You Might Disagree But 5G Is Not About Speed

5G is not about speed.

The U.S. seems to have an obsession with speed. Whether it be for fast cars, fast money or their fast mobile network speeds, consumers in the U.S. are obsessed.

While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it is a thing and when it comes to 5G, consumers will do well to change the narrative and move away from a ‘speed matters’ mantra.

Although speed did matter in the 4G era, it won’t in the future 5G world. That’s not to say you shouldn’t expect faster speeds with 5G as you will certainly get them. But the fact you are getting them is more of a byproduct of the other big benefits of the new-world network technology. The real benefits of 5G.

For now, it's just important to understand that speed is not the goal of 5G. Likewise, it does not technically matter how fast 5G speeds will be. Here's why:

Speed is a misdirection with 5G and it is strange that so many media outlets are honing on that element. They most likely do as a means to try and nab some executive, somewhere providing a sound bite number that they can slap on a headline. If sex sells, then speed is the sex of 5G. The real truth might be more boring but sometimes boring can be sexy all at the same time.

What you need to be focusing on is capacity and latency. Some might argue the latter is more important than the former, and it is for critical infrastructure or when used as the underlying foundations for smart cities, but it is all pointless without capacity - which is the most important benefit with 5G.

You could have the fastest phone in the world, on the fastest network in the world, and therefore capable of downloading at speed-of-light levels, and yet if the channel you are downloading through is narrow enough, the end result will be disappointing. Yes, you will get data quickly, but in an orderly fashion which in turn slows down the arrival of data. It would be in effect, queued - just like your Napster downloads in 2000.

And that’s a very important point as the arrival of data is sometimes confused with how quickly data travels. You only have to look at Aesop's Fables and The Hare And The Tortoise to disprove the fallacy.

Spoiler: The hare is faster, but the tortoise arrives first.

What matters with 5G is not the speed at which data travels but the capacity of data that can travel at the same time. When you then combine this with lower levels of latency the end result is quicker access to data. To the point where the act of sending out a data request and receiving a reply to that request is perceptually non-existent. Most importantly, this is irrespective of the size of the data request. For want of a better word, it is instant data.

If you need a real-world example then take a look at your local takeaway. When the food outlet is miles away then how fast the delivery person can travel and the speed of the vehicle they are travelling in matters, as it affects the time it takes for the food to get to you barring issues like traffic lights, laziness and the driver counting their tips before knocking on your door.

Now imagine that same takeaway location is on your street. Suddenly it would be longer for them to travel at a faster speed (in a car compared to walking) as they would have to walk to the car, open the car, pack the food safely, get in, start the car, get out of the car park, reach the destination, find a parking space, get the food out and make the delivery. When they could have just walked up the street and counted their tips on the way.

The time it took for the arrival of the food in this example is less about the speed at which it travels, but more so the distance it travels.

If you then then take the metaphor to where the same takeaway is now on the other side of your front door, and all you have to do is open the door to get your food, then you are suddenly in the realm of what 5G is promising. It is a near-instant delivery of information. As instant of a delivery as can ever be without not having to actually be delivered.

In principle, the only way it could be faster is if if the data is already present on a device. But even in that instance, speed would not be what mattered. In that situation, speed would matter at all. That's local storage.

Arguably, while the food example example highlights the distance element well it is not an accurate reflection of what 5G is really offering. To really compare, you would need to order from 1000s of delivery places and have all of those delivery people (or robots) show up at the same time and queuing from your door, down the hall, round the block, and probably up the freeway as well. In this example this is what 4G currently offers instead of like 5G which would be the equivalent of having a door wide enough that when you open it all of those 1000s of delivery people are standing there waiting to hand you your food. That's the capacity difference with 5G and what will make it possible to fuel the many new experiences offered by the technology. Ones that require not just more information in general, but all of that more information at the same time.

5G is expected to achieve this primarily through the use of millimeter wave due to its unique benefits of greater capacity and bandwidth. In other words, more data travelling at the same time, and even when more people are connected at the same time, and instantly.

The primary issue with millimeter wave has always been distance (although line-of-sight is a problem too). This is in part due to the use of smaller antennas with millimeter wave which means information not only cannot travel far, but it is also more susceptible to environmental factors en route to a destination. Companies have planned to overcome the former by utilizing many millimeter wave antennas in a single location and this in itself helps to further improve the capacity. Their size also lends well to these antennas being placed in new and more frequent locations instead of central locations that rely more on a farther reach. In this respect, millimeter wave placement won't differ that much from the mesh Wi-Fi systems that are now available. The underlying distribution principle is the same.

It is these distance and susceptibility issues that have in the past stopped companies from deploying millimeter wave with 4G. In the past it was better to rely on lower frequencies that could travel further and more reliably. Even though they came with a narrower capacity.

This is not to say that 5G won’t also use the other frequencies as it will. Arguably it is this all-in approach that makes 5G potentially such an exciting prospect as the combination of frequencies will mean most situations are catered for, and the more centrally positioned you are in a millimeter wave-supported area, the better the experience will be in general. Likewise, the use of a more varied degree of frequency will also be how companies overcome the susceptibility issue with millimeter wave as that still will be an issue in a post-5G launch world.

This combination approach will result in a landscape where the only time speed will matter is when you are in an area that still primarily relies on 4G technology.

That’s because speed matters with 4G, not 5G.

If we are being totally real about it then speed never even mattered with 4G as the issue facing end users has always been capacity. It is just capacity and speed in internet connection terms have always been a point of confusion and most likely due to ISPs and marketing departments opting to use the "faster speeds" phase when they were actually talking about more capacity.

Although this just further argues the case that 5G really is not about speed.

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About the Author
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John Anon

Editor-in-Chief
John has been writing about and reviewing tech products since 2014 after making the transition from writing about and reviewing airlines. With a background in Psychology, John has a particular interest in the science and future of the industry. Besides adopting the Managing Editor role at AH John also covers much of the news surrounding audio and visual tech, including cord-cutting, the state of Pay-TV, and Android TV. Contact him at [email protected]