You hear about 5G and 5G cell towers all the time these days. It’s all over the news. All the wireless companies are talking about it. But 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?
Table of Contents
What Does 5G Mean?
5G stands for the fact that it’s the fifth generation of cell phone networks. 5G is the replacement for 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. This has scaled up to several hundred mbps or even gigabit speeds in some locations.
- 5G: the next generation being implemented 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 back then. 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.
The maximum speed in which 4G internet can transfer data is up to 60Mbps. (Experts say that the speed can reach up to 300Mbps, but it’s only achievable in controlled laboratory environments.) That’s just not fast enough to satisfy the needs of modern users. Today’s wireless technology requires a lot more bandwidth.
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 Cell Towers Can Support More Connections
Because 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.
5G Is Not Just For 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 (IoT).
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.
On top of that, the milimeter wave technology is being applied in an increasingly wide variety of ways.
Here’s an example from Tesla. In early 2021, the company filed an application with the FCC for the approval of a new “Vehicle Millimeter-wave Radar Sensor” for use on public roads. Little is known about the device’s use case – Tesla filed for confidentiality – but it’s likely to be part of their Autopilot/Full Self-Driving (FSD) sensor suite.
The FCC filing states:
“The equipment under test (EUT) was an Vehicle Millimeter-wave Radar Sensor operating in 60 GHz band (60-64 GHz).”
If the filing is approved, it means that Tesla cars will soon be equipped with hidden milimeter-wave radar sensors – a prime example of the technology showing up in all kinds of places beyond just cell phones and cell towers.
5G Will Be Used For Indoor Private Networks As Well
In September 2020, Verizon announced partnerships with Samsung and Corning to trial new indoor 5G cell sites. These, they said in a release, would “provide 5G mmWave coverage inside facilities such as hospitals, manufacturing facilities, warehouses, schools, ports, retail stores and more.”
What does this mean?
Put simply, Verizon is now offering private 5G networks. 5G won’t just be used for cell phone networks that provide coverage to towns and cities – it will also blanket buildings from the inside. As an enterprise solution, 5G will replace existing WiFi networks with those that use millimeter waves.
These indoor networks are already being rolled out. In December 2020, Verizon released details of a deal with WeWork – a global company offering co-working spaces with 859 sites across the world – to supply 5G mmWave networks in 10 of their U.S. locations.
So how do these indoor private networks work?
Currently, Verizon is using technology by Corning called a 5G Enterprise Radio Access Network (Enterprise RAN). The RAN uses radio nodes that “either mount on the ceilings and/or walls of enterprises to provide the necessary 5G services coverage” within a building. This will allow any indoor space – such as an office, store, hospital, or school – to be fully covered with 5G inside as well as out.
5G Without 5G Cell Towers?
Most of the concern that we hear about 5G is all based on terrestrial technology. In other words, the antennas and towers and masts on the ground. Just like it was with 4G.
Several companies are already launching satellites into low earth orbit to provide 5G internet access – eventually to the entire planet.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX has a division called StarLink. StarLink is one of the firms that’s already launching internet satellites into low-earth orbit. As of early 2020, StarLink has 240 satellites in orbit, it already has permission to launch 13,000 more (it needs to launch 6,000 by 2025 to fulfill its licensing obligations), and has expressed plans to deploy an additional 30,000 more.
That’s 43,000 of these satellites. In fact, Elon Musk believes this enterprise will grow so significantly that he has expressed his desire to spin StarLink into its own company, separate from SpaceX, with an IPO.
And recall, that’s just from one company. OneWeb – a competitor to StarLink – is already launching low-earth orbit satellites as well. OneWeb CEO Adrian Steckel “estimates satellites will be rolling off assembly lines smoothly” from here on out.
“SpaceX and OneWeb are both basing their satellite internet businesses on the same ethos: rather than connecting people using traditional ground-based technologies — such as cables and cell towers, which still don’t reach billions of people around the globe — a hive of satellites orbiting a few hundred miles up can blanket the entire planet in high-speed internet service.” CNN
Some estimate that there will be 50,000 of these satellites in low-earth orbit by 2024. And that’s just the first step. As more competitors enter the market, as more people connect with their 5G devices, and as time passes, that number will surely rise – particularly in the absence of any regulations limiting the number of these devices or their emission levels.
And in March 2020, the FCC granted StarLink a license to install one million (yes, you read that correctly; that’s 1,000,000) antennas on earth to facilitate the deployment of space-based satellite broadband at 5G speeds to more of the planet.
AirGig for Rural 5G Coverage
Because 5G signals do not travel far, we are seeing all of the initial deployments in urban areas– where the population density justifies the mass expenditure required to install so many small cells.
That leads to the question: will 5G be deployed in rural areas?
