You hear about 5G all the time these days. It’s all over the news. All the wireless companies are talking about it. Even with everyone talking about it, a lot of people don’t yet understand this new technology. What is 5G and how does it work?
What Does 5G Mean?
5G stands for the fact that it’s the fifth generation of cell phone networks, replacing 4G, which many of us have been using for most of the past decade.
- 1G, or analog cellular, was launched in 1979, along with the first cell phones.
- 2G – featuring technologies including CDMA, GSM, and TDMA – was launched in 1991, enabling text messages and travel.
- 3G, with EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, was launched in 1998 to improve the mobile experience of the internet by increasing speeds from 200kbps (kilobits per second) to a few mbps (megabits per second).
- 4G, with support for tech like WiMAX and LTE, was launched in 2008 to accelerate mobile internet access, which has scaled up to several hundred mbps– or even gigabit speeds in some locations.
- 5G: Now
The initial standard for 5G was set in late 2017, and the rollout of 5G networks and technology has begun.
5G should not be confused with 5G wifi routers. Those are a totally different technology, and they are called that because they operate at a frequency of 5 GHz (gigahertz).
What Does 5G Do?
5G is Fast
A lot more people have phones today than five or 10 years ago. And we use our phones today for a lot more things than we did five or ten years ago. And a lot of those things– like backing up your photos to Google Drive or iCloud, and watching videos on YouTube and Netflix– use a lot more bandwidth.
So today’s wireless technology requires a lot more bandwidth in order to satisfy the needs of users.
Enter 5G: designed and built from the ground up to support faster data connections– exponentially faster. 5G supports connections up to 100 gbps (gigabits per second), which is up to 100 times faster than 4G.
And, the connections will have much less latency – that is, the delay between when you request information and you start to receive it. The 5G specification calls for a latency of under 1 ms (millisecond)– which is really low.
So, 5G is much, much faster than 4G.
5G Can Support More Connections
As more and more of us are online with our phone, 5G was also designed to support more connections.
So, the 5G network is designed to support 500 times more wireless devices, each transmitting data 100 times faster than the previous 4G devices.
It’s Not Just Phones
An important fact to understand about 5G, is that while it will run on phones, it was not designed to support only phones. 5G networks were designed to support the internet of things.
This means that it’s not just your new phone that will have 5G. It may also be your watch, your car, your laptop– even your refrigerator. The number of devices that will run on the fifth generation wireless network will be orders of magnitude greater than with 4G.
What New Experiences Will 5G Bring? What Will 5G Do?
The vastly increased speed, number of connected devices, and reduced latency of 5G networks enables many new experiences, capabilities and applications. So, when you wonder ‘what is 5G technology?’ the answers are as varied as:
- Improved broadband. Fixed wireless connections to your home (such as cable or fiber) will be replaced with wireless 5G internet and, for example, you will be able to download a full, complete, two hour 4K movie in just a few seconds and live event streaming (such as of sports, or on social networks) will become much easier and popular with improved quality.
- Autonomous vehicles. The speed and latency of 5G is required to support self-driving cars.
- Municipal infrastructure. 5G will enable cities and utilities to operate more efficiently using remote sensors to track things like floods, outages and traffic.
- Health care. For example, doctors will be able to perform remote surgery reliably and safely.
- Internet of things (IoT). More and more devices and appliances will be connected to the same network, and able to talk with each other in real time.
- And many more– likely many no one has even thought of yet.
How Fast is 5G Adoption?
In June 2019, Ericsson released research suggesting that 45% of the population will be covered by 4G, with 1.9 billion subscribers, by 2024.
Such an adoption rate would make 5G the most rapidly adopted cell network standard yet.
What Networks Support 5G
Currently, in the United States, all the major cell phone carriers– including AT&T, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile– support 5G, to varying degrees, in various cities. It is not yet everywhere, but it is being rolled out quickly.
SpeedTest.net maintains a map that attempts to track the global deployment of 5G networks.
Will You Need a New Device to Enjoy 5G?
Yes, connecting to 5G networks requires will require a phone with a 5G modem. You will not be able to enjoy 5G unless you upgrade your phone.
What is a 5G Network, and How is 5G Different from 4G?
So far, I’ve discussed what improvements 5G will offer over current 4G networks.
But what are the differences that make 5G so much more powerful than 4G?
In order to make room for all of the new devices that will be connecting to the 5G network, 5G technology makes use of different frequencies of electromagnetic radiation (or EMF) to communicate.
Prior generations of wireless networks communicated between 1 and 3 GHz (gigahertz).
When it comes to 5G, there are actually three different segments of the electromagnetic spectrum that it will use.
The three ‘flavors’ of 5G are:
- low-band 5G spectrum, which operates at frequencies under 1 GHz, which are the oldest frequencies used for wireless communication.
- mid-band 5G spectrum, which uses frequencies from 1 GHz up to 10 GHz.
- And high-band 5G spectrum uses between 24 and 300 GHz. These are called millimeter waves, and they are ultra-high frequency radio signals which have never before been used for consumer applications.
Millimeter waves get their name because they’re much shorter than radio waves at only 1 to 10mm in length. Shorter waves mean these are higher frequency, which means they transmit more energy. So 5G will operate with much more energy than previous wireless networks.
So, as more and more 5G devices are deployed, we will be exposed to more sources of a much broader range of EMF radiation than we have been before.
Another way that 5G accelerates internet connections is using something called MIMO.
MIMO stands stands for “multiple-input, multiple-output” and it describes antenna systems that include two or four antennas that are designed to coordinate communication to simultaneously send data over the same channel.
MIMO has been part of prior cellular networks. But remember 5G is designed to accommodate many more connections sending much more data. And one way they do that is with massive MIMO.
A standard MIMO might include four to eight antennae. To accommodate the data transmission requirements of 5G, new 5G cell phone towers will include ‘massive’ 128-antenna arrays.
These microcells are designed to operate with less power, generally emitting in the range of 2 to 10 watts, as opposed to the 20 to 40 watts reportedly emitted by 4G towers.
But, as I noted above, 5G operates at higher frequencies than earlier wireless networks. And the higher the frequency of an electromagnetic wave, the less it can travel.
So, if the wireless connections of 5G networks don’t travel as far. So if these waves don’t travel as far, how can 5G networks support thousands of additional devices connected sending hundreds of times more data?
With more antennas. Many more.
This has led to the development and deployment of a massive number of so-called small cells, or short-range cell antennas, with a range between approximately 30 feet to just over a mile.
Because their range is so much shorter than previous 4G technology, these small cell 5G antennas will be deployed at a much higher density– with an average of one antenna for every 10 households.
So 5G will require the deployment of many millions more cell towers. This is called ‘network densification’. “Network densification means more small cells, more mid cells, pico cells [and] metro cells,” said Chris Pearson, President of the 5G Americas wireless trade industry association.
Just as the limitations of the higher frequency 5G spectrum mean that we need many more antennas, it also means those antennas need to be closer to the ground– to reduce the distance that signals need to travel between the antennas and your devices.
This is even more of a concern given the close proximity of the 5G infrastructure to so many people in their homes, offices and schools, as well as the constant explosion in the number of cellular connected devices— all of which add up to much more exposure to EMF radiation than we have today.
Taken together, 5G means many more devices, connected to many more antennas, closer to the ground (as well as in space), transmitting more data than ever before. Which gives a lot of people significant concern about 5G health risks.