Yesterday, T-Mobile and Sprint announced that they will merge. If the government approves, then we will have only three major wireless companies in the United States. In the communications that I have seen from the two companies, including a joint website that went live yesterday, one of the main themes was that this merger would promote 5G, the next generation of wireless technology. This makes me wonder, what will 5G bring us, and when can we start to use it on the iPhone?
It won't surprise you that the primary advantage of 5G is faster Internet for mobile devices. Indeed, wireless speed has increased dramatically since the iPhone was originally introduced in 2007, so we all expect this to continue in the future.
The original iPhone only supported 2G Edge wireless, and the addition of 3G support a year later was such an improvement that the second generation of iPhone mentions it in its name: it was called the iPhone 3G. Edge on the original iPhone provided download speeds of around 100 Kbps — about twice as fast as a 56K modem. With 3G, the iPhone 3G in 2008 increased download speeds to around 500 Kbps. Carriers improved 3G technology over time, and manufacturers improved devices to take advantage of that. For example, in early 2009, I reported that AT&T was planning to double 3G speed, and by 2011, I was using an iPhone 4 with better 3G technology and I saw average download speeds of around 3 Mbps.
The iPhone 5 was introduced in the Fall of 2012, and one of the marquee features was support for 4G LTE. It provided a major increase in wireless speed. Here in New Orleans, in 2012-2013, I would typically see 4G LTE download speeds in the 30-40 Mbps range. Those speeds increased over time as technology improved. With my iPhone X in 2018, I typically see 4G LTE speeds of 75-100 Mbps, and I often see speeds well in excess 0f 100 Mbps.
While 4G has gotten faster over the years, just like 3G did, as I look back over the past decade, the major speed advantages have been when there was a new generation. 5G is being advertised as being the next major speed bump. The CTIA, a trade organization for the wireless industry, says that 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G, and a chart on its website predicts a transition from 100 Mbps download speeds to 10 Gbps. 5G will also feature low latency that can make the internet five times more responsive when you initiate each request.
With this dramatic increase in speed, I imagine that we will see an increase in high quality video on demand, a vast increase in augmented reality, and even more services living in the cloud. And of course, I'm sure that the faster speeds will prompt new innovations that many of us have not thought about yet. The CTIA website says that with 5G, "[s]ensors will monitor the health and safety of critical infrastructure like buildings, roads, and bridges, while connected trash cans, bus stops, light poles and more will help cities operate more efficiently" and says that 5G will help self-driving cars.
A different kind of infrastructure
To date, wireless cell technology has been based on huge towers with antennas 125 feet in the air which would provide service for several miles. But it turns out that 5G will be different. 5G is much faster, but the signal doesn't go nearly as far. So instead of a smaller number of tall towers, 5G will work with a large number of microcells placed around 500 feet apart, often on streetlights or utility poles.
But it won't just be that microcell on a utility pole. As reported by Allan Homes earlier this year in the New York Times, "[m]uch of the equipment will be on streetlights or utility poles," but it will often be "accompanied by containers the size of refrigerators on the ground." That New York Times article includes pictures showing how these containers can be made to look like mailboxes so that they don't seem too out-of-place. Because this equipment on the ground is a potential eyesore, some local governments are looking to regulate 5G implementation, which has led the wireless companies to lobby at the state and federal level to try to block local regulators from slowing down the transition to 5G. Katherine Shaver of the Washington Post reports: "Industry-backed legislative proposals introduced this year in 18 states, including Maryland and Virginia, would preempt most local zoning laws for small cell poles up to 50 feet tall. They would limit residents’ input on applications for small cell facilities and restrict local governments’ ability to reject them."
In an editorial, the USA Today suggests this compromise: "A smarter approach would bar localities from turning the permitting process into a cash cow, but would give them input on where 5G boxes go and what they should look like. This kind of buy-in might seem burdensome. But it is necessary to prevent a grass-roots rebellion of property owners and community activists."
The future is close
It will be interesting to see how these implementation details get worked out, but I presume that somehow, they will. 5G (and someday 6G, 7G, etc.) seems inevitable. As noted above, T-Mobile and Sprint are seeking government approval of their merger so that they can be a leader in 5G technology. AT&T announced a few months ago that "2018 will be the year you can experience mobile 5G from AT&T" with preliminary service "in a dozen cities, including parts of Dallas, Atlanta and Waco, Texas, by the end of this year." Verizon announced a few days ago that it would launch 5G "in 3-5 markets later this year and take the same aggressive approach to the deployment of 5G mobility when devices become available."
As that quote from Verizon indicates, the initial rollout of 5G won't mean that you can start using it on your current iPhone. When 5G first comes out, you'll need to have a dedicated hardware device to receive the 5G signal, which I presume you can then connect to a mobile phone via Wi-Fi. 3G was available in 2007 when the original iPhone was introduced, but Apple didn't take advantage of it for the first year of the iPhone because some of the initial 3G chips for mobile devices consumed too much power. Apple waited for the technology to mature a little before adding 3G a year later in 2008 — and even then, just for AT&T. (The first Verizon iPhone didn't come out until 2011.)
Complicating things further, I understand that there isn't yet any agreement in the industry on how 5G is going to work. Thus, the technology that lets an iPhone talk to AT&T 5G may not also allow for communication with T-Mobile/Sprint 5G.
Nevertheless, I expect that it won't be long before 5G will start to have enough availability that you will want to have the opportunity to take advantage of it. I don't expect a 5G iPhone or iPad in 2018, and I suspect that the technology will still be too new in 2019, but it wouldn't surprise me to see 5G in Apple mobile devices in the year 2020.