From 4G Wireless to 5G, a Boost in ‘Intelligence’

One of the hot topics for Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona was what the future might look like when (or if) 5G — the unofficial name some people use for the next network standard in wireless communications — is eventually deployed.

Google CEO Eric Schmidt described a world in which robots will attend meetings for us and wirelessly transmit dispatches in high-definition video. Meanwhile, electronics company Sony, (NYSE:SNE), telecom AT&T (NYSE:T), and chipmakers Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) and Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) demonstrated a “connected home” where even our clothing would transmit a wireless signal, a CNN Money analysis noted.

Consumers shouldn’t expect these things to be supported on today’s 4G networks, at least not on a widespread scale. That’s because 4G is primarily designed and built for speed, with the emphasis on quick downloads and the capacity to stream data, including music and high-definition video.

Researchers say that theoretically 5G will be capable of speeds about 10 times faster than current 4G networks, but 5G’s real promise lies in its “intelligence.” On 5G networks consumers will be able to simultaneously connect to and operate several wireless devices, such as communication systems in automobiles, and home thermostats, appliances, and security systems. With the right apps, consumers already can manage many of these tasks wirelessly on an individual basis, but the beauty of 5G is supposed to be its ability to analyze network availability and prioritize tasks, regardless of how many devices are operating and which commands are entered first.

The long haul to a smarter network

There’s a huge gap between the theoretical and network reality here, however. Even though analysts predict that the wireless traffic currently created by smartphones and tablets will seem modest compared to the data generated by connected devices eight years from now, wireless operators still might not be eager to jump on board the 5G bandwagon. That’s because making 5G a reliable reality will be more difficult than it was to implement past wireless upgrades.

Researchers say new mobile generations are typically assigned new frequency bands and wider spectral bandwidth per frequency channel. For example 1G had up to 30 kHz, 2G up to 200 kHz, 3G up to 5 MHz, and 4G up to 40 MHz. Some researchers say the limited amount of spectrum available may make 5G build-out and support impractical.

In addition to acquiring huge chucks of spectrum needed to make 5G reliable, wireless operators would also have to fork over capital for base stations and other infrastructure and support systems. That would be an expensive undertaking for wireless companies still making significant investments in their 4G networks , with Sprint (NYSE:S) and Deutsche Telekom’s (PINK:DTEGY) T-Mobile finally joining Verizon (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T in adopting high-speed LTE (long term evolution) technology as the industry standard.

Perhaps that’s why AT&T and Sprint recently told CNN that they had nothing to share about anything branded 5G, while a Verizon spokesman said the future is here and that future is Verizon Wireless 4G-LTE. Also, it’s not good business to suggest that your existing technology is obsolete before it’s fully operational in many of your markets.

In addition, wireless carriers may not rush to invest in 5G if they can’t get companies like Google, Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN), Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), and the many app developers whose products and services are taxing their networks to help take on some of the network upgrade costs. In the end, after all, the carriers bear the burden of network management, and take the heat when wireless devices don’t perform as advertised.

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