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Gigabit broadband may be closer than you think, but a world with 7 billion web-users may strain its potential.
Samsung has made a giant leap into the mobile future, and it’s called 5G—yes, that 5G. The tech giant has developed a transceiver capable of transmitting wireless data at a face-melting speed of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps)—or, more accurately, 1.056 Gbps for a distance of up to 2 kilometers.
The test required a whopping 64 antenna units, but Samsung claims future iterations of the technology will be simpler and allow for consumer-ended 5G data networks within 7 years. Improvements may even help bring speeds up to 10 Gbps—roughly the speed it takes to download a movie in less than a second.
"5G will be capable of providing a ubiquitous Gbps experience to subscribers anywhere and offers data transmission speeds of up to several tens of Gbps per base station," the company said in a statement, adding that it plans "to commercialize those technologies by 2020.”
4G LTE is not even in its adolescence, with many areas of Europe and Asia yet to complete the transition. Nonetheless, the prospective 5G speeds are enticing when compared to existing 4G networks, which average about 75 megabits per second (Mbps)—a mere 7 percent of Samsung’s recent test.
Okay, but is this kind of speed necessary?
There’s a demand for high-speed, high-capacity networks that extends beyond mere consumer interest. Over the next few years, the number of people with routine internet access is expected to skyrocket, as owners of traditional handsets upgrade to smartphones. This will increase demand for coverage while also stressing data networks, and it’s a key point in a new book by Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen, director of Google Ideas.
“Today there are roughly a billion people on smartphones, roughly 2 billion connected to the Internet, roughly 6 billion on mobile phones,” Schmidt told NBC’s David Gregory. “As those phones get upgraded to this world, they'll participate as well.”
While somewhat speculative, the idea can be backed by market trends, such as the fact that mobile phone subscriptions are expected to surpass the entire world population sometime next year, according to a UN agency. And as isolated, impoverished sectors of the world become connected demand will only flourish.
"It's important to remember these 5 billion people are just like us,” Schmidt added. “They're just trapped in bad poverty and bad governance and so forth."
So what does a world with 7 billion internet users mean for 5G broadband?
A helpful anecdote might be to look at the current state of 4G LTE networks. In Korea, where more than two-thirds of the population own a smartphone, 30 percent of all mobile users are connected via 4G. One would think this massive data flow would be a boon for telecoms operators, but it’s actually a double-edged sword, and it alludes to a problem that may plague the future market for wireless data: network congestion. Samsung compared this challenge to the plumbing technique of using wider pipes to handle a larger flow of water. So the hunt is on for a new set of pipes.
“In Korea, they are data crazy. We have unprecedented demand. We cannot handle it,” said KT Corp’s Suk-Chae Lee in a February interview with Reuters.
Samsung’s 5G adaptive array transceiver targets these challenges by operating in the elusive, somewhat controversial millimeter-wave band. “The millimeter-wave band is the most effective solution to recent surges in wireless internet usage,” said Chang-Yeong Kim, Executive Vice President of Samsung Electronics. “[This] technology has brought us one step closer to the commercialization of 5G mobile communications in the millimeter-wave bands.”
To take the company's piping analogy, the millimeter-wave band is essentially just a larger pipe.
Is 5G the solution?
A mere shift in the frequency spectrum is not going to solve the long-term challenge of serving a smartphone market of several billion people. Sooner or later, that pipe is going to reach its own limit, however high it may be.
One way governments are working around this is by investing in infrastructure. Fiber optic cables, for example, greatly improve the speed and viability of IP traffic, and may help lessen the burden on wireless networks. Still, there’s the matter of profitability for network operators, which have to find a balance between low-cost demand from a “free information” culture and supply of an increasingly complex, data-intensive service.
“The issue we have is that [South Koreans] are not willing to pay enough,” says Lee. “So, the fundamental problem is, can we make any money out of it?"
Increasingly, it’s looking like the industry is in need of a Steve Jobs or Bill Gates, someone who can identify the problem and swoop in to outline a simple, consumer-friendly solution. Who knows? Maybe this time it will be Samsung instead of Apple.