Here Comes 5G

Carl Weinschenk
Slide Show

Confusion and Skepticism May Impede 4G Adoption

With so many potential 4G customers expressing concerns about cost and performance providers may be in for some disappointment.

Just as we all are getting accustomed to 4G, researchers are hard at work devising the next standard.

Welcome to 5G, though it isn't officially called that yet. And, as with most technical breakthroughs, it is relatively straightforward-perhaps "simple" is too strong a word-if it is clearly described.

One of the innovations that enables 4G to operate faster than 3G is the use of multiple-in, multiple-out (MIMO) antennas. As the name implies, MIMO antennas receive and send multiple instances of a signal. On the receive side-in the tablet or smartphone-advanced software algorithms use the multiple signals to create one that is superior to what is possible in the 3G world.

To date, a limitation of MIMO is that signals can't be sent and received at the same time on the same frequency. It is, according to an explanation from Rice University posted at Talking Points Memo, like people talking each other:

As Rice explains, it's as if two were people standing in an empty arena and trying to call out to each other at exactly the same time: they would drown each other out. Instead, they must take turns or, simultaneously transmit their messages by another means. Hence the need for two frequencies on modern phones.

The Rice breakthrough will enable full duplex operations, which means that data can flow in both directions simultaneously:

[T]he Rice team was able to get around this problem by reprogramming the phones and using one extra antenna to send out canceling signals that cause each phone to only receive or "hear" incoming data, not the data it is sending out.

The work at Rice is complementary to similar work at Stanford University that was announced earlier this year. The Rice University work seems to have gone a bit further, however.

Followers of technology are aware that many innovations are announced and reported upon often. These new ideas either slip from the radar completely or disappear for many years, only to return and have an impact.

Assuming the technology works as advertised, there are a couple of reasons to think that this might be different. The first, of course, is that the need for more capacity is great and growing on what seems like an exponential basis. Technology that essentially doubles what is available would be jumped upon by vendors and service providers. Secondly, the reports say that there is little or no new equipment necessary for this technology.

Despite these positive factors, it will be years before 5G-be it what is being developed at Rice, at Stanford, a hybrid of the two or something completely different-is commercialized. In any case, however, it is nice to know that researchers are working on the next leap forward.

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