Five years from now, we can expect an Internet landscape with sturdier footings, so long as new Internet regulations and taxes can be held kept to a minimum.  The ongoing build out of fiber optics will continue and newer technologies such as 5G wireless, cloud services, encryption and the Internet of Things (IoT) will make a huge difference.  Retailing, education, healthcare, financial and government services will use these new technologies to improve their service for consumers.

Recently we looked at cloud services, encryption, and the Internet of Things.  “5G” wireless is expected to be a communications performance breakthrough with the capacity needed for the IoT, autonomous vehicles, ultra-high definition video, remote healthcare, and augmented reality.

Coordination among autonomous (self-driving) automobiles may be a challenge even for 5G. Coordination needs low latency to reduce the number of feet traveled during the time a signal between cars is crafted, sent, analyzed and reacted to.  5G offers the needed low latency.

5G’s role in remote healthcare comes from making upstream and downstream video affordable.  It is far cheaper to rollout 5G to a remote area than it is to lay fiber to remote clinics.  5G may fill in the gaps in very high speed bandwidth, a shortage common in rural areas.

5G can deliver enough bandwidth because it uses the spacious, uncluttered frequencies between 28 Ghz (gigahertz) to 71 Ghz compared with the cramped 700MHz to 2 GHz space where most of today’s wireless operators are wedged in.

In ultra-high frequency bands, signals attenuate after a short distance, creating conditions suitable for service providers to operate a quilt-work of densely-packed, small radius cells where each cell can use the same broad swaths of ultra-high frequencies.  Connecting these cells back to the Internet can be done by fiber-optics, a daisy chain of 5G antennas, or 4G infrastructure.  5G allows mobile consumers to use massive capacity in each cell as they move on their way across cells.  It also allows stationary consumers to use huge bandwidth (e.g., 10 gigabits per second or Gbps) within a cell.

Today, most consumers do not need 10 Gbps for any meaningful application, and the needs of many are fully satisfied at speeds below 5Mbps.  In comparison, smartphones operate well at 100 Kbps and higher.  Some IoT applications run at a mere 100 bits per second (e.g., the Sigfox IoT network in the 915 MHz band).  Much of 5G architecture at the core and the edges of the network will prioritize traffic demanding low latency, and maintain persistent throughout across virtual networks in what might be seen by non-engineers as faster and slower “lanes” of data traffic.

Despite real world needs, some regulators will treat any slow-lane / fast-lane discrimination as political heresy.  Unfortunately, populist nostrums are flawed principles for designing efficient, affordable networks.  “Same treatment for everyone” does not work well for consumers or for service providers.  Sometimes different applications actually need different speeds and treatments for efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

The spectrum between 24GHz and 71 GHz is cluttered by few applications and most of it is staked out by federal departments.  The effort to pry it from their grasp may be as difficult as it was to get a mere 95 Mhz that government held tightly.  5G spectrum needs may include some bandwidth in the 600 MHz range.  That lower bandwidth would help connect the small cells back to Internet access points.  Some of the spectrum currently in use for 3G and 4G can be cannibalized or repurposed to help with the 5G rollout.  Eventually, the buildout of 5G spectrum is expected to cost nearly $2 trillion, paid by the private sector and including auction proceeds for the US Treasury.

Standardization of the equipment and software could lower the cost for 5G rollout and consumer devices, on the other hand, some countries are lining up to put their peculiar stamp on 5G standards and early rollout.  Verizon plans for 2017 field trials, and Japan and Korea want to make a 2018 Olympics splash with 5G applications.  China and Europe are collaborating to thwart the US quickly establishing dominance in the 5G equipment and software space as they believe we did with the Internet.

5G will not cure Internet infestations of hackers, bullies, adware, miracle drug spammers, and narcissists telling us what the cool people ought to think and what the dedicated followers of fashion are wearing, and new regulations and taxes could raise deployment costs and stall investment.  But barring these challenges, 5G is worth following because its applications will make IoT cheaper and allow audacious digital applications to better serve consumers.