A Step Closer to 5G Technology That Evokes Connected Cars, Virtual Surgery

Imagine a world where wireless technology moves 10 times faster than today.

ByABC News
July 14, 2016, 1:44 PM
Guests interact with laptops at Spring Studios during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 15, 2015 in New York.
Guests interact with laptops at Spring Studios during the Tribeca Film Festival on April 15, 2015 in New York.
Getty Images

— -- It’s a technology that could allow you to download high-definition movies in seconds, connect your car to the internet or even allow doctors to perform surgery remotely.

But before any of that can happen, it needs some airwaves.

With that in mind, the Federal Communications Commission Thursday carved out a chunk of the wireless spectrum for use by 5G technology, which is the next iteration of wireless broadband systems that promises to bring far quicker internet to your mobile phone and other devices.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told a congressional panel Tuesday that carving out the spectrum for 5G wireless "could be the most important decision this commission makes this year."

So what’s so great about it? The answer is pretty simple: high speeds and low delays.

The new standard could see the internet on your phone or other wireless device loading far faster than today’s 4G standard, meaning that buffering music and movies could become a relic of a bygone era.

Faster Mobile Streamlining

The popularity of mobile video has skyrocketed in recent years, and it’s expected to keep growing.

In 2015, mobile video accounted for 55 percent of all data traffic on mobile networks, the tech firm Cisco reported.

By 2020, video will account for 75 percent of the world’s mobile data traffic, the firm predicts.

While the technology is still being developed and it isn’t yet fully known how much faster 5G will be, experts say you can expect it to be at least 10 times faster than the current generation of wireless broadband technology.

The high speeds mean that watching movies or streaming music on your mobile phone will become a far quicker experience, and the resolution of the content could be far higher.

A New Kind of Wireless Home Internet

While Wi-Fi revolutionized the way we access the internet from home by allowing us to roam about our house or apartment wirelessly, it was still dependent on a set-top box that connected via cable, DSL, or fiber to an internet service provider.

By comparison, 5G could cut that cord even further, replacing the broadband modem and router and allowing devices to connect directly.

The 5G technology could provide high-speed internet where traditional ISPs have been unable or unwilling to reach, as well as provide competition where they hold a monopoly, Mike Murphy, chief technology officer for Nokia in North America, said.

“The interesting thing in 5G is that it starts getting closer to the fixed speeds,” he told ABC News, comparing it to traditional home connections that come in over cable or a phone line.

Connected Cars

But it wouldn’t be just phones and computers that could connect, Murphy says. Your new car may be online as well.

“Some cities may look at putting wireless units at, for example, stop lights that the car could communicate with,” he said.

Cars could also communicate with one another, making them aware of where they are and whether a collision is eminent.

All this means that your car could warn you if you’re approaching a red light or about to rear-end the car in front of you, while you’re too distracted streaming videos on your phone, which you should never do while driving, of course.

The 5G technology would also provide much better reliability, meaning connection drops would be far less common, Murphy says.

“Which of course you would need in anything related to cars,” he joked.

Virtual Surgery

Another application of 5G that seems to be straight out of a science fiction novel is so-called virtual surgeries.

Because of 5G’s increased speed and responsiveness (minimal delays), experts foresee a future where a specialist surgeon controls robots to operate on a patient on the other side of the world.

Professor Misha Dohler, head of the Centre for Telecommunications Research at King’s College London, said that 5G would enable “the internet of skills.”

“The internet of skills is the ability to transmit skills remotely; that means physical skills, that means touch,” he said.

“The patient can be in New York, and we can conduct the operation in London,” he said.

Dohler also believes it could affect education, saying. “what you can imagine is a surgeon doing a surgery in one part of the world and students following along from other parts of the world.”

The key here, Dohler says, is 5G's low latency, which is to say a minimalized delay and quick responsiveness. The current generation of wireless technology just isn’t quick enough to perform these kinds of tasks.

“I wouldn’t even get a haircut if I had the delay of a 4G network,” Dohler joked.

Looking Ahead

“There’s some that we can predict, but there’s a larger part that we can’t predict,” Nokia’s Murphy said.

The 5G technology is still being developed, and the possibilities and innovation that it could unlock are still largely unpredictable.

Ten years ago, watching live video on a mobile phone would have sounded like a fantasy to many. Today it is common place.

Whether it is virtual surgery or connected cars, what seems like science fiction could very well be reality in the coming years.