer-accessible 5G technology has only been deployed in a relative handful of U.S. cities, with Salt Lake City poised to get its own 5G network, via Verizon Wireless, sometime before the end of the year, according to the company.

What it will do is provide an end-to-end platform for research on mobile wireless networks. It includes programmable hardware attached to a network that can be configured by the user and connected to a wide variety of compute, storage and cloud resources. Researchers can use the platform to build their own wireless networks, using existing protocols or technologies such as 4G as well as up-and coming ones, like 5G, or new ones that researchers invent and build from the ground up. In this environment, they can experiment with novel networks, devices, and applications.

Van der Merwe said 5G technology represents a departure, from a technological perspective, from the path that’s le\d through the first four generations of wireless connectivity.

“It’s sort of an overhaul of the infrastructure from the phones to base stations to the core,” Van der Merwe said. “If you look under the hood, you can still see the history of how we got here, but it’s quite different.

“The 5G core network is really going to look more cloud-like ... with more flexibility and scalability.”

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New 5G millimeter wave innovations differ from current technology in that connections will occur via a radio “beam” rather than the more widely dispersed and scattered signal of 4G and earlier technology. Van der Merwe noted that, if examined from an architectural standpoint, previous wireless connectivity was more focused on a voice-to-voice connection, whereas the latest generation is really looking at how best to connect “many, many more things, all talking to each other.”

Last month, the Salt Lake test platform received, along with a similar project in New York City, an Innovation Zone designation from the Federal Communications Commission, a distinction Van der Merwe described as a critical sign-off, as the FCC is the arbiter of access to bandwidth in the U.S.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the platforms will fuel new experimentation and “empower innovators.”

“Few concepts are more central to America than experimentation and innovation,” Pai said in a statement. “It’s what we do best. So it’s exciting and inspiring to see our Innovation Zones program taking off. These projects will test new advanced technologies and prototype networks like those that can support 5G technologies. We’re also establishing a process to ensure new innovators can have access to this testing resource while protecting current, licensed users.”

Jonathon Duerig closes up the software defined base station on the roof of the Merrill Engineering Building on the University of Utah campus in Salt Lake City on Friday, Oct. 18, 2019. | Colter Peterson, Deseret News
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