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February 17, 2016
Dark clouds over cloud services reflect pull of legacy technology

January 25, 2016
Biometrics is the latest shield against password hacks

January 6, 2016
Navigating the in-car tech experience

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USAToday Column

February 24, 2016
The why's and what's of 5G

By Bob O'Donnell

BARCELONA — You would think that at the world’s largest gathering of the mobile and telecommunications industry, the Mobile World Congress trade show here, connectivity would be good, even great. However, you would be wrong…horribly wrong.

The terrible reality of spotty-to-non-existent connections is, in part, why one of the hottest topics at this year’s show is 5G, the next (or fifth) generation of wireless networks.

One of the many goals of the proposed new standard — one step beyond today’s 4G LTE standard — is to improve the speed and reliability of our wireless connections. As our dependence and even reliance on devices that use these networks grows, the need to improve the core underlying technologies that drive these connections becomes more acute.

It’s not a task that anyone takes lightly because moving to a major new network requires replacing and/or upgrading all the equipment at the heart of the network, commonly called the network infrastructure, as well as updating the modems and other radio chips in our devices. The only way to do that? Replace our devices.

Given the obvious expense, challenge and time that takes to make all these upgrades, it’s certainly fair to ask, why bother instead of just upgrading our existing networks? It turns out there are a few very good reasons, though most of them have nothing to do with our existing devices.

When the current 4G standard was defined roughly a decade ago, the notion of connected and autonomous cars, as well as the idea of billions of connected sensors being built into devices — or the Internet of Things (IoT) — weren’t serious considerations. Instead, much of the focus was on HD video streaming, video calling, and the like. Now, however, the world of IoT is upon us, and it turns out the network requirements for these kinds of applications are much different than they are for our smartphones, connected tablets, etc.

In order to handle the expected tens of billions of connected devices that will be on the network, and to do so with a real-time response rate, important advancements need to be added. For example, the network has to move from a best effort 100-millisecond response time, to a guaranteed 1-millisecond response time, and that kind of change requires a new network architecture.

It’s a daunting task that many of the best minds at tech and telecommunications continue to work on solving. And it won’t come overnight. Despite some proclamations from various carriers, the final details of 5G haven’t even been completely agreed to and standardized yet, so it will likely be 2020 before we see the first “real” deployments of the new technology.

Once it does arrive, 5G will offer three key improvements. First, as with every new G generation, there will be robust improvements in download and upload speeds across all devices, likely in the range of 10 to 100 times over where we are now. Plus, efforts are being made to make the signals more reliable and more robust — even in crowded trade shows and other dense environments.

Second, the network will be built to handle the billions of IoT devices, many of which will need to be able to run for 10 years on something like a single double-AA battery. That requires ultra-low-power radios and new protocols and means of interaction with devices.

Finally, the response times will be dramatically improved. While we aren’t likely to notice much on devices like smartphones, for applications like autonomous cars, where data about another oncoming vehicle or other hazard has to arrive immediately, this change can literally be life or death.

There’s an enormous amount of effort required to bring 5G to life, but it was clear at this year’s MWC that companies across the spectrum of semiconductor makers, test and measurement companies, networking giants, device makers and service providers are all working towards that goal. Even better, clear progress has already been made.

I can only hope that, as a result, the frustrations created by this year’s connection problems will soon be nothing more than a distant memory.

USA TODAY columnist Bob O'Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, and Nvidia. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.

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