As engineers, sometimes the most useful way to imagine forward is to pause and look at how far we’ve come over the past several decades. These days, many of us are doing that with 5G.
Why am I so excited about the fifth generation of wireless communication? As history reveals, the hallmark of any great technology is the way it improves the human condition and revolutionizes our understanding of the world.
New technology builds on existing technology, and then takes it farther—sometimes in unexpected ways. The humble wheel led to carts and chariots, and it also led to cogwheels and bicycles and trains and automobiles. It turned into waterwheels and turbines, and it begot astrolabes and clocks and hard disk drives.
Evolution and revolution has also occurred in human communication, driven by a need to connect beyond shouting distance. In the beginning, we tried smoke signals and the beating of drums. As the human mind improved, our ancestors came to realize there might be better, more efficient, more nuanced ways to communicate over long distances.
Semaphore flags and newspapers all found their place in the timeline of communications. But the Cambrian explosion of communications came about in the 19th and 20th centuries, with pioneers introducing all kinds of new systems: rotary printing presses, electric telegraphs, telephones, and radios. Thank you, Mr. Edison and Professor Maxwell, and danke shoen, Herr Doktor Hertz.
Science fiction has also played its part, stirring our imaginations and inspiring innovation. The biggest names in science fiction have been renowned for being ahead of their time in terms of their ideas: the first geosynchronous communications satellite was launched less than two decades after Arthur C. Clarke wrote his article on the topic.
In 1966, the original Star Trek put wireless portable communication on our TV screens and firmly into our collective mind. Of course, the first “mobile phones” were so large the radios had to be mounted in car trunks or carried in a briefcase. And they weren’t cellular: they could connect into the local public telephone network, but they didn’t use base station sites to communicate.
That technology took root in the 1980s. Over the last 30 years we have been accelerating from 1G analog technology to the alphabet soup of digital modulation and multiple-access schemes: 2G had GSM, GPRS, cdmaOne and EDGE; 3G, which is still widely used, has W-CDMA, HSPA, HSPA+, cdma2000, and more; and 4G has OFDMA, SC-FDMA, CDMA, MC-CDMA, and more.
Innovations give us reason to be excited about 4G LTE and the future vision that may become reality in 5G. Big steps forward include spatial processing techniques such as multi-antenna schemes and multi-user MIMO, and these will give way to experimentation with massive MIMO, millimeter-wave frequencies and multi-gigahertz bandwidths.
It has already been a long journey from Maxwell’s equations to the too-large-for-my-pocket smartphone. Moving forward, 5G is expected to enable possibilities like an Internet of Things that may contain tens of billions of connected devices, enabling another technology revolution.
Although the 5G standards are yet to be finalized, a sizable workforce around the world is doing the difficult groundwork, once again turning science fiction into hard science. Here at Keysight, we’re doing our part to support those efforts. And we'll keep writing about it.