To better understand the pace at which mobile wireless technology has evolved, consider the branding challenge faced by Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas. 

An industry trade organization based in Bellevue, 5G Americas counts representatives of AT&T, Nokia, Samsung, Sprint, and T-Mobile as its members, and works to champion the advancement of mobile wireless technology throughout North, South, and Central America.

Originally called 3G Americas when it was founded in 2001, the organization rebranded itself as 4G Americas in 2010 with the rise of 4G wireless service. Three years ago, another name change: 4G Americas became 5G Americas in anticipation of the next generation of wireless technology — namely, 5G.

For Pearson’s organization, updating its website and business cards is just part of doing business, especially if it means improved mobile wireless connectivity, which each generation of wireless mobile technology — from nascent analog 1G and digital 2G in the 1980s and 1990s, to more robust 3G, 4G, and LTE in the early 2000s — has promised over the years.

The rise of 5G is no exception, with the nation’s four major wireless telecommunications companies — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon — competing to be the first to offer the most comprehensive 5G service in cities across America. The prize? The earlier a carrier can roll out the service, the sooner it can lure customers and capture a larger marketshare.

“There certainly is a lot of emphasis, energy, effort, and funding by the big national carriers to launch 5G commercially,” Pearson observed.

AT&T began offering limited 5G service to its customers in 12 American cities in December and added another seven cities this spring. 

Verizon announced in April it would offer 5G service to its customers in 30 American cities by the end of this year. Verizon already provides 5G services in Chicago and Minneapolis, and the company began this spring to accept pre-orders for a 5G smartphone manufactured by Samsung.

Sprint plans to launch mobile 5G service in nine U.S. cities by the end of June, while also advocating for a merger with T-Mobile that would build “a broad and deep nationwide 5G network.”

Bellevue-based T-Mobile plans to offer 5G services in 30 U.S. cities by the end of this year.

The cities tapped for 5G deployment are poised to benefit from a range of wireless service improvements, such as faster and more improved connectivity.

What’s the difference between 4G, LTE, and 5G?

First deployed commercially about a decade ago, 4G (4th Generation) and LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology uses low-frequency radio waves to provide signals that can travel long distances to connect devices and transmit data. 

In contrast, 5G technology uses smaller cells and antennas, as well as high-frequency radio waves, to support large volumes of data much faster than 4G. Still, those high-frequency radio waves travel shorter distances, requiring more cells and antennas to be placed in more strategic locations in cities.

Commercial 5G service was rolled out in earnest earlier this year. According to one industry analyst, there will be 336,000 5G connections in North America by the end of 2019. That number is expected to increase to 32 million in 2021, and 186 million in 2023.

Yet, as of May 1, Eastside cities (and even Seattle) have been omitted from these announcements. 

In Washington state, carriers have just dabbled in offering 5G service. Two years ago, Verizon offered 5G home-based service to a select number of Kirkland residents on a short-term, months-long trial basis. Last September, T-Mobile deployed a low-band, 5G wireless signal in Spokane.

That doesn’t mean local municipalities aren’t preparing for 5G’s arrival.

One example of this is in Bellevue, where representatives of the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce, the City of Bellevue, major wireless service providers, and other industry officials formed a stakeholder group last year and worked to revisit the permitting process, as well as city codes and license agreements, that would facilitate the deployment of
5G service.

“The wireless carriers, as well as some of their contractors who install the infrastructure, had a real hard time, not just in the city of Bellevue, working to put a process in place,” Bellevue Chamber president and CEO Joe Fain explained. “The stakeholder group worked with the city in a really productive way to frame this issue from a permitting perspective to an economic development perspective.”

What are the key benefits of 5G wireless service?

Basically, network speed, capacity, and availability.

5G technology’s enhanced mobile broadband aims to provide download and upload speeds 20 times faster than 4G LTE service. Also, machine-to-machine communications, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT), can support billions of connected devices, an improvement upon the hundreds of millions of IoT devices supported today. And ultra-reliable, low-latency technology reduces the lag time between inter-device communications.

Yes, this means faster downloads of entertainment such as movies, television shows, and video games, as well as fewer instances of scrambled buffering during HD video conference calls. But there’s a much more nuanced significance, according to industry experts. Remote medical procedures such as surgeries, as well as emergency response exercises, could be performed data-intensively and in real-time and more safely.

“My favorite is data-intensive augmented reality,” Gordon Cook, Verizon’s director of network engineering, explained. He envisioned a scenario where a firefighter outfitted with augmented reality goggles powered by 5G technology could enter a burning building and, in real time, see a translucent map of the structure’s floorplan, rooms, and staircases that enable a faster navigation and rescue. “I just think there’s a lot of good you can do in the world with data-intensive augmented reality. It’s really only limited by our imagination.”

“If you ask what will happen for the average person using a smartphone, yes; 5G will be faster,” added Chris Pearson, president of Bellevue-based 5G Americas, which works to champion the advancement of mobile wireless technology throughout North, South, and Central America “But there is more to the story for 5G. It looks to have bigger benefits for society. If you look at the bigger picture, governments around the world have prioritized 5G because of its technological, economic, and societal benefits.”

According to Gordon Cook, Verizon’s director of network engineering, and a member of the stakeholder group, carriers typically require standard things from local cities and governments in order to build the infrastructure for 5G service, such as an ordinance and master lease agreement (either updated or new) that allow carriers to place 5G-capable small cells and wireless antennas on utility poles in public rights-of-way, install new poles equipped with the 5G infrastructure, and lay fiber underground. 

“The Bellevue Chamber and the city council really got on board and are pretty positive about what 5G can do for their community,” recalled Verizon’s Cook. “They are pretty forward-looking. We kind of took our 5G story to them and said, ‘Hey, in order to roll out this new technology, we need (some things).’ We worked extensively with them. Some cities are struggling a little bit with turning around permits. Bellevue is making a really good-faith effort to kind of get out in front of it.”

In January, Bellevue City Council amended the city’s ordinance and license agreement related to telecommunications, which would allow carriers to move forward with deploying 5G infrastructure in the city.

“It was important to me and my colleagues to make this a priority for the city, and staff worked with providers to create a more streamlined approach to the process,” Bellevue City Councilmember Jared Nieuwenhuis explained.

So when will Bellevue residents and business owners be able to tap into 5G?

“Boy, isn’t that the question?” Fain said. “We are going to go back to our stakeholder group and our friends in the wireless industry and talk about what the next steps are for making sure that Bellevue is on the map when it comes to 5G implementation.”

As for when 5G Americas might be rebranded to 6G Americas, Pearson intimated it would be a long time before the organization needs to again update its business cards.

“We are at the very beginning stages of 5G,” he explained. “Having said that, there are some academics and researchers just starting (to look) beyond 5G. But there’s a large runway and roadmap of innovation that is just now starting on 5G.”  

How can I learn more about the future of 5G on the Eastside?

On June 21, the Bellevue Chamber of Commerce’s annual day-long Eastside Leadership Conference will be devoted to one topic — The Power of 5G: How Next Generation Wireless is Shaping the Future. The conference will explore how sectors such as education, healthcare, real estate, and transportation are poised to capitalize on 5G service.