As 5G makes headlines, CMU engineers look to the future

Credit: Matthew Guo/ Credit: Matthew Guo/

"5G moves us to a truly connected society with very high data rates, low latency, and massively interconnected devices," said Carnegie Mellon University Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) Department Head Doug Sicker, as quoted in a January press release.

5G operates on three different spectrum bands (low-, mid-, and high-band) compared to 4G’s two. Sicker, along with Kazi Mohammed Saidul Huq of the Instituto de Telecomunicações in Portugal and EPP Carnegie Mellon graduate student Rohit Singh, is working not to develop 5G technology but to increase the bandwidth spectrum that 5G can take advantage of.

The “G” in 5G stands for “generation,” as in the fifth generation of cellular communications technology. While each generation is defined by certain technical specifications, what’s more exciting to researchers are the ways each new generation of mobile network tech has changed the way we use technology in our everyday lives. 2G gave us text messages and multimedia messages; 3G supported mobile internet; 4G was fast enough for streaming.

“Our work looks to provide massive amounts of new spectrum for IoT [Internet of Things] type services, particularly with bandwidth-intense demands,” explained Sicker.

5G is especially suited for the Internet of Things. While a 5G network can support vastly higher speeds and greater numbers of users than 3G and 4G, the fastest 5G signals can’t pass through walls.

“While this may sound like a disadvantage, containing the signal in a small space like a building or even a room can help multiple users and devices reuse the same spectrum,” reads the January press release on Sicker’s team’s work. “Furthermore, this containment can help keep harmful interference to a minimum, allowing the same frequency to be used from one house to the next without getting in each other's way...5G Advanced opens up a whole new world of possibility for connected indoor devices: smart thermostats and refrigerators, security systems, even integrated sensors to monitor building health.”

Telecom giants are understandably looking to 5G as their next big draw for customers, and things are heating up as widespread 5G draws nearer on the horizon.

On Thursday, Sprint filed a federal lawsuit against AT&T, accusing the company of intentionally misleading customers that their phones were already receiving 5G network speeds.

“Some 5G networks are technically live already,” writes Michael Simon in a PCWorld report, “but they’re limited to home-based broadband and hotspots in certain areas of the U.S…there won’t be…nationwide coverage until at least 2020.”

While AT&T does operate a small number of 5G hotspots, Sprint’s concern is actually with AT&T’s 4G services. While connected to AT&T’s 4G networks, some AT&T devices have replaced the 4G LTE icon with “5GE.” 5GE does not meet the technical definition of 5G — it’s a slightly faster 4G network — but according to AT&T, this stands for “5G Evolution,” as in an evolution in technology that will eventually lead to 5G. “We feel very comfortable with how we have characterized the new service that we’re launching,” said AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson on CNBC Friday morning.

“In its claim, Sprint said it commissioned a survey that found 54 percent of consumers believed the 5GE networks were the same as or better than 5G, and that 43 percent think if they buy an AT&T phone today it will be 5G capable, even though neither of those things are true,” explains Engadget news editor Richard Lawler. “The significance of AT&T’s deception cannot be overstated,” reads the claim.

“We understand why our competitors don't like what we are doing, but our customers love it,” said AT&T in a statement to the press. If Sprint’s suit is successful, AT&T will no longer be allowed to use “5GE” in their marketing.

Rather than using cutting-edge tech to boost corporate rivalries, Carnegie Mellon’s 5G research is fostering international collaboration. Sicker’s transatlantic team represents CMU Portugal, a research partnership program with the Instituto de Telecomunicações in Aveiro, Portugal. "We are excited about this initial work," Sicker said, "and we hope to go after much bigger projects with our colleagues in Portugal in the future."