5G: It's not just for your smartphone

Carnegie Mellon professor says it will take time to really enjoy all that 5G connectivity has to offer.

Expert: 5G connectivity has sped up since the pandemic began

TechRepublic's Karen Roby talked with Swarun Kumar, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, about the future of 5G and his experiences with remote teaching. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

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Swarun Kumar: I think one of the biggest misconceptions I see is almost immediate expectation of faster wireless for you personally, which might not happen because the 5G network in your location might not be deployed yet, or you might not have a 5G compatible phone yet. And even when you do have that 5G network, the infrastructure is constantly being upgraded. So, you might not see the peak speeds that you expect. That's one misconception. Another misconception I see is the thinking that 5G is all about phones, but it's also about new applications that will emerge, including connected devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), smarter cities, smart infrastructure, and so on.

Karen Roby: I think that we're all hoping for it seems so many of us now are working at home, and the kids are learning at home. And so we were just talking about it, my Wi-Fi going out, we have all these issues with us being at home. I think it's interesting to think that we all hope that this is going to be some magic answer, but maybe that's not truly what this will be.

Swarun Kumar: I agree. It's going to take time to set up the kind of infrastructure, the physical infrastructure. Imagine how many towers, imagine the upgrades you need to get a nationwide service up and running. That said it's surprising that 5G deployments have actually sped up a little bit over the pandemic because people have realized the importance of being connected. Connectivity to rural communities, connectivity to underserved communities has become more important than ever before. And part of what's heartening for me is 5G and the network deployments have really taken off. And I hope more of that happens because we need connectivity badly.

Karen Roby: Yeah, we certainly do. We do a lot of interviews on smart cities, IOT, and all of these sensors everywhere now, we've got cameras everywhere. So, the need to have all of these different pieces connected and better connected, it's never been more important. Explain a little bit, if you will, how 5G will enable the smart cities to take off and then also talk a little bit about IoT and how that specifically will change how those devices are enabled and working.

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Swarun Kumar: I think connecting devices and connecting the internet of things is an important pillar of 5G, it's called broadly machine-to-machine communication. Here in Pittsburgh, for example, at CMU, we have a bunch of 5G towers to connect city buses and city infrastructure to the internet, as well as roadside infrastructure. We are trying to scale this up and connect other devices. And there are deployments from private players happening all over the country on connected infrastructure. Primarily for better traffic management, for managing factories, better inventory, as well as enabling some of the architecture and infrastructure we need for things like autonomous vehicles to take off in the future.

Karen Roby: What are some of the bigger roadblocks you see in developing and deploying 5G,? Where do you see some of the hangups or hiccups that we will face along the way?

Swarun Kumar: One of the biggest challenges is uneven coverage. Right now, if you see the two islands of 5G coverage, one has these high-speed millimeter wave networks that are in a few pockets like downtown New York, Chicago, congested places. And then you have more low-frequency coverage that is slightly better than 4G speeds, almost everywhere else. So there's a lot of inequality that's creeping in in how 5G is being deployed, partly because of the spectrum that's available. And this is going to be a problem moving forward to bridge that gap. It's an ongoing area for research, and it's an ongoing challenge for enterprises as well.

Karen Roby: It's hard to talk about where we are in life right now without referencing what 2020 has thrown at us. Expand a little bit, if you would, on specifically how you think the pandemic has helped to accelerate or put some plans on fast-forward, specifically for 5G.

Swarun Kumar: During the pandemic, I think there's been a speed up in infrastructure deployment in general, particularly for connectivity. A lot of our children are remote learning at this time, and we need connectivity for all of our spaces. There are efforts around CMU as well on applying new mesh networking technologies for low-income families in the neighborhoods around Pittsburgh. So, there's a lot of new activity going on and setting up new wireless infrastructure. And it's unsurprising, it's wireless because you need to set up the infrastructure very quickly. And this is one way of doing it and getting connectivity very quickly to a large number of people. That's one outcome of the pandemic, but we still have a long way to go to get nationwide 5G coverage. It is certainly going to be a work in progress for a while.

Karen Roby: You're teaching there at Carnegie Mellon some of the young, new brightest minds in the country, how has the feeling changed over this last nine months, do you think when it comes to teaching and learning, and how things are perceived now, when it comes to technology and things like 5G as a result of this pandemic? How are things changing in the minds of some of those students do you think?

Swarun Kumar: I think it's been a challenging time because we've all had to adapt and very quickly move to a remote learning experience, remote teaching experience. I've had students set up home projects and home labs almost like assembling circuits, like Legos, setting up their own wireless devices at home and doing some home augmentation and home automation, using some of the tools that we sent to them. So, it's been a different learning experience from what they would do normally, sitting together in a lab. Collaborating has been a bit of a challenge. Everything is over Zoom these days, but there are also new opportunities, right? I could not imagine setting up a project where students automate their homes, but I could do this now. Also, since I teach a networking course and a computer networking and wireless networking course, the importance of setting up your wireless network has never been more stark than during these times. So, in a sense it's made them appreciate what we do a lot more.

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TechRepublic's Karen Roby talked with Swarun Kumar, assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, about the future of 5G and his experiences with remote teaching.

Image: Mackenzie Burke