Here in New York, when you hit “scan” on your car radio, the scanner stops constantly for stations. 93.9 FM, 94.3 FM, 95.1 FM. It’s crowded. But then when you go upstate the scanner will go for seconds at a time looking for a station. Here’s 100.9 FM playing country music. Then maybe up to 107.7 FM, also country music. Then all the way around the dial and back to 94.9 FM, Schenectady’s finest country music station.
Well, it’s the same way with WiFi and cellular data. They are transmitted through the air on the electromagnetic spectrum in the same way radio and satellite TV are. And the current state of the use of the cellular wavelengths is crowded, very crowded.
Like New-York-City-with-an-old-boombox-where-you-have-to-manually-adjust-the-transmitter-and-half-the-time-you’re-getting-two-stations-overlapping-because-they’re-so-close-to-each-other crowded. And it can’t go on like this.
In 2015 the FCC auctioned off some new space on the wavelength spectrum for use by wireless carriers. It wasn’t a ton of space, but enough to lessen the traffic load a bit. The total price the auction went up to? $45 billion, split by the major carriers like AT&T and Verizon.
But what the researchers at NYU Tandon have discovered is that there’s a whole, enormous bandwidth way higher up the spectrum, in the millimeter wavelength area, which might be usable after all.
“In the past it’s been believed that the signals wouldn’t propagate far at those frequencies,” Dr. Sundeep Rangan, an associate professor at Tandon who’s working on the 5G project said in an interview. “But now that we’ve made new measurements, a lot of them being made by [Ted] Rappaport here, these bands could sustain distances even outdoors with obstructions. That attracted a lot of interest.”
The main obstacle right now is that these millimeter wavelengths, shorter and faster than the long, powerful ones we use now, don’t penetrate buildings well. There are some workarounds, such as blasting enough of them out with more transmitters, but in a dense, heavy city like New York, that’s going to run into some real problems.
One solution, Rangan said, would be to have different cellular systems for inside and outside. While outside, our phones would connect to the millimeter light spectrum, and inside could remain on the 4G LTE system we have now. It’s stuff like this that lies at the heart of NYU Tandon’s annual 5G Summit.
But the potential improvements are serious. The millimeter wave spectrum, Rangan says, would not only have a ton more space than the current cellular networks, but could also ratchet up to speeds way faster than anything we’re used to currently. Preliminary tests by Nokia at NYU last year showed speeds up to several Gigabits per second. I just speedtested my phone on LTE and it’s coming in at a respectable 5 Megabits per second. Those orders of magnitude faster could seriously change the way we use our phones.
“You would be able to do what you’re doing now cheaper and more often,” Rangan explained. “If you watch videos on data, that would burn through your plan. Also new applications, if you have 100x more data maybe you start seeing augmented reality or virtual r eality on phones. If you look historically at every time data is improved, it’s hard to tell what applications are going to be adapted to them. I suspect there will be applications enabled by 5G that we can’t imagine right now.”