Time will tell how this plays out, but for now, AT&T believes it has found the answer with AirGig. What is AirGig?
Well, we’ve long known that our power grid – all the power lines that connect our homes and businesses to the electricity generating utilities – forms a gigantic antenna. And that antenna can conduct EMF. In fact, this is one key way in which dirty electricity seeps into our homes. The power lines pick up stray EMF and conduct them through the power lines, which brings them into the electrical circuitry in our walls, exposing us to random and pulsed electromagnetic signals.
AT&T plans to use this same behavior to bring 5G to areas where it would be otherwise unprofitable or impractical to cover.
So how does AirGig work, and make it economically viable to service rural areas with 5G? By attaching a 5G small cell to a power pole, and then using the power lines to transmit the 5G wireless signals to and from wireless devices. In effect, AirGig turns whole sections of the power grid into massive 5G antennas, making it impossible for people to escape exposure.
While this may sound like science fiction, it is not. As of the time of writing this update, AirGig is already being deployed in test rollouts. The first occurred in rural Georgia in 2017. A firm release date for the first public use AirGig installations has not yet been announced, but AT&T says “we’re moving closer to that moment every day.”
What New Experiences Will 5G Cell Towers Bring?
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.
Is 5G in My Area?
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.
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.
You can use the Ookla 5G MAP tool to find out if your city has 5G network available. According to Ookala, as of March 11, 2020, there have been 7,220 5G deployments globally by 111 network providers.
Using the Ookala 5G Map, you can find out where exactly are the 5G cell towers at your location. The interface looks like this:
Once you’re in, you’ll see three checkboxes for the type of 5G deployment. They are:
- Commercial Availability:
This means that 5G is available in your city and is ready to use. If this is the case, you can simply contact your provider and upgrade your plan to 5G.
- Limited Availability:
This means that 5G is available in your city, but it may not be available to you. Your network provider will contact you and let you know if you are eligible to use 5G.
This means that your provider is testing the 5G network in your area. This might be available to you very soon. In this case, keep yourself updated with the latest news by your provider.
For our purposes, we’ll check the box where it says commercial availability. You may also choose the other boxes according to the deployment type that you’re looking for. Once you check the box, it will show the number of 5G cell towers in different locations.
Now, zoom in the map, and navigate to your city:
Then, scroll up on the map and pinpoint the exact location of the 5G cell tower in your area.
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? There are a variety of different technologies involved in making 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.
Frequency is measured in a unit called Hertz (Hz). One Hertz is equal to 1 cycle per second. A megahertz (MHz) is one million Hertz. And a gigahertz (GHz) is one billion Hertz, or one billion cycles per second.
You’ve heard these numbers before. For example, your wifi router might be a 2.4 GHz router – which means it communicates at 2.4 billion Hertz, or cycles per second. Or your cordless phone may be 800 MHz.
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, which uses between 24 and 300 GHz. These are called millimeter waves, and they’re 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.
Increasingly, cell phone antennas (also called ‘masts’ in Europe) are everywhere, and this has led to an increasing number of objections at their placement. One way the industry has attempt to respond to these challenges in the past decade, is to hide these antennas in plain sight with invisible cell phone antennas.
These invisible cell phone antennas are everywhere, as we can see in this example from comedian Steve Martin, who tweeted a photo of himself next to a Saguaro cactus in Arizona. Of course, it wasn’t a Saguaro cactus— it was a cell phone antenna disguised to look like a cactus.
In his tweet, Steve Martin takes Arizona to task. But, it’s not just Arizona— almost everywhere, industry has taken to camouflaging these antennas. Of course, the type of disguise varies by region— it wouldn’t make much sense to use a palm tree disguise in Maine, or a pine tree disguise in Los Angeles. A quick internet search even reveals a company that specializes in bringing “artistry to cell tower concealment.”
But when it comes to 5G, these antennas no longer need to be camouflaged in the same way.
This is because 5G internet uses small cells, which are a critical part of the new, massive 5G infrastructure. Small cells look almost like Wi-Fi routers, but they’re different. They are the stations that will provide the 5G network connection. They’re smaller in size, and you can easily install them on places like lamp posts, terraces, bus stops, etc. They don’t even look like cell towers at all.
Here’s a comparison between a 4G tower and a 5G small cell:
One benefit of a small cell is that it requires a relatively small amount of power to operate, unlike the massive 4G towers.
However, small cells have limitations.
5G has the potential to transfer a massive amount of data very fast, but it can only cover a small area. So, to make sure you get the blazing speed, 5G network providers have to install several network towers in a small area.
This is expensive.
So, some network providers are planning to use the old LTE network to run 5G, at least for a while. If this happens, you may not get the blazing 5G speed, and you will have to settle for something a little faster than 4G.
