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Better call connections and faster speeds. That’s what major carriers like AT&T, U.S. Cellular and Verizon are promising with the rollout of 5G in Knoxville and across hundreds of towns in their service areas.
The beginning of the U.S. 5G network came online in 2019 but the pandemic caused significant setbacks for building and upgrading wireless infrastructure. Every 5G provider is in a different phase of development.
In Knoxville, 5G is in its infancy. But once the infrastructure has been established, the technology will lead to new inventions and innovations.
“What I get excited about is the unknown,” said Lori Dawson, senior director of services engineering for U.S. Cellular.
How does 5G compare to 4G? We decided to test it all over Knoxville. Here’s what we found
In her 30 years working in the wireless industry, Dawson did not anticipate the rise of mobile streaming video or ride share, both possible as a result of 4G.
“A year from now, we’ll probably be talking about something new that has come out of 5G,” Dawson said.
What’s possible with 5G?
5G is the latest technology for broadband cellular networks. The “G” stands for generation. Each generation of technology is used to build communications infrastructure — ensuring that computers, mobile devices and phones can talk to each other seamlessly.
Over the summer, AT&T agreed to build a 5G network at University of Tennessee Research Park at Cherokee Farm, with eventual plans to expand the connectivity to the rest of campus, including places like Neyland Stadium, where it is tough to make a call on game days.
Expanding 5G on campus isn’t just about convenience for callers. Researchers plan to use Cherokee Farm as a testing site for potential applications of 5G technology in public safety, virtual reality and agriculture.
The 5G network creates the infrastructure necessary for new technologies that process a lot of data, said Ozlem Kilic, associate dean for academic and student affairs at UT.
“Augmented reality and virtual reality were attempted a decade ago but the technology wasn’t there to make it practical,” Kilic said. “There were no platforms that were able to handle them at fast speeds.”
What’s actually different about 5G?
In every decade since the 1980s, there has been a new generation of mobile technology.
- 1G supported analog voice calls, used standard radio waves and was unencrypted
- 2G shifted to digital transmission, which encrypted calls
- 3G enabled the widespread adoption of smart phones with more bandwidth
- 4G enabled mobile broadband access
“If you think back to like 2010, we didn’t have Uber and we didn’t have Lyft at the time,” Dawson said. “That’s really a byproduct of 4G.”
What will become a byproduct of 5G? That’s up to its users.
5G works differently from every other mobile technology generation that came before it, combining new and existing radio transmission technology to create faster data transmission.
5G transmitters connect to a fiber optic backbone, so data is transmitted directly to a high-speed network, rather than through older, copper-based telecom cables.
“With 4G … there can be a fair amount of delay before it (your signal) can actually get to a server that you might be interested in,” said Sundeep Rangan, associate director of NYU Wireless, a wireless engineering research center at New York University. “For most applications, like watching a video on your phone, that delay is no problem at all.”
But Rangan said eliminating that delay is critical for future applications, like remote surgery, drones or autonomous vehicles.
“If a car was being controlled through the cellular network, it needs that faster response,” Rangan said. “It needs a much faster timescale than what humans interact at.”
This means a dense fiber network is essential. Without it, 5G providers would have to build fiber to their transmitters, lease fiber from a third party or use relay towers to “bounce” high-speed signals into coverage areas.
“Otherwise it’s just a big, fast pipe that gets choked when it gets to the tower,” said Ernesto Falcon of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “A really fast, gigabit, 5G network is basically a fiber network.”
As the Knoxville Utility Board rolls out fiber into rural areas, that could mean more possibilities for 5G in more places. Jay Miller, a spokesperson for KUB, confirmed to Knox News that the utility would consider leasing access to 5G providers.
5G uses radio signals differently
All wireless technology uses radio waves to transmit information. Radio waves range from very low energy to high energy.
All the previous generations of phone technology used roughly the same part of the low energy radio spectrum to communicate, traditionally near the 1 gigahertz range.
5G devices can use radio waves from 1 gigahertz up to 30 gigahertz. This is what enables 5G to handle more data transmission.
The higher the energy of a radio wave, the more information you can transmit. But higher energy radio waves have a shorter range and can get blocked by mountains and hills. Low energy radio waves travel farther and can pass through solid objects.
“The more data you want to push, the harder it becomes because of physics,” Falcon said. “The higher the frequency the more it starts adopting the properties of light.”
This means that a 5G signal broadcast at 30 gigahertz can be “aimed” in a “beam” of radio waves in a single direction. Institutions, companies or groups could make their own private 5G networks that do not connect to, or interfere with, other networks, serviced by the same antennae.
“You need very smart antennas that can have multiple beams for what we call multi-input, multi-output,” said Aly Fathy, a professor of engineering at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville who studies wireless technology. “The beams will be moving very, very fast.”
What are the limitations of a 5G network?
These higher energy radio signals have limitations. The first is distance. Radio beams can be scattered by water vapor in the atmosphere. Solid objects, like tree canopies, buildings and hills, absorb radio waves of this frequency, blocking the signal.
So for highest-speed data transmission, devices need to be within several hundred feet of a transmitter.
There are three ways to compensate for this. One is putting lots of lower-powered transmitters capable of producing radio beams over an area. This would give a 5G device the ability to find more transmitters.
Another way is to build 5G off existing 4G service, using some of the same radio frequencies of 4G on the new network. Cell companies advertise this as low-band 5G.
“We’re using 4G as the backbone for the 5G network,” said Karen Schultz, a spokesperson for Verizon. “It does require new hardware and software but the chipsets in our devices will choose the best network for the area you’re in.”
A third way is to run signal in the 6 gigahertz range. These are called mid-band 5G. Low-band 5G can cover roughly the same sized geographic area as 4G. Mid-band 5G can cover a slightly smaller area and is less prone to obstructions but still allows faster data transmission than 4G.
“The real sweet spot is mid-band because of those tradeoffs,” said Dawson. “With high-band, you might not reach a city block.”
5G in rural areas will mostly be carried on low-band transmissions, which means it will cover a wide geographic area but doesn’t have top data transmission speed. Because it’s not financially viable for wireless carriers to blanket the countryside with millions of tiny transmitters, most areas 5G will function like a slightly faster 4G.
Devices will notice and try to switch over to higher speed service as it becomes available.