Two new wireless technologies are offering potentially important advantages for the audiovisual industry. 5G and Wi-Fi 6 have slowly become released and used over the past year. These technologies will both continue to spread in 2020 and beyond.
Many of us have likely heard of 5G as it’s been regularly in the news over the past year. Let’s take a moment to clarify the differences between it and what most of us are currently using, 4G LTE. We will start with the terminology. The G simply stands for the generation of the technology. 4G is the fourth generation and 5G is the fifth. For technical, financial and logistical issues, most cellular changes take a longer time to fully saturate the market (if they ever do). This is the situation with 4G, and why the LTE (long-term evolution) was added to the end. In many cases, true 4G speeds were never actually reached by most devices, thus the LTE designation. Some carriers now refer to “LTE advanced,” which is actually the initially promised 4G technology. The carriers fear that simply referring to 4G would scare off customers, thinking it was a downgrade from LTE.
The most publicized change with 5G, and therefore the one that most have heard about, is the speed difference. 5G has the specifications to have a download speed of 20 Gbps compared to 4G that has a specified download speed of 16 Gbps for a stationary device. Of course, this all is dependent on coverage, number of people on the network and how your device connects. Also, as we experienced with 4G, it takes a long time for the equipment that transmits these signals to be upgraded, and for devices to be available to take advantage of it. The first changes will come to high population areas and then move out to more rural areas. We should not expect to see nationwide saturation of 5G for years to come.
For those of us in the AV industry however, speed is not the only important factor. Latency, connection density and traffic capacity are also significant differences. The latency for 5G has the specifications to drop to 1 millisecond. Compared to the current 4G latency of 50 milliseconds, this may very well be the most significant spec for the AV industry. Being able to carry audio, in particular, over this type of signal with almost non-existent latency will develop many new possibilities. There is also a change in the way the signals are sent. Two techniques are MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-ouput) and beamforming. MIMO allows for a five-times increase in the number of antennae at one 5G base station, while beamforming allows for a “direct” connection with each user that ensures that they are getting consistent speeds and connections. This matters for when we are designing rooms (or stadiums) that are going to be holding a lot of people. Currently, we can’t expect strong, consistent signals in those areas, but 5G will change that for us. The possibilities of audience interaction via the network will become more consistent and reliable, thus increasing our ability to use interactive technologies.
At the same time that 5G is starting to be available in some markets, so is Wi-Fi 6. Again, a quick primer on the naming. Wi-Fi revisions used to be coded by a letter. Remember 802.11a? Well, there were so many revisions that they wrapped right around the alphabet and things became very confusing. Is 802.11n faster than 802.11ac? (It’s not.) So, the Wi-Fi Alliance decided to group together various versions of Wi-Fi under a number system, like we see in cellular speeds. Wi-Fi 6 is the latest version and some devices have started implementing the technology, even though the official certification program was only announced a couple weeks ago. Wi-Fi 6 also uses MIMO, allowing for more devices to be connected and more data to be transmitted.
5G and Wi-Fi 6 hold promise beyond speed increases. One particular specifications for future versions include high precision tracking within a one-meter accuracy. Think of this with tracking cameras, opening and closing mics as needed, lighting controls and of course, targeted advertisements on digital signage. We used to talk about environmental controls customized to specific people. However, that always required them to have some type of beacon with them at all times. With these releases that beacon becomes their phone, a device they already have with them at all times.
A series of changes also assist with a decline of power consumption. This decrease affects not only user devices, like a phone, but more importantly, sensors and other similar IoT devices. Think of devices that run on batteries, but you would want that battery to last a long time. Also, a consideration here are devices that don’t currently run on batteries, but use very little power and could run on batteries in the future.
It is true that like every technical change, these changes will not happen overnight. In the case of 5G in particular, some are saying that it could be five to 10 years before we see the full effects of the technology in a majority of the country. That’s understandable and likely, but must not prevent us from forward and creative thinking about how 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will change the experiences of our clients and users.