The Need For Speed: Building The Next Generation of Wireless Communication

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Quick: What's the very first question you normally hear when someone visits your house for the first time? In the past, that question might have been something about the year the home was built, or the year you bought it, or maybe even something about the architectural style of the home.

But today, that first question is almost invariably, "Hey, what's your Wifi password?"

Whether we're using the internet for work, education, navigation or social media, we know that it has become a vital part of our lives. No matter where you look, you will see people of all ages holding some sort of smart device (or two!) and using their device sometimes as a phone, but more often as a small computer. It is not an overstatement to say that the internet and the wireless devices that connect us to the internet have become basic necessities - not quite in the same category as food, water and electricity, but pretty darn close. And along with this increase in use and dependency comes the need for faster internet speeds.

Wireless Service and the Need for Speed

The remarkable increase in internet speeds over the past two decades that you can attain with your wireless device is quite literally transforming our world. The first iteration of wireless communication capabilities was 1G (for "first generation"), which emerged around the 1960s. These devices carried only basic voice service at speeds of 2.4 kbps (kilobits per second). Think horse and buggy.

In the 1990s, 2G and 3G devices began to be developed. These devices were designed for voice and some data consideration. Speed jumped considerably from 64 kbps to 2,000 kbps, making it easier to talk and text. Still, these devices were more Model T than they were Ferrari. Then, in 2010, 4G arrived, providing true mobile broadband at speeds up to 100,000 kbps. From 1G to 4G there has been a huge transformation, and now we are looking expectantly to the rollout of 5G. What will this mean? Two words: “more speed!”

Achieving 5G

From 4G to 5G, download speeds will achieve up to 10 gigabits per second. Content that takes minutes to download now will be downloaded in seconds. Entire new businesses will be created, and significant advances will happen in areas of health, energy and public safety due to the ability to connect billions of devices and individuals at high speed. Accenture recently predicted that the birth of 5G in the U.S. will create three million American jobs and drive over $500 billion in U.S. gross domestic product growth.

5G speeds will be valuable for the economy and business, but just as a public highway system requires infrastructure investment to alleviate congestion and ensure traffic flows efficiently, so, too, with the information superhighway. 5G will rely heavily on infrastructure investment in fiber-optic networks and communications equipment to achieve its promise. Faster 5G speeds will depend on higher radio frequencies and greater fiber network densification. There will need to be a vastly increased number of small cell structures on traffic lights, utility poles and elsewhere. These structures, in turn, will be connected and supported by an enhanced fiber network. Underscoring just how important fiber is, the consulting firm Deloitte recently reported that 90 percent of all internet traffic travels over wireline fiber, even if it ultimately terminates on a wireless device.

The Challenges and Opportunities

Although the promise of new technology is exciting, it doesn’t come without its challenges and cost. While 4G requires large cellular towers dispersed every few miles to work effectively, 5G, especially in metropolitan areas, will require a massive deployment of small cell technology – basically, low-powered radio access nodes that increase cellular range and capacity in densely populated urban areas – to enable the network to handle the sheer amount of data transmission. Many Americans may believe we’re living in a wireless world, but 4G and 5G alike rely on infrastructure.

Some streamlining will be in order. The process to obtain a permit to install fiber to support the small cell infrastructure can be lengthy. With so much traffic relying on wireline fiber, it should be installed everywhere we live, work and play. However, fiber passes less than one third of the homes in the U.S., and only 39 percent of consumers have access to more than one broadband provider of 25 Mbps (megabits per second) service – the minimum speed definition of broadband according to the Federal Communications Commission. Adding and expanding Indiana’s fiber networks will help set the stage for consumers to enjoy the benefits of 5G. IFN looks forward to continuing to expand its infrastructure investment in the state to make that higher speed world a reality for Hoosiers everywhere.

James (Jim) Turner is the President and CEO of Indiana Fiber Network.

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