By Philip Baczewski, executive director, University IT
Reports are that Verizon is close to making a deal to sign up video providers for their 5G wireless service that's about to be launched later this year. This brings up the question, "what the heck is 5g?" You might just intuit that it's the thing that will replace 4G, but that may not be a complete answer. It follows that 5G must be better than 4G, but what's the actual benefit that we can expect from 5G? To answer that question, you need to talk about one thing: bandwidth.
Bandwidth has acquired a number of meanings over the years, but originally was a term describing the range of a continuous spectrum of radio frequencies and it still maintains that meaning in some circles. However, in relation to information technology, bandwidth is used to refer to the amount of information that can be transferred over a digital medium within a particular timeframe. In casual discussions, bandwidth is sometimes metaphorically compared to a pipe, leading some to describe the internet as a series of tubes. However, this analogy doesn't take into account the time-based factor of IT bandwidth (and the fact that the internet isn't a series of tubes).
Wait for it...
Networking bandwidth, in particular, is usually measured in bits per second (bps). In case you don't remember, a bit is the elemental measure of digital data representing the binary values of either one or zero. Eight bits make up a byte, which is generally equivalent to one character of text. So, a five-character word could be represented in digital data by 5 bytes. This paragraph, so far, can be represented by 385 bytes or 3,080 bits (including spaces and punctuation). Bandwidth will determine how long you have to wait before the entire paragraph can be transferred to your computer. So, a bandwidth of 3,000 bits per second would theoretically transmit the data representing the first part of this paragraph in about one second of time.
My first experience with digital data transfer involved a 300 bps acoustic coupler modem used to connect a terminal to UNT's Hewlett Packard 2000 minicomputer. At that bandwidth, I would have had to wait at least 10 seconds for the first half of the previous paragraph to be fully transmitted, only slightly faster than reading that same text out loud. In those days, you did quite a bit of waiting. When we upgraded to 1200bps modems, that would have cut the transmission time down to about 2.5 seconds, a dramatic improvement in bandwidth. Of course, that was also about forty years ago. Over time, computers and networks have become progressively faster in their ability to transfer data.
The last four decades of bandwidth can generally be partitioned by the types of data that could be commonly utilized over data networks. In the 1980s we still dealt mainly with text, and technologies like email and chat rooms were developed on the nascent computer networks of the time. The 1990s saw the advent of the Internet as a research data network and it became possible to exchange static images as elements of gopher or web sites. The 2000s saw the development of video technologies and the inclusion of moving images as internet content. And in our current decade, we've seen the maturation of streaming media (audio and video) and immersive online gaming. If you experienced the advent of any of those developments, you probably remember waiting to download whatever thing you were trying to access.
The digital revolution we've experienced over the last 40 years has created an explosion in the amount of data we generate and access. The "currency" of data 40 years ago was the kilobyte or 1000 bytes of information. Today we commonly work with files sized in gigabytes (billions of bytes of information) and have storage devices measured in terabytes (trillions). And organizations, like UNT, manage data storage systems measured in petabytes. Just for scale, a petabyte could hold the content of about 200,000 DVDs. This data explosion isn't stopping at petabytes. We already can measure existing data in exabytes (quintillion) and will likely expand our reference point to zettabytes (hexillion), and yottabytes (etc.).
All the Gs
Getting back to the 5G question, you might already know that the "G" stands for "generation" as applied to the networking technologies available in cellular phones. The first widely available commercial cell phones used the 2G standard which allowed for analog voice communication and the transmission of limited amounts of text. The advent of the 3G standard introduced support for higher bandwidths and enabled the transition to digital voice communications and "smart" phones that were capable of internet browsing and online application use. Most current cell phones operate on a 4G standard which allows for streaming movies to our smart phones and also to support multiple streams of information at once. The newly developed 5G standard is anticipated to provide even faster access to data-heavy media such as high-definition video.
The bandwidth speed available on current common end-user network technologies is around 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps). This is the standard speed for most new wired network connections on the UNT campus, and the current Wi-Fi standard (802.11ac) is also theoretically capable of a data transfer rate of 1.3 Gbps. Newest 4G networking standards are reported to be around 1 Gbps. However, most data networks don't operate at their theoretical peak speeds. For example, actual 802.11ac Wi-Fi transfer rates reportedly are closer to 720 Megabits per second or .72 Gbps. On top of that, the available network connection to your house has a download speed that currently is between about 20 - 60 Mbps, not even close to the 1Gbps bandwidth you can easily configure within your home data network.
5G bandwidth is likely to reach 20 Gbps, or 20 times faster than the typical bandwidth speeds currently available. That's also about 1,000 times faster than our typical home broadband network connection. So, companies like Verizon are positioning 5G to be a home service to compete with "wired" services from companies like Frontier, Charter, AT&T and others. This has the potential to disrupt the current home broadband Network and cable TV markets by bringing additional competition for people's entertainment eyes. And, of course, 5G technologies will be coming to mobile phones as well, and manufacturers already are prototyping the technology to support access to the new network speeds.
Speed of Light
We live in a world of increasing amounts of data. It's predicted that the world will generate 163 Zettabytes (see above) of data by the year 2025. For us to consume data, the data must have a way to get to us. But researchers seem to be on the path to solving that problem. It recently was reported that a data rate of 661 Terabytes per second (661,000 Gbps) was achieved through a single strand of optical fiber. I wonder, however, if all of this effort is worth it if we're going to use it only for more likes and tweets.