AT&T takes steps toward 5G

One gigabit per second from anywhere. At a time when most Americans don’t even see one tenth that speed from a wired connection at home, it seems fabulous, something to dream about. Of course, wireless internet of any kind was a dream for about 99% of people just a decade ago. That goes to show you that anything is possible.

5G today is still at least five years off, but that’s not stopping AT&T from taking steps to bring the future just a little closer. According to our friends at LightReading, AT&T has asked the government for permission to test 5G service in very specific areas. They’ll be using broadcast frequencies in a much, much higher range than anyone’s used before, at least for broadcasts from point to point on the Earth. They’re talking about using 15GHz range and eventually moving up to the 28GHz range, which up unitl now has been used for satellite broadcasts. They know those ranges will support the very large amount of bandwidth needed for 5G.

5G, as I’ve said before, is the technology which will get us past the current LTE technologies used for internet on mobile devices. Right now it’s just a sort of loose, dreamy sort of thing without any standards, but standards get developed when engineers know what’s possible, and that’s why AT&T is spending the money to find out what can be done. Other companies are doing the same, and there will come a time in the very near future when 5G will be as important as LTE is today.

In the past two decades, phone companies and cable companies have spent billions on burying generations upon generations of lines. First came copper wires, then fiber. It’s an expensive proposition and what becomes very obvious very quickly is that it’s practically impossible to complete a wiring project without knowing it’s going to be obsolete when you finish. On the other hand, wireless technology can be upgraded more quickly and more effectively, and often with fewer regulatory hurdles. So when you hear companies like AT&T talk about 5G, maybe they’re not just thinking about phones. Maybe they’re looking forward to a point where there’s enough speed and enough capacity that they can stop burying cables in the ground permanently.

Obviously 5G would have enough speed to handle residential service, even in those peak “Netflix” hours, but the issue will be capacity. Right now, most wireless data service is “metered,” meaning that you’re charged for what you use. Most of us have a 2GB, 5GB, 10GB or similar plan per month on our cell phones but our home internet is essentially unlimited, so long as you don’t reach a (usually generous) data cap. Wireless data services are capped at such low levels because there just isn’t enough capacity despite every carrier working hard to add towers. If 5G is to replace wired internet, it will need to offer the same sort of capacity that wired internet does. By 2020, the average home could easily average 1 terabyte downloaded per month. Will 5G be able to handle that kind of traffic in a dense residential neighborhood? That’s the real question.

The hope is by planning the technology correctly, the answer will be yes.

It wasn’t that long ago that few people felt like they could go without a landline phone. Today, it’s common. Will there come a time soon when you go without wireline internet? AT&T seems to hope so, and they hope that day will come sooner than later.