However, this is only the beginning. 5G is still in the testing phase, and the network providers are trying to find a solution for you to enjoy 5G speeds without investing the amount required to build out the entirely new 5G infrastructure at once.
If you live in a big city, there are chances that you have 5G internet in your city already. (See the section “Is 5G in My Area?” above for details on how to check your local coverage.)
Another way that 5G accelerates internet connections is using something called MIMO.
MIMO stands for “multiple-input, multiple-output”. It refers to antenna systems 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 antennas. To accommodate the data transmission requirements of 5G, new 5G cell phone towers will include ‘massive’ 128-antenna arrays.
Beamforming is another key technology used alongside MIMO to support the dizzying speeds of 5G. In fact, the terms beamforming and massive MIMO (or mMIMO) are often used interchangeably.
Beamforming is the technology that works with mMIMO to “aim” the cell signal. It focuses the wireless transmission from the 5G tower in a specific direction, rather than blasting in all directions with equal power.
The principles of beamforming were established in the 1940s, but it is only with 5G that beamforming has become crucial to the cellular infrastructure.
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.
With existing 3G and 4G technology, you don’t need to be in close proximity to a cell tower to get a connection. You might be several miles away from a tower and still be able to connect. Not so for 5G.
So, if the wireless connections of 5G networks don’t travel as far, how can 5G networks support thousands of additional devices connected sending hundreds of times more data?
With more antennas.
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, transmitting more data than ever before. Which gives a lot of people significant concern about 5G health risks.
While 4G networks can use cell towers that are miles apart, 5G can’t. 5G can only work if there are thousands of mini 5G cell towers (called small cells) placed close together.
How close? Potentially every few houses. Or even more, as the network grows.
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.
Because of their size, these cell receptors are being mounted on everything from street lamps to trashcans to utility poles. In a short amount of time, they’ll be virtually everywhere.
That means that these small cell towers will soon be blanketing every neighborhood, leading to an increase in radio frequency radiation that’s too dramatic to measure. CTIA, the wireless industry trade association, estimates that there’ll be 800,000 towers and small cells in the US by 2026.
Why is the antenna density of 5G a problem? Because these small cells emit big radiation. Installing them in such volume will dramatically intensify the electromagnetic radiation in populated areas. And as yet the health effects of 5G networks have not been tested, at all.
One of the most alarming things about 5G is the speed with which it’s being developed, accepted, and rolled out. In the US, AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint have been vying to roll out 5G networks as rapidly as possible, all keen to get a bigger slice of the 5G profit pie. Verizon were the first to launch a 5G home internet service in 2018, saying they would be “extremely aggressive” in pushing the technology.
Is My Device 5G?
Will You Need a New Device to Enjoy 5G?
Yes, connecting to 5G networks will require a phone with a 5G modem. You will not be able to enjoy 5G unless you upgrade your phone.
And if you have 5G, you’d know it.
First, because you’d have to have purchased a 5G phone. Phones that aren’t specifically built for 5G, can’t use 5G networks.
And there still aren’t many 5G phones out there (and, as of the time of writing this, they generally start at around $1000).
Is 5Ge the Same as 5G?
Some people who don’t have 5G phones tell me their phone is using 5G. That’s because of some very misleading advertising from AT&T.
In 2019, AT&T released something called 5Ge, or 5G evolution. To hear AT&T explain it, it was designed as a stepping stone between 4G/LTE and 5G. And 5Ge does use a few aspects of the 5G network, including massive MIMO technology.
In my opinion – as well as the opinion of Sprint, who sued AT&T over misleading advertising (AT&T and Sprint settled that suit) – it was a marketing stunt, designed to confuse consumers.
In any event, 5Ge is not 5G. And if you have 5Ge, you still essentially have 4G… just a bit faster.
The First 5G Overlaps With 4G
Even if you have a 5G phone, connected to a 5G network, that doesn’t mean your phone is using any of the new higher energy 5G frequencies.
See, the specification for 5G calls for use of frequencies up to 300 GHz (gigahertz). That’s really high energy EMF.
But most of the initial deployments of 5G still use the same EMF frequencies as 4G/LTE to communicate.
So, your first 5G phone will very likely be using the same EMF frequencies to communicate as does your existing phone.
5G WiFi Routers Are Not 5G
I also get a lot of questions from customers about whether their 5G WiFi router is 5G. The answer is no.
In the future, it is entirely likely that you will be able to get your home WiFi over 5G. But today, a 5G router is a WiFi router that communicates using 5 GHz wavelengths (as opposed to the more common 2.4GHz wifi networks). That’s how it gets the name 5G.
So no, a 5G WiFi router is not 5G.
Is 5G Safe?
After all that explanation, it’s reasonable to ask: Is 5G safe?
The answer is no. Read all about 5G health risks here.