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5G Speeds: The New Digital Dividing Line Between the Haves and Have Nots

by Adriana Lee | May 14, 2013May 14, 2013 4:00 pm PDT

5G speeds

The news of Samsung’s successful 5G technology tests is positively droolworthy. According to the company, the data can travel at more than a GB per second over a distance of more than a mile.

This sparks so many questions. How are such speeds possible? (Via millimeter waves, or the lower bands of the highest radio frequencies.) When will it be ready to enter the market? (In 2020, says Samsung.) Is it really possible to cover such a broad area without attenuation, or signal degradation/interference?

To that last one, the company says absolutely yes. But experts like Forbes writer and electrical engineer Nigam Arora aren’t so convinced. He just can’t wrap his brain around how Samsung’s transceivers would be able to pick up the signal so consistently, over such a long distance, without attenuation. But Samsung is supremely confident in its technology, and if that pans out, we’re talking about speeds that could be several hundred times faster than current 4G.

The idea of being able to download a whole movie in one second is mind-bending, especially when you consider that so many people live in areas still saddled by Edge speeds. That’s the rub. Like its predecessors, 5G-capable networks would have to be built out. That may be a simpler matter in a smaller geographic region like South Korea, but in a country like the U.S., with broad swathes of lower population areas, it’s a tricky proposition. Many of these regions can barely get 3G coverage, much less 4G/LTE, which still remains a pipe dream in most places outside of big cities. Can they get up to speed in seven years with 5G? That’s anything but a sure bet.

What’s extremely likely, however, is that developers will take full advantage of the faster speeds and create innovative, data-heavy applications. These could include things like new ultra-high definition content channels, robust games, augmented or even virtual reality applications, high-capacity cloud initiatives and much, much more. Exciting new things will come down the pike, some of which will be irresistible for users. While that’s an exciting proposition, it also means that it will only take moments to lay data caps to waste. (Heck, even if the app inventory remains the same, the sheer volume of streaming content could do that anyway.)

Samsung is quite confident about its version of 5G, and even if it doesn’t pan out, there are others working on it. It will definitely come, whether by 2020, as the tech company promises, or some other time. The big question is, will we be ready for it when it finally gets here? With our current pace of infrastructure expansion, I’d have to say, “No.” And considering the carriers’ penchant for capping or throttling data usage, I’d have to say, “Heck, no.”

The conversation about the digital divide used to be all about populations that had Internet access, versus those that didn’t. As it is, that scenario hasn’t entirely gone away, but as more people back away from computers for smartphones and other mobiles, the new dividing line seems to be drawn in the cellular sand. And if that’s the case, then the massive leap to 5G means we could be looking at a whole new digital divide with its own breed of mobile haves and have-nots.

In other words, if existing conditions remain the same, only the privileged few in major urban areas with money to burn will really be able to enjoy the benefits that 5G could offer. The rest of us will have to wait — either due to where we live or because of what we can afford. It will trickle down to the masses at some point, that’s inevitable. When, exactly, that will happen…well, that’s the real question.


Adriana Lee

Adriana is the resident writer-slash-culture vulture who has written about everything from smartphones, tablets, apps, accessories, and small biz...

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