What is 5G? Everything you need to know

It’s been nearly a decade in the making, and 5G is now a reality. Wireless carriers started rolling out 5G several years ago, and mobile 5G internet access is now widely available. But what is 5G exactly?

It may seem as though there are more questions about 5G than there are answers. Some wonder where 5G is available, and if they’ll ever see it in their city, while others are more interested in which 5G phone they should buy. And of course, there is a debate about which carrier has the best 5G phone plan.

You have questions about the latest mobile network, we have answers. Here’s everything you need to know about 5G tech today.

What is 5G technology?

Before we explain how 5G works, it’s probably a good idea to explain what 5G is. There are a lot of specifics, which we cover throughout this article, but here’s a quick primer.

What is 5G? Simply put, 5G is the 5th generation of mobile broadband that will eventually replace, or at least augment, your 4G LTE connection. With 5G, you get exponentially faster download and upload speeds. Latency, or the time it takes devices to communicate with wireless networks, will also drastically decrease.

5G networks are inherently more efficient, handling more connections per tower and faster speeds per user. 5G is also designed to work across a wider range of radio frequencies (RF), opening up new possibilities in the ultra-high mmWave (millimeter-wave) bands for carriers to expand their network offerings. Because 5G is an entirely new technology that operates on new frequencies and systems, 4G phones are incompatible with the new 5G network.

The evolution of 5G: How we got here

5G networks started to be deployed in earnest in 2019, but the groundwork for the next-generation network was laid many years prior. The architecture of the 5G standard was set forth on 2016, at which point every company and person involved from both the network and consumer side could start making devices that were 5G standard compliant.

Obviously 5G hasn’t yet hit total market saturation, or even represents a majority of mobile traffic yet. But looking back at the history of the 4G rollout we can get an idea for how long it will take. 4G (LTE) was first deployed commercially in 2009, and didn’t go live in the U.S. until the very end of 2010. It took until 2013 for 4G to be truly mainstream in many countries, and become dominant over the old 3G networks.

Following a similar timeline, we’re still waiting for perhaps late 2022 or even 2023 for 5G to be the dominant network in most countries around the world. And it will be for many of the same reasons: 4G faced similar technical hurdles as 5G, operating on new spectrum with new technologies required on both the network and device ends — though it too brought a substantial increase in speeds over the previous-generation network.

How does 5G technology work?

Now that we know what 5G technology is, it’s a good idea to understand how it works since it’s different from traditional 4G LTE. First, let’s talk 5G spectrum.

GSMA / ITU

Just like 4G LTE, 5G technology operates on a wide range of radio spectrum allotments but is capable of running on a wider range than current networks. The most common form of 5G being used is called Sub-6, and there is also mmWave.

Sub-6 refers to 5G that operates at a frequency below 6GHz. All carriers have some form of Sub-6 network, primarily because 4G LTE currently runs on these lower frequencies. For example, T-Mobile has its low-band 600MHz spectrum and its previously Sprint-owned 2.5GHz both in use for 5G.

Sub-6 spectrum is incredibly important in the rollout of 5G, because these lower-frequency radio waves can travel long distances and penetrate walls and obstacles. That means that carriers can deploy much larger networks without having to build a vast number of new cell towers.

Then there’s mmWave (millimeter wave), which refers to the ultra-high-frequency radio waves, between 30Ghz and 300Ghz, that are used to supercharge 5G connections and deliver download speeds of multiple gigabits per second. Early on, Verizon relied exclusively on mmWave for its 5G network, though the carrier has now deployed a Sub-6 network too. While mmWave connections can deliver superfast download speeds, the high-frequency signals can’t travel long distances and can’t really get through obstacles — for the most part, even a window or leaves of a tree can block the connection.

That means to make a robust mmWave network, carriers need thousands of small network cells in every city. Essentially, mmWave network deployment often comes down to having to build little networks around nearly every corner of every building. So why bother? Well, mmWave can handle an incredible amount of data, and an incredible number of users simultaneously. That makes it better for densely populated cities, as well as places like stadiums and arenas. mmWave is also using all-new spectrum that isn’t crowded by other 3G, 4G, and Sub-6 5G networks — so there isn’t a trade-off in resource use.

All of the major carriers are deploying mmWave networks, but to date, those superfast connections are limited to a handful of downtown areas in major cities. It’s expected that mmWave networks will get more robust, but only time will tell how long that actually takes. Until then, Sub-6 is going to offer a vast majority of people 5G a vast majority of the time.

How fast is 5G? A Guide to 5G Speeds

Clearly, 5G is faster than 4G, but by how much? The standards for telecommunications technologies, developed by 3GPP, are somewhat complex, but here’s a general rundown of how fast 5G is:

  • Peak data rate: 5G will offer significantly faster data speeds. Peak data rates can hit 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station. Mind you, that’s not the speed you’d experience with 5G (unless you have a dedicated connection) — it’s the speed shared by all users on the cell, and even then, it’s high.
  • Real-world 5G speed: While the peak data rates sound pretty impressive, actual speeds won’t be the same. The spec calls for user download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps.
  • Latency: Latency, the time it takes data to travel from one point to another, should be at 4 milliseconds in ideal circumstances, and at 1 millisecond for use cases that demand the utmost speed. Think self-driving car-collision systems.
  • Efficiency: Radio interfaces should be energy efficient when in use, and drop into low-energy mode when not in use. Ideally, a radio should be able to switch into a low-energy state within 10 milliseconds when no longer in use.
  • Spectral efficiency: Spectral efficiency is “the optimized use of spectrum or bandwidth so that the maximum amount of data can be transmitted with the fewest transmission errors.” It’s expected that 5G should have a slightly improved spectral efficiency over LTE, coming in at 30bits/Hz downlink and 15 bits/Hz uplink.
  • Mobility: With 5G, base stations should support movement from 0 to 310 mph. This means the base station should work across a range of antenna movements — even on a high-speed train. While it’s easily done on LTE networks, such mobility can be a challenge on new mmWave networks.
  • Connection density: In terms of connection density, 5G should be able to support many more connected devices than 4G LTE. The standard states 5G should be able to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometer. That’s a huge number, which takes into account the slew of connected devices that will power the Internet of Things (IoT).

In the real world, actual 5G speeds will vary widely. Eventually, Sub-6 networks should be able to deliver speeds of multiple hundreds of gigabits per second, but for now, connections can be anywhere from 50Mbps to 400Mbps.

Real-world mmWave speeds are a little harder to pin down, since mmWave is scarcely available in the real world. If you do happen to find yourself on a mmWave network, you may be able to achieve speeds of up to 4Gbps. That’s many times faster than the fastest 4G LTE networks, but again, those connections are sparse, and widespread availability of them is a long way off.

In many areas, 5G internet is just as slow, or sometimes slower, than 4G LTE. That’s usually due to limited spectrum availability, as carriers try to use one chunk of radio waves to support current 4G networks and new 5G networks simultaneously. Those 5G speeds should improve as more devices are moved over to 5G and carriers start to change the allocation.

Potential Benefits of 5G

There are many 5G use cases to be excited about beyond just mobile communication. In the short term, it is likely to simply boost your speeds for things like downloading videos and apps, or playing games. In the long term, just as 4G did, it could spawn all new industries. Here are some expected future use-cases for 5G connectivity.

Improve home broadband

While 5G is commonly thought of in terms of mobile access, it could also have a significant impact on home broadband and wireless connectivity. Carriers are starting to offer home internet services that rely on 5G connections instead of cable or fiber, and Verizon has already started rolling out a 5G Home service. If this becomes more widespread, it could have a significant impact on the likes of Comcast and Charter, which rely on wired technologies to deliver home internet connections.

IoT

One of the most exciting and crucial aspects of 5G is its effect on the Internet of Things. While we currently have sensors that can communicate with each other, they tend to require a lot of resources and are quickly depleting 4G data capacity.

With 5G speeds and dramatically higher capacity limits, the IoT will be powered by communications among sensors and smart devices (here’s MTC again). Compared to current smart devices on the market, MTC devices will require fewer resources, since huge numbers of these devices can connect to a single base station, making them much more efficient.

Is 5G safe?

In short, yes, 5G is not dangerous to your health. Concerns around the safety of radio waves have been around for years now, but we have yet to find any evidence suggesting that they’re actually bad for human health despite the 5G conspiracy theories. 5G’s radio waves are not substantially different from those we’ve been living with for decades at this point.

We have yet to find evidence that the types of waves we use for wireless communications are bad for human health. There are two kinds of radio waves: Ionizing, and non-ionizing. Ionizing waves might be dangerous for human health. They’re the types of radio waves that are used in microwaves, for example. These waves are extremely high frequency waves and they could harm your DNA.

But 5G doesn’t use radio waves that are anywhere near ionizing. What’s more, most of the waves used in 5G have been used for lots of different things before. Some of them have been used for 4G, some for television broadcasts, and other communications. In other words, if 5G radio waves were dangerous, we would have found previously that these other wireless technologies caused health issues too. And, the waves that haven’t been used in technologies before, like millimeter waves (mmWave), have been studied, and so far, there’s nothing to suggest that they pose any kind of health threat.

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