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Samsung proves why 5G is necessary with a robot arm

5G won't be just about huge amounts of bandwidth.

We've been hearing murmurs about 5G for years now, but it seems like this Mobile World Congress is the one where companies have started to get serious about it. Samsung and Deutsche Telekom, for example, put together a 5G demo that shows off how the technology is a serious upgrade from today's 4G LTE networks. The big takeaway? "Faster" means many different things.

At first glance, the setup didn't look like any networking demo I've seen before, mainly because of the robotic arm dancing around. It was programmed to pick up two metal balls -- one pink and the other silver -- place them on a magnetic holder and try to catch them in a plastic container. But, for some reason, it was only able to successfully snag the pink ball.

It turned out to be an example of Samsung's 5G ultra-low latency (ULL) technology, which can transmit small bits of information in less than a millisecond. The two balls were tracked by different portions of the network (or "slices"): The silver one was LTE, while the pink one was 5G. When they fell, the robot arm was able to catch the pink ball because it was able to detect its movement almost instantly, due to its low latency of 0.75 milliseconds. The silver ball's latency over LTE, on the other hand, was a "sluggish" 25 milliseconds.

Deutsche Telekom's Antje Williams, who heads up its 5G program, says this sort of performance will be useful for applications like self-driving cars and remote medical procedures, both of which will require near immediate network feedback. There's a cost for that low latency, though -- the 5G ULL network was transmitting only around 20KB of data during the demo.

Two Samsung phones, each with 16 "beam-forming" antennas (used to squeeze out as much speed as possible), surrounded the scene. They transmitted 4K HD video streams wirelessly over Ultra High Mobile broadband (U-MBB), another aspect of the 5G network. As you can guess, that one was chock-full of bandwidth. During the demo, it clocked speeds of around 2.5 gigabits per second (Samsung says it consistently hits 1.5Gbps), a significant upgrade from the 30–50 Mbps we typically see from LTE 4G networks. Unfortunately for Samsung, the video streaming wasn't exactly smooth, but the fact that it was able to push that much data is still impressive.

As Williams describes it, the real benefit of 5G is being able to tap into all of these different aspects of the network. And that's something we're also hearing from Intel, which announced its 5G testing at Mobile World Congress as well. In a way, that's refreshing. The whole selling point of LTE was blistering-fast speed, but that was always limited by data caps. 5G, it seems, is going to be about much more.