Waiting in the wings, the next generation of wireless technology

Ted Rappaport gives off the energy of a man who likes to bend his efforts toward a technical problem that others have said can’t be solved.

Rappaport is in charge of NYU WIRELESS, a New York University research program in downtown Brooklyn that has enlisted researchers to work on the next generation of wireless technology. When Fortune visits, he tells a story of how he traveled to the densest metropolitan area in the U.S. — downtown Manhattan — to send and receive millimeter wave radio signals over various distances. His goal? To demonstrate that a commercially viable expansion of spectrum for cellular and Wi-Fi could physically be done.

Many industry players doubted that it was possible. Now, those same people are using the results of the professor’s research to begin sketching out their own strategies for the next phase of wireless technology.

Rappaport’s team found that signals at 73 gigahertz could be sent and received as far as 200 meters under very dense conditions, with an acceptable number of instances where buildings stopped a signal. Sending and receiving data at these particular narrow frequency bands are what the industry refers to as 5G wireless technology. On a bad day, 5G should be as fast as 4G LTE is today under ideal conditions. On a typical day, it is expected to be much better.

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That’s because a high frequency band can carry a lot more data — 100 times as much — than one at a lower frequency, Rappaport says. The trade-off for using so-called millimeter wave technology? The higher the frequency, the less likely a signal is able to penetrate objects like vegetation and man-made structures.

NYU’s research seems to show that high frequency signals have the strength to move through dense areas. Whether those signals work well enough to be used by moving mobile devices (such as the smartphone in a person’s pocket) is another matter entirely. Still, it may not matter: 5G wireless could still make an enormous difference by covering backhaul, the term used for the core or backbone of the network that provides Internet access to the end user.

Though 5G wireless would make it cheaper to create more access points for 4G systems — fewer wires would be needed — the industry is focused on the benefits of machine-to-machine communications and the implications to the Internet of Things concept. With improved wireless data capacity, machines can more effectively monitor hospital patients, agricultural systems can become more autonomous, and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos might actually — from a technical perspective, at least — be able to launch the delivery drone fleet he was wishing for.

“Now it’s clear that there will be more machine-to-machine connections than to humans — much more,” said Lauri Oksanen, vice president for research and technology at Nokia Solutions and Networks, which makes and services networking equipment and which jointly organized a 5G summit with NYU in Brooklyn.

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There are challenges ahead for the technology. For example, the tight waves of high frequency transmissions require antennae to work directionally. (Engineers are at work on full duplex radios.) Right now, your mobile devices can’t send and receive on the same channel at the same time, due to interference. That may change.

But the benefits are many. Greater use of virtualization for today’s networks would allow them to run (and receive updates from) the cloud. And more pervasive connectivity could allow big data analytics technology to be used more frequently on communications systems, which may be “getting too complex for humans,” Oksanen said.

What seems clear is that, despite critics, 5G technology is real, feasible and coming within the decade. (Consensus is for an eventual roll-out in 2020.) The questions then become: Which companies will dominate in the race to build out this infrastructure? Who will win what appears to be a huge, new market?

For now, the field is still in what Rappaport cheerfully calls a “pre-competitive” stage, where the industry is sharing support for research institutions around the world and putting its heads together around standards. Once the first product rolls off the production line, though, it’s game on.

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