Some Reservations About Samsung’s 5G Speed ‘Breakthrough’

Like a shop owner anticipating Christmas in July, Samsung Electronics says we'll hit 5G cellular network speeds by 2020.

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Like a shop owner anticipating Christmas in July, Samsung Electronics is this morning touting new technology it claims will allow it to usher the world into the 5G era by 2020. If you can stand to wait seven years, the company’s talking about core “adaptive array transceiver” technology that delivers so-called fifth generation speeds “up to several hundred times faster” than today’s 4G networks.

What’s that translate to in download speeds? Up to “several tens of Gbps per base station,” says Samsung, adding that this could allow users to sling around vast data files and ultra-HD movies “practically without limitation.” (In other words, Shazam!)

The new technology reportedly solves limitations with millimeter-wave bands (operating at high frequencies) transmitting data over long distances due to atmospheric attenuation. (I don’t pretend to understand the atmospheric physics, but it involves, among other things, radio signals and the resonance of oxygen molecules, as well as “rain fade,” where radio signals are absorbed by ice, rain and snow.) Samsung says it’s been able to successfully work around this by using 64 antenna elements transmitting data at 1.056GBps at a frequency of 28GHz for up to 2 kilometers (a little over a mile).

All well and good, but before we get all rapturous about downloading ultra-HD content in a blink, let’s revisit an arguably bigger problem we haven’t solved still, today — a problem higher speeds will only exacerbate.

Imagine you’re zipping down the Interstate, and say the speed limit’s 80 m.p.h., but you’re — did I say zipping? — actually creeping along at half that because, you know, two lanes and rush hour — a real bumper-to-bumper slog. That’s what my smartphone’s data connection sometimes feels like living in a college town, say on (football) game day, during any of the city’s big summer festivals or, you know, when school’s in primetime session seven months a year.

The trouble’s not that my 4G smartphone or tablet connection isn’t fast enough (in theory) to instantly stream high quality videos and music — even a 3G connection’s capable of competently handling services like Netflix or Spotify, after all — it’s that these connections often live down to worst-case expectations because the towers are simply overcrowded.

The reason cell service providers are putting the kibosh on unlimited data plans (and raising usage costs for their real bugaboo, data tethering) has as much to do with crowd control as scraping a little extra from our purses. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: The faster you make mobile communication technology, the more likely people are to use it and the more likely the network’s going to choke.

When it’s not choking, there’s the data threshold question: A few weeks ago, someone I know sent me a short link to a video. I was at a park on my smartphone and clicked the link expecting YouTube to appear. Instead, the browser clocked for a few seconds, then stopped. I tried the link again, got the same thing and gave up. A short time later, my phone started popping text alerts: first that I’d exceeded 50% data usage, then 75%, then 90%. I panicked and reset the phone, called my carrier to investigate, then realized what must have happened: the person sending that email was linking to an actual mongo-sized video file, but since it was in a format my smartphone didn’t recognize, the download process happened in the background. By clicking that link, I’d initiated a multi-gigabyte data burn, thus wiping out most of my family plan’s monthly allotment in well under an hour (as well as clogging up my phone’s remaining free local space).

Accidents happen, shame on me, and lesson learned, but you get the point: not only did the phone fail to indicate it was downloading something, but my lightning fast 4G connection turned a molehill into a mountain in no time flat — a mistake that, had I not reset the phone and terminated the background download, might have cost real money (to say nothing of my ability to use the phone’s data capabilities until the monthly cycle reset).

As long as we have data thresholds that trigger financial penalties, as long as towers are congested by increasing numbers of data users accessing ever larger files and data streams, and as long as we’re trying to do all that on devices with paltry local storage, it won’t matter how fast the motor goes. I wish we’d hear less from companies like Samsung about how magical things are going to be in six or seven years, and more about how they’re working to solve data capacity issues and prohibitive usage thresholds today. I’d happily trip along at 3G speeds through 2020 and beyond if they were dependably 3G, all the time, and let me work — phone, tablet, laptop, whatever — without worrying about usage penalties.