What is 5G and when is it coming to Madison?

5G is the fifth generation of cell service. It promises speeds of up to 100 times faster than the current 4G service. All four major U.S. carriers have some sort of 5G service, but it’s only in a handful of cities and only in a few neighborhoods.

That’s partly because 5G requires its own cell antennas. Wireless companies in the United States said they’ll need to install 300,000 new antennas for the rollout of 5G, an antenna every couple of blocks. That poses a challenge for city planners and engineers.

City of Madison engineering department spokeswoman, Hannah Mohelnitzky, said the permit process in the city is quite extensive.

“The guidelines are in place for a reason. From FCC regulations to health concerns for public right of way and public infrastructure standpoint, those are all in place in trying to protect that,” Mohelnitzky said.

Once all the infrastructure is in place, what can a cellphone customer expect from 5G? The program director and IT network specialist at Madison College, Damian Roth, said it’s all about speed.

“I think it’s going to be really nice at first. Then it’s going to get pretty crowded. Then we’re going to find out, they’re going to have to solve this problem where we can’t get through walls,” he said.

Verizon and AT&T are using something called the millimeter wave. It’s lightning fast but can’t go through walls. So in order for 5G to be more reliable, companies will use mid- and low-band frequencies. It won’t be as fast but will work outside and indoors as well.

“We’re going to have to allocate more space in those lower bands, preferably in the low, low bands because then you can up to Hayward and have your movie in 10 seconds,” Roth said.

Besides faster cellphone service, 5G opens up a whole new world of self-driving cars and robotic surgeries.

“They’re talking about the traffic lights online, they’re talking about flood detection being online, flood sensors,” Roth said. “You know, when we start to automate all these things and we start to automate all these sensors, then the things that go and address the sensors, you get a smarter city.”

5G, right now, is a work in progress. The four major carriers promise nationwide coverage by the end of next year. When will it arrive in southern Wisconsin? Not any time soon.

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