Notre Dame Stories: Understanding the 5G rollout

Author: Office of Strategic Content

ND Experts

Nick Laneman

Nick Laneman

Electrical Engineering


The rollout of 5G seemed to be going along smoothly, until it wasn’t. Many people had heard of it in one way or another, either through commercials for cellular providers with new phones running on 5G, or in the news when the airline industry got involved and asked for a pause in some areas. 

But what really is 5G?

Nick Laneman, co-director of the Notre Dame Wireless Institute, explains the answer is hard to simplify because it has six dimensions. On its basis, though, 5G means the fifth generation of mobile cellular technology.

But 5G is also about the radio spectrum, or the electromagnetic wave propagations that are regulated by governments around the world to prevent harmful interference. And it’s about “the products, the chip sets, the phones, the base stations, the network equipment that is being built and deployed to make sure that they interoperate together.”

Five-G is also about the service that the cellular providers market to the end consumers and businesses that use the services. And finally, 5G is about a whole new array of applications of mobile cellular networks beyond just the experience of enhanced mobile broadband on our phone.

That last piece of the puzzle is very important, Laneman said, as it is the biggest change from past generations of technology to 5G.

It can play into any number of possibilities such as potentially replacing fiber and cable services, cable modem service, the internet of things, and even so-called “mission critical” applications to support power and electric grids, and automotive and railway transportation systems.

“It's a big deal,” he said. “There's a lot of different ways to look at it. And so it's no wonder that it seems confusing to people.”

Safety is a big priority, too, which is why you may have heard that the airports and airlines had asked for a pause of 5G rollouts due to potential interference with radar altimeters built into airplanes. The radar altimeter is used to measure the altitude of the air aircraft, and is especially useful in adverse conditions when the pilot can't fly by sight alone.

But that “pause” in 5G wasn’t really a pause that many would notice from their cellular providers. It was a delay specifically around airports.

“It wasn't the case that 5G was suddenly going to be disrupted or turned off or anything like that, Laneman said. “We were trying to add an additional swimlane or highway lane [of radio spectrum] to enable more 5G connectivity and more 5G bandwidth. And so just delaying that specifically around airports, it's a pain and it's costly for the cellular operators, but I'm sure that over time we'll figure all these things out.” 

Laneman doesn’t foresee any immediate issues of a 5G rollout in other industries, but it’s always a possibility as more of those “highway lanes” of the spectrum begin to be used.

“We have to figure out how to share that spectrum effectively,” he said.

And while everyone is focused on 5G, Laneman and the researchers involved in the Notre Dame Wireless Institute are already starting to look ahead at 6G.

“Each generation takes about 10 years from start to finish and we're roughly four years into the 5G cycles,” he said. “So that's why people are really starting to push hard on developing the fundamental research and conceptual notions for 6G right now.

“We're hoping to prototype some technologies and develop those technologies and have them integrated into the standards that ultimately become 6G.”

The Wireless Institute is also spearheading Spectrum X, a five year 25 million dollars center award to create a national center for spectrum innovation. The center will have a significant focus on research, but also on education and workforce development so that there are more students and workers who are familiar with these issues and can play leading roles in the industry and the government agencies that use the spectrum, as well as the agencies that regulate the spectrum here in the United States.

“There's a lot of really interesting, challenging problems, and fantastic opportunities for students to develop, learn, and develop their professional careers,” Laneman said. “And we're trying to make the Wireless Institute and Spectrum X the place for them to do that."