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5G Wireless Is Coming! OK, What Exactly Does That Mean?

You’ve probably heard some of the hype: if you thought 4G wireless was great, you won’t believe 5G. In fact, the next generation of cell-phone service is already being launched in several U.S. cities. But how does it work? What makes it faster, better, and more efficient than what we’ve got now? And is there a wireless world even beyond that?

As it happens, answers to these questions can be found in Brooklyn, where NYU Wireless, an academic research center at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, is a world leader in the field. The program’s founding director, Prof. Ted Rappaport, just recently won the Radio Club of America’s Armstrong Medal, a prestigious award given for excellence in the field. (Going back in history, Walter Cronkite was a previous winner.) At about the same time, NYU Wireless received the largest grant in its history, a donation from Keysight Technologies that includes an array of cutting-edge equipment to help the school further its pioneering research.

The Bridge spoke with Prof. Rappaport about 5G’s capabilities, how it will affect our lives, and what comes next:

How did you personally get interested in the field?

When I was 5 years old, my grandpa showed me his Philco shortwave radio, and we tuned around for hours listening to ship-to-shore and Morse code. I’ve been hooked on wireless ever since. In college, my PhD research was the first to consider wireless data communications in factory buildings. This work helped develop the world’s first WiFi standards.  

How would you describe 5G to someone who is unfamiliar with the term?

5G is the fifth generation of cellular telephone technology. The first generation occurred in the 1980s, using analog FM and was used mostly just for voice phone calls. The second generation of cellular (2G) was the world’s first cellphone system that sent digital signals over the air, obtaining greater capacity and supporting more cellphone subscribers as the industry grew at 100% subscriber growth per year. 2G is when texting was first used, and Europe, Asia, and the U.S. were split on their choice of technology, so that phones could not operate easily around the world.

The third generation of technology (3G) achieved more efficient use of the radio spectrum, supporting the 30% annual customer growth that occurred throughout the late 1990s and 2000s, and early internet browsing was supported, although it was clunky. And still the world had not unified its technology choice, with two main competitors: a Qualcomm-based CDMA technology, and a European-based UMTS technology that derived from the European GSM standard of the 1980s.



4G is when the world unified the technology choice, standardizing on LTE for phones around the world. 4G is the first wireless standard that truly supported high-speed internet browsing, with data speeds in the tens to hundreds of megabits per second per user, and international roaming capabilities in every handset.

5G will extend wireless connectivity into the range of gigabits per second, enabling fiber-optic speeds over wireless, which will support massive content transfers, driverless cars, new factory automation capabilities, live- stream television and media over our cellphones—and vast new applications not yet envisaged.

5g wireless

Prof. Rappaport led a video tour at the Brooklyn 5G Summit, which NYU Wireless hosted. Click on the image to watch (Video courtesy of IEEE.TV)

Where does NYU Tandon fit in the world of wireless R&D?

NYU Wireless is a global thought leader and research center of excellence, and is supported by the U.S. government and more than a dozen major wireless companies. I was recruited from the University of Texas in 2012, well before the merger between Brooklyn Poly and NYU was certain. My task was to build a center of excellence in wireless communications, since I had done it before in my career at Virginia Tech and the University of Texas. The administrations of Brooklyn Poly and NYU were extremely supportive, and our growth and rise to international prominence was faster than I could have ever imagined.

Our pioneering measurements and theoretical analysis in 2012, which proved to the world that millimeter waves (mmWave) could be used for mobile communications, certainly helped propelled our center to international prominence. Companies around the world were skeptical at first, but when they came to NYU Wireless, they eventually came to believe—and proved to themselves—that we can use spectrum never thought to be useful for mobile communications.

What’s the level of interest among students in wireless technology?

Students today are gravitating more towards machine learning and artificial intelligence, where computers are programmed to make decisions and process huge amounts of data. However, there are still many students excited by wireless, compelled by the magic of wireless.

How will advanced wireless change our urban lives?

Our lives will be greatly enhanced, as new applications and access to information will be faster than ever. Imagine having the speed of the internet connected to your pocket phone. New sensing and monitoring around the city can be used for improvement in safety, efficiency, and economy.

Are there major infrastructure projects necessary to upgrade to 5G?

Yes, as we increase the data rates provided over cellular networks, we must move the towers [that hold the antennas and equipment] closer to where the users are. This means shrinking the height of tall cell towers, and installing more “small cells” that allow for lightweight, low-power stations on lamp posts and small poles. We also will see the creation of low cost “phased arrays” or “adaptive antennas.” These are antennas that will be in our cell phones that automatically steer the signal to wherever the best tower is located, without us knowing it. This will also keep the energy from transmitting to our face.

What will the Keysight Technologies grant be going towards?

The Keysight gift is huge for our wireless center. It gives us the equipment needed to explore the next range of frequencies likely to someday be used for wireless networks, say in a decade from now. Our center is moving beyond mmWave, up to terahertz (THz) frequencies, where there is very little knowledge.  Our new equipment will let us measure to frequencies above 100 GHz. With bandwidths of many GHz, this is so much greater than what most programs are able to do. These tools will let us build and test new systems, and will enable us to test and confirm new theories and principles that can benefit the wireless communications industry, as well as illuminate new concepts in imaging and sensing.  

What are some examples of applications that would use these technologies?

Optical cables are the backbone to global internet communications. As we move to THz, the bandwidths become so great that wireless links could actually approach the data rates of optical cables. This has great promise for providing super high speed communications in rural areas, to cure the digital divide, as well as creating new architectures for cellphone and computer networks. We could even see wireless replacing wiring harnesses in vehicles, and on circuit boards. For medical imaging, there is some compelling evidence that THz could be safer than X-rays or CT scans for detecting problems in the body.