Back when the 4G network standard was in its infancy, Intel ended up backing the wrong horse in WiMax connectivity. It was a heavy investment and a rare miss for the tech giant, as 4G LTE came to dominate the world of data networks. One can imagine that someone, somewhere at Intel said “never again.”
Intel is at MWC 2015 showing us all the road to 5G networks, and it’ll still be a long one yet — even agreed upon standards for 5G are likely at least a few years away, although the thinking in some circles is that networks will need to have at least 10 gigabit download speeds and latency under 1 ms. Lofty goals, in other words.
So, what’s the deal with 5G? Is 4G really not fast enough to stream movies on Netflix? It turns out, speed isn’t exactly the main issue — it’s load. File sizes are increasing and tons of new mobile devices are being connected to existing networks every year. Add in what will eventually be an enormous data demand from existing and future IoT products (cars included), and that’s an awful lot of data that needs to be downloaded and uploaded. That’s why wireless carriers buy more bandwidth spectrum every year, but the frequency bands that have been allocated to 4G are quickly running out.
5G is being developed for a world in which just about everything is connected — Intel estimates there will be 50 billion connected things by as soon as 2020. That means 5G needs to be faster, but also that it needs to be more robust and efficient. That efficiency part is what could change the way networks work. Right now, we have huge cellular towers (hopefully you live close enough to one) that essentially serve as massive wireless routers. That won’t work as well with millions of devices all trying to use one signal.
This is why carriers have been toying around with personal 4G cell towers, small 4G LTE routers that you can purchase if you live or work in a place with poor reception. Those tiny towers are going to be the future, and there’s going to be a lot of them. Because they’re small, they can be installed in a lot more places without becoming an eyesore. The advantage of having a lot of small towers instead of one big one is that software can be developed to optimize data demand, automatically slowing down data speeds for someone typing in a spreadsheet while boosting speeds for someone streaming a movie. They can also pass on the load to the next group of small towers when someone moves from one place to another. Individual optimization is what will help 5G avoid the load problems of 4G networks, at least in theory.
Of course, this isn’t going to go down without issue. Any time data optimization is brought up, questions of net neutrality will also enter the conversation — verifying that Netflix isn’t being awarded faster transfer speeds than other streaming video sites will become a lot trickier to detect, and a lot of people are going to be rightly concerned about ensuring that no funny business goes on behind the scenes. Oh, and given that this is meant to be a network that will connect all machines, everywhere, get ready for lots of Skynet jokes, too.
One thing we know for sure is that Intel is going to be very active in developing 5G networks. They’re already working with telecoms, consumer electronics manufacturers, and telecom device manufacturers (like Nokia and Ericsson) around the globe to create the chipsets and antennas necessary to make 5G a reality. They’re also investing heavily in those other parts of the network chain. It’s safe to say that this time, Intel’s doing everything they can to make sure they’re on the right side of the bet.