Ask the Engineer: Phones and 5G

Shane Tews dropped by the High Tech Forum podcasting studio for an episode of “Ask the Engineer”. We talked about the key points raised in the webinar with Tom Evslin, Barry Shein, and John Day and then went into the issues in the 5G deployment.


The webinar highlighted the key differences between the Internet the old telephone network. The Internet was designed to connect people with information, so its tolerance for variations in transmission quality is quite vast. The information may come to you fast and may come to you slowly, but as long as the information is correct it’s a victory.

The telephone network carries an implicit contract about call quality, so the telephone network won’t connect a call without a full set of resources. This lead Tom Evslin to say the Internet “bends before it breaks”, the opposite of what the telephone network does under load.

The telephone network is organized around an application, while the Internet is simply a platform that can be used to convey many types of information at the best quality it can muster. While it can be optimized for specific applications, this is secondary to the interaction between agents (usually people, but not always) and information, which is always present.

The fast lanes issue came up because it’s so irrational. The Internet is organized around several tiers of service, both from the consumer point of view and that of information providers. Each provider can buy as much performance as they wish, ranging from shared hosts, solo hosts, and public CDNs to full-blown private networks such as those owned by Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, and Google (“FANG”).

So where’s the beef?

5G Development

5G is rapidly approaching, with services in the offing for 2019 even before the standards are complete in 2010. 5G enables carriers to use higher frequencies – “millimeter waves” and above. It also aggregates frequency bands, and even reaches into unlicensed spectrum.

5G is faster than 4G, with much less latency (delay.) It’s obviously going to open up new applications and new business models like “network slicing” but most of its effects can’t be foreseen.

There’s a lot of civil engineering in 5G, so access to easements, rights of way, municipal infrastructure, poles, and conduits are issues. 5G will have an impact on government revenues, so there are tradeoffs between short-term income from fees and long-term income from job creation and economic growth.

In many ways, the non-tech side of 5G is more challenging than the tech side. The benefits won’t be readily discernable for some years because it’s a paradigm shift in the way network services are provided and sold.

In the weeks to come, I’ll talk to some of the people developing the standards to see how they frame the issues. This podcast is about 35 minutes long, so enjoy it on your commute.