If you attended NIWeek 2019 , you heard a lot of one particular letter and one particular number:


As I sat in on discussion panels and wandered through National Instruments' annual showcase of products and customer success stories, the fifth-generation network kept coming up in conversation.

Considering the new applications made possible by better connections at 5G’s faster speeds, many companies – including the Austin, TX-based test and measurement giant – are preparing for the next communications wave.

“We see a huge ‘Fear of Missing Out’ as companies, or even nations, become the first to release new 5G technologies and products,” said NI’s Business and Technology Fellow Charles Schroeder during NIWeek, which took place from May 20-23.

While network generations 1-thru-4 offered basic texting and Internet capabilities, 5G promises faster, real-time connection opportunities with, well, almost everything: a person to a device; a machine to a factory robot; a home to a power grid; or vehicles talking to other vehicles.

Automotive engineers are working to connect cars to pedestrians, to roadside infrastructure, and to other cars on the road, in order to enable autonomous decisions like obstacle avoidance or real-time route optimization.

These kinds of machine-to-machine applications require a speed faster than human reaction time, and, at 20 gigabits per second, 5G offers that kind of kick.

Although carriers are not expected to provide 5G coverage until at least 2020, the rise of 5G is as inevitable as a rainstorm, according to industry pros on NIWeek’s “Innovation Insights” panel.

“I picture 5G as like rain on the top of the mountain. It is going to get to the ocean,” said Clarke Ryan, Senior Director of Product Development at the U.K-based telecoms company Spirent Communications. “If you ask me what side of the mountain it’s going to go down, where the river’s going to be, I have no idea. But water finds its position. 5G will find its position, truly because it will generate a lot of value and benefit the people."

Beyond personal benefits, economic factors are also driving 5G adoption, according to fellow Innovation Insights panelist Ben Thomas, and the financial rewards for carriers are too great to stop 5G’s entrance.

“Nothing is going to slow 5G down. I mean nothing,” said Thomas, Director of Mobile 5G Business Development at the North Carolina-based semiconductor company Qorvo. “The demand for 5G is driven by fundamental carrier requirements for lowering the cost per bit and also widening the access and coverage to real data – real data that can make changes in people’s lives. There’s a value and dollar association for that.”

5G offers an additional enticing benefit to companies, according to the Qorvo director: Being able to effectively slice up ownership of airwaves to provide specific services.

Imagine a company like Verizon, for example, giving your company a private (and secure) segment of the airwaves – one that is your specific frequency for communication.

“They can do that under 5G because there’s a lot of enablement in privatizing networks. That could provide your company with a high degree of security,” said Thomas.

With new applications now possible with 5G, however, testing methodologies have changed. What used to be measured on a single channel over a cable is now moving over the air.

National Instruments used its event to announce the mmWave Vector Signal Transceiver (VST) , to address the test challenges of 5G mmWave RFIC transceivers and power amplifiers.

The PXI Vector Signal Transceiver (VST) combines an RF and baseband vector signal analyzer and generator with a user-programmable FPGA for real-time signal processing in 5G’s mmWave.

With the inevitability of 5G, new markets are emerging. The fifth-gen network supports applications like intelligent farming, remote telemedicine, and virtual reality.

Automakers like Volvo are racing to prep their autonomous capabilities, and they need the fifth-generation network to support the advanced functions. All of those capabilities must be tested, especially if you’re a manufacturer working on the next autonomous car.

Dr. Matthijs Klomp, Solutions Architect for Chassis & Climate at Volvo, also spoke on the NIWeek panel about the high stakes as designers and engineers prepare for 5G.

“Self-driving vehicles driving around with two- to three-tons more mass – you don’t play with that, and testing is paramount,” said Klomp.

What do you think about 5G? What ‘side of the mountain’ will it fall on? Share your comments and questions below.

The NIWeek panel, featuring (from left to right) moderator Shelley Gretlein, Ben Thomas, Clarke Ryan, and Matthijs Klomp