As modern techn(olog)ical terms go, 3G, 4G, 5G et. al. might be the least commonly understood. Ask three strangers on the street, as I did on a walk to get coffee in San Francisco, what the G means, and you get wildly different, mostly incorrect, responses:

4G is “4,000.” “4,000 what?” “Um, kilobytes?”

4G is “Verizon’s data service.” (Incorrect. Verizon doesn’t own 4G, just like ESPN doesn’t own television.)

4G is “how fast data can move across the network.”

This latter might be the closest the layperson comes. 3G, 4G, and the forthcoming 5G, are like different ways of measuring time, or generations of life. Maybe a better way to say it is that 3G is like Nintendo 64, 4G is like PlayStation 3, and 5G is like virtual reality that hasn’t been invented yet.

Yes, everything about 5G is yet to be realized, but that’s not to say companies aren’t trying. Today, a San Francisco-based company called Turing Robotic Industries (no relation to that Turing, or that Turing) released a “case” called the Turing Armor that boasts 5G connectivity.

The Armor acts as an add-on for Turing’s almost-$1G-smartphone, the Dark Wyvern. The Armor enables the transfer 3.2 gigabytes of data in under 25 seconds across something called “WiGig,” a proximity-based service that uses the near-transportation of data to facilitate these transfers.

This latter number — 3.2 gigs of data in 25 seconds — stands as a rough but handy approximation for the kind of transfer rates that will define 5G capability. But don’t expect to see 5G soon. The main hold-up isn’t in devices, but in infrastructure.

Wireless connectivity is possible because of the spectrum of waves. Essentially, wireless signals travel along waves, like the radio, though across a much larger band than the latter. And like radio, this spectrum is controlled by the FCC and auctioned off to businesses like Verizon, which can then transmit information along those specific slivers of wave spectrum.

The main constraint is how efficient those transmissions can be, how much data can be squeezed out of the sliver. That’s why companies are looking at how to use signals at the currently-unused higher end of the wireless spectrum.

But this approach has its difficulties, because signals sent at the higher end are less broad, more pinpointed. In other words, move and you could lose the signal.

Until companies are able to build transmitters that shoot very small, very high-frequency signals in a near-complete circle of directions, 5G will remain confined to the (rapidly approaching) future.

In the meantime, the race is on to prepare our infrastructure for what 5G connectivity will demand. As quickly as you can say “it’s only a concept” or “only a way to gauge data transfer,” it may no longer be.


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