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It’s impossible not to mention 5G when discussing the wireless landscape. As far as the media are concerned, if you’re a wireless company without something to say about 5G, you might as well not bother talking about yourself at all.

One unfortunate consequence of this trend is the under-appreciation of incumbent and still highly relevant 2G, 3G and 4G LTE technologies (with the latter still evolving and providing technologically exciting updates). Another, even more damaging consequence is the lack of a clear definition of 5G technology, leading to confusion, misinformation, and deception.

We see the symptoms of this lack of definition all over the news. In some instances, cellular carriers adopt a bare-minimum standard for what qualifies as 5G and slap some variation of a 5G brand on their service, or local groups organize against carriers deploying “5G” coverage out of long-term public health concerns. In other circumstances, potential buyers of cellular technology deny themselves the solutions they need urgently for business, while holding out indefinitely for the promise of better service.

The problem with 5G is that no one really knows where to set the bar for what counts as 5G. Will it be sufficient to claim 5G service if a carrier moves into the CBRS band – a section of the spectrum that will use higher frequencies than typical cellular signals to provide faster service? CBRS, however, is nowhere near as high frequency as millimeter wave spectrum, which, as you could guess, promises even faster service than CBRS. So where do we set the floor and ceiling for 5G speed and coverage?

In fact, it’s probably too soon to even tackle that question. Before we can even think of enjoying the speeds promised by these technologies, wireless engineers need first to tackle the physics involved in the use of such high frequencies. While higher frequencies do indeed promise better, faster service, their downside is that they have extreme difficulty traveling long distance or penetrating solid objects. At the high end, they struggle to penetrate even the leaf of a plant or a thin pane of glass.

So what does the future of 5G look like? The truth is, we have no idea. It’s an exciting time to be conducting research into wireless technology and tackling the physics roadblocks standing in the way of deployment. Those pioneers stand to revolutionize the way we share data, and even the data-driven economy around which business are built these days.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t neglect the wireless solutions that are available now and which are designed to accommodate the wireless needs we have right now. History has shown that even older cellular technologies like 2G and 3G play an important role in global wireless infrastructure, and holding out for technology down the road may simply mean missing out on the benefits of wireless technology today.

If one thing is for certain, it’s that wireless technology will continue to shape the way we interact with each other and do business. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about supporting 2G, 3G, or 4G, or conducting research and development in 5G. The important thing is that wireless connectivity makes the world go ‘round – and anyone who is a part of that has a right to be proud of what they do.

Jeff More

Author Jeff More

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