5G is coming fast. The next generation of global wireless networks is presumably going to power everything from huge networks of agricultural sensors and self-driving cars to augmented reality in homes.
Today, Intel announced a test platform that will support the core radio technology for 5G—5G NR—this December, even though the standard won't be fully baked until next year, and we won't see real 5G rollouts until 2019. What's more, this may be the 5G tech used in the iPhones of 2020.
Intel's new Mobile Trial Platform is the kind of thing we need to use to get to those rollouts, according to Asha Keddy, VP of client and IoT business and systems architecture, and GM of next generation and standards at Intel. The company's test platform—along with similar units from Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm and other vendors—lets wireless carriers make sure all their planned equipment will work together, preventing embarrassing glitches when they flip the switches.
"We're working with infrastructure partners like Ericsson and Nokia as the standard is being set, so we can make sure that the needs of the infrastructure partners are met and we don't have mistakes," Keddy said.
5G-compatible gear is starting to spread through the industry. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told us that his carrier is starting to bolt up 5G-upgradeable base stations on its new 600MHz rural cell sites.
Intel's new boxes have some pretty cool tech inside. They're partially based on FPGAs, essentially reprogrammable processors that can change shape based on their code. FPGAs tend to be slow and less efficient than dedicated chips, but the technology is perfect when you're designing a processor for a standard that's evolving while your hardware is in place.
Because pre-5G doesn't fit into anything small quite yet, the trials we're hearing about generally have to do with home or outdoor installations. Intel is delivering AT&T DirecTV over pre-5G in Austin and home internet over pre-5G in Indianapolis, and we saw a 5G demo in Finland earlier this year (video below) that streamed a 360 camera to a distant VR headset.
But Intel's worth keeping an eye on in part because of its growing relationship with Apple. Last year, Apple turned to Intel to provide half the modems in its iPhone 7 series, making it Intel's largest phone client, and we expect that relationship to grow. Intel's 5G may thus become Apple's 5G.
Rise of the Machines
Trying to guess what the big uses of 5G will be now is like trying to guess what LTE was going to be like in 2006, says Rob Topol, general manager for Intel's 5G technology and business group. You can make some guesses based on what the network is built for, but the applications are going to develop later.
When Intel and others were planning 4G, for instance, "we were focusing on devices that would require extreme productivity … a laptop, a productivity device; surely a smartphone was not going to be the focus point," Topol laughed. "The smartphone was really a novelty device, and we didn't know what it was capable of yet."
But mobile social networking, media delivery, and image sharing turned out to be the dominant uses of 4G. For 5G, Topol is betting on machine-to-machine communications changing the world. This means self-organizing, self-monitoring systems, whether they're autonomous cars or smart city power grids.
"As you go into the next decade, we're going to go into an area where more of the machines talk to each other directly," he said. "A lot of that information doesn't need to go up into a core network." That sort of direct, device-to-device networking is much easier with 5G than 4G, he said.
But just as you didn't see Snapchat until 4G had really gotten going, some of the more transformational uses of 5G may not crop up until a few years in—especially because the 5G standard is divided into two releases, about two years apart. 5G providers will focus on "enhanced mobile broadband" for the first few years, with the machine-to-machine stuff coming later, Topol said.