The Secrets Behind 5G Cell Tower Technology

If you use a cell phone, and there are only three documented humans in the galaxy who don’t, you’re going to want to pay attention to the following discussion. You’ve heard of 5G technology, right? If not, we’re going to have to ask you to repeat the third and all subsequent grades.

5G is the latest iteration of cell phone technology, following 1G (dead and buried), 2G (deactivated), 3G (still used in some places), and 4G (still used in a lot of places). The thing to know is that 3G and 4G will be going away over the next few years and we’ll be left with this smashing new technology known as 5G to power our phones and other internet-enabled mobile devices.

That’s pretty exciting stuff.

Why do we need 5G? That’s a legitimate question and we’re going to answer that. The internet is getting bigger. By bigger we mean that the online activities you engage in most often take up more bandwidth than they used to. Plus there’s the fact that we’re streaming everything. That takes more bandwidth too.

And maybe you’ve heard of Zoom conferences? It’s all the rage in remote work circles. Guess what? It takes a lot of bandwidth to power those silly things. The bottom line is that unless we figured out a way to make our mobile connections faster and more robust in terms of bandwidth, life as we know it would grind to a miserable whimpering halt.

No one wants that except a few members of the Flat Earth Society. 

So, if you choose to keep reading, you’re going to learn a bucket full of new and interesting factoids related to 5G cell towers and technology, including:

  • Why the heck do 5G towers look so dang different?
  • How have they evolved?
  • How is 5G technology different from 4G? And 3G for that matter?
  • How do 5G cell towers work?
  • What are the benefits?
  • Are there any concerns with 5G we should be aware of?

That’s enough to learn in one sitting, right? Let’s dive in.

Introducing 5G Cell Towers

How can you tell if a tower is 4G or 5G? Visually, the latter are generally much smaller. Technology tends to get more powerful and smaller as it evolves and 5G is no different. 5G antennas and panels are much smaller than any that have come before. They don’t need the towering humongoid structures that 1G through 4G thrived on. 

In fact, the actual 5G broadcasting equipment is just a little box that can be placed almost anywhere. Look for them to discretely show up on light and other utility poles in the coming years.

As we’ve mentioned, 5G is a big leap forward in terms of speed and capacity. And as the internet continues to change into a high bandwidth monster, mobile technology had to be pushed forward just to keep up.

We’ll get into it more later, but each generation of mobile technology has seen radical leaps forward in terms of that same speed and capacity. For example, if you were to try to stand beneath a 1G tower (don’t spend much time looking - they don’t exist anymore) and operate your brand, spanking new iPhone, you’d spend most, if not all, of your time staring at a screen that did nothing but beg for mercy for you to turn it off.

Here’s something scary. 1G was only created to carry analog voice signals. How many of you only make phone calls on your phone? Point proven. 2G was a little better. Same with 3G. 4G was a pretty good leap forward and 5G will be an all-night party once it is fully implemented.

As far as the actual new technology involved in 5G, we’ll get to that in a bit.

Evolution of Cell Towers

Do you remember or have you ever seen a television set from, say, 1950? Big, boxy things with an irritatingly small black and white screen. Seriously, the screen almost seemed to be an afterthought. 

That’s how technology goes, though. You have to start somewhere and the idea of being able to watch people from around the country move on a screen was so astounding that no one thought to complain about how small it was or what was up with the color limitation.

Evolution of cell towers

But take a look at today’s 98-inch flat-screen monsters hanging in our living rooms and throwing off such a vibrant color spectrum that it makes us want to vomit in sheer happiness.

It’s been a similar path of technical development for cell towers and their associated technology. 

1G Cell Towers

Okay, we might as well be talking about stone knives and bear skins but you gotta start somewhere and the beginning is often a good place. Depending on where you lived in the country - urban or rural - 1G phone service arrived on your doorstep at some point in the 1980s.

As we’ve already mentioned, the service was limited to analog voice calls, and data transmission crept along at about 2.4 Kbps. In case you’re wondering, that’s slow, though it was a miraculous thing at the time to be able to walk around unfettered by wires with what was probably a ten-pound “mobile” phone.

The drawbacks to 1G technology were:

  • Poor sound quality
  • Limited coverage
  • Analog only
  • Incompatible networks
  • No roaming
  • Weak security
  • Lots of dropped calls in handoff from tower to tower

1G towers visually resembled the 2G through 4G towers to come but that was the end of the similarities.

2G Cell Towers 

The first 2G network appeared in Finland in 1991. One of the most noticeable advances was that the technology went digital, which added texting to the mix, as well as encryption and picture messaging. The top speed of 2G moved considerably forward and could hit about 50 Kbps.

The demand for personal ringtones snowballed with 2G technology, which begat a demand to be able to send even more types of data files back and forth. Texting, however, was to become the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Humanity developed a severe addiction to this manner of communication which has yet to abate.

Nokia was the hot phone seller of the day.

As far as drawbacks, there were still a few:

  • Digital calls had a variety of issues - limited range and dropped calls
  • Last mobile technology before data transmission rates jumped up
  • Limited signal in rural areas

Looking back, 2G technology seems like it was more of a passthrough technology than anything. It was a noticeable improvement over 1G, but we wanted so much more from our phones. We were about to get it when 3G hit the scene.

3G Cell Towers

3G technology made its appearance beginning in 1998. We were able to enjoy more data, video calling, and mobile internet thanks to a monumental step forward in transmission speed. While 2G left us muddling along at 50 Kbps, 3G elevated that to 384 Kbps if you were on the move and a jaw-dropping 2 Mbps if you were stationary.

3G networks hit the market in 2001. One of the most welcome advancements was that vendors were now using the same network protocol, the end result being that international roaming was possible.

The speed increase from 2G meant that phone users could stream video and video conferences as well as hold live video chats - Microsoft’s Skype was all the rage then. Thanks to the newfound solidity and ubiquity of 3G, email became a big deal, used by almost everyone with a phone.

All this we’ve mentioned is nice, but we haven’t even touched on the big thing yet. 3G heralded the arrival of being able to browse the internet on your phone and stream music. Only basic HTML pages at this stage, but what a treat to go online with your phone. While it’s true 2G technically allowed for music streaming also, it was primitive and slow compared to 3G.

Nokia was still selling some phones as the 3G era began, but smartphones were on the way. Blackberry and Apple were the leading sellers. The first iPhone would be released in 2007. After that, it was a one horse sprint towards 4G. 

The 3G era was a big step forward for cell phone technology but it hadn’t solved every problem yet. Phones were expensive and battery power disappeared quickly if you strayed away from calls and basic texting. Additionally, the coverage area was still not great and you had to get used to being bumped from internet browsing due to bandwidth constraints.

But fear not. 4G was on the way!

4G Cell Towers

This is the current standard for mobile networks. The towers remain essentially unchanged in appearance, though there are many more of them as vendors seek to provide adequate service for anyone who has a phone.

Curious about speed? 4G technology delivers it at about 500 times the speed of 3G. It allowed true mobile internet browsing to come into its own. People shifted from looking at static pages to being able to interact and complete activities like plane or hotel reservations, buying online, and ordering food to go. Pretty much anything you could do with a desktop or laptop could now be achieved with a smartphone.

Even better, you could watch high-definition television and video, participate in a Zoom meeting without fear of being kicked out, and much, much more.

We mentioned speed improvements. Here are the numbers. 4G easily provides 10+ Mbps when you’re on the move and up to 100+ Mbps if you’re stationary. While 4G seemed like a smartphone panacea when it arrived, there were a few things to grumble about. Mismatched frequency bands between countries sometimes made it a hassle to travel internationally. Also, using a phone for bandwidth-intensive activities still created a battery drain.

The main thing that 4G technology did was let us know how much more we wanted. More bandwidth. More speed. All the better to be able to use our smartphone for anything that we wanted to do online.

The powers-that-be were listening.

5G Cell Towers

While the previous iterations of cell phone towers looked essentially the same, a few cosmetic differences related to the broadcasting technology notwithstanding, 5G was the first mobile technology to look different.

We’ve touched on the differences you might note when first seeing a 5G tower - they’re smaller. For now, though, you’ll also note that there are more of them because current broadcast coverage