How 5G mobile data will enable the next generation of VR, autonomous cars and more

The most exciting technologies of the next few years are hungry for data—more of it, and faster than ever. Here’s how 5G makes them possible


Sports fans high-fiving one another through their smartphones

(Illustration by Yarek Waszul)

Imagine a stadium full of people playing Pokémon Go, the augmented reality game that has sucked millions into “capturing” virtual monsters on their phones. Now imagine all those people connected to and playing against one another at the same time in the same place, like at the Olympic opening ceremonies.

Such a mass-scale feat would be impossible today, since the wireless networks currently in use couldn’t handle the load. All those spectators bunched up and using their phones at once would have a hard time simply getting online to check their email, let alone connecting to one another for a massive multi-player game.

But wireless technology experts are envisioning such activities becoming commonplace soon. They’re seeing the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo as a coming-out party for 5G, the fifth-generation wireless network that will enable large-scale augmented and virtual reality gaming, video and more.

Unlike the move from 3G to 4G (also known as Long-Term Evolution, or LTE), this next step in wireless technology is expected to be revolutionary rather than evolutionary, especially when it comes to media consumption and creation. Gaming is only the tip of the iceberg.

“You can now think the unthinkable,” says Ronald Gruia, director of emerging telecom research at analysis firm Frost & Sullivan. “It’s going to open up a brand new set of applications you couldn’t do before.”

The road map to 5G is still in the early stages of development, but with network operators, equipment suppliers and standards bodies beginning to run tests, its unique capabilities are becoming more apparent. Carriers, including NTT Docomo in Japan and South Korea’s SK Telecom, are leading the charge, but their counterparts in Europe and North America aren’t far behind. Rogers, Telus and Bell have all been involved in the standards-setting process. In 2015, Telus opened a 5G “living lab” in Vancouver while this past July Bell announced testing and an expected rollout in the next five to seven years.

As with previous technology jumps, larger data capacities and faster speeds will be big features. The 5G networks are expected to offer peak connections of around 20 gigabits per second (Gb/s) and standard speeds of 1 Gb/s, or about 60 times faster than what many existing 4G networks are delivering today. The 5G networks are also expected to more efficiently manage traffic, which means they’ll be able to handle more of it.

The defining characteristic of 5G, however, will be its low latency. While connection speeds determine how fast information travels over a network, latency measures the delay between data leaving a sender and arriving at the receiver. Low latency is therefore vital for real-time communications such as phone or video calls or multi-player gaming.

The early target for 5G is latency of less than one millisecond—or 10 times better than current LTE. While online gaming and other real-time applications work on LTE, 5G aims to provide a rock-solid base that network operators, device makers and software developers can rely on, paving the way for applications that might be considered too complex today.

At a demonstration staged at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, for example, a robotic arm was given human-like reflexes through the deployment of 5G technology. The arm, which was connected wirelessly to vision sensors, was able to catch balls dropped in front of it. The exact same robot regularly missed balls when connected using 4G.

This sort of low latency is expected to be a key advancement in the shift toward increasingly autonomous vehicles, providing cars with the ability to sense one another and react in time to prevent accidents.

Low latency will also enable and improve Internet of Things applications. Video doorbells and home security cameras, for example, won’t have the same lag when connecting to users’ smartphones as they do today.

When combined with better speeds and more throughput, lower latency is also expected to enable ubiquitous augmented reality, virtual reality and video.

“You’ll be able to stream full-motion high-quality video while on a train that’s going 250 kilometres an hour,” says Lawrence Surtees, research vice-president for communications at analysis firm IDC. “You can’t do that now.”

Another of 5G’s expected benefits will be “network slicing,” allowing wireless carriers to reserve portions of their networks for specific applications, keeping them separate from regular Internet traffic.

Carriers could, for example, dedicate a portion of their networks to self-driving cars or even mobile gaming, so that those functions work regardless of how much general traffic is flowing over the airwaves.

That is likely to be good news for carriers, who will be able to sell that specialized quality of service to application providers—and potentially beneficial to consumers, who won’t see their important services slowed when networks are otherwise congested.

“Vendors aren’t going to be able to treat this as [just] a technology upgrade,” says Gruia. “It has the potential to be a game-changer for business models.”

But 5G won’t come without trade-offs. With existing networks already using most of the available wireless frequencies, 5G is going to have to start off on the higher end of the radio spectrum—in the gigahertz (GHz) bands, rather than the megahertz ones many current networks primarily operate on.

The higher bands are good for relaying lots of data in densely populated open spaces—say, a stadium—but they are notoriously bad at penetrating walls. Therefore, 5G is likely to be more useful outdoors and in big cities until carriers are able to shuffle existing frequencies and networks around, a process that will likely take years.

“Nobody is going to build a 5G network at 28 GHz or 30 GHz or 60 GHz [super-high frequency] that covers the entirety of Canada. It’s simply not feasible to do that,” says a carrier executive who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It has very specific use cases attached to it—it’s not the answer for everything.”

The Tokyo Olympics, with its potential for a mass-scale augmented or virtual reality demo, may be the perfect showcase for what the technology will get right, but it could be a while before the full benefits of 5G reach the masses.

The Japanese capital is “nirvana in terms of density,” the executive says, “but Tokyo is not Toronto or Toledo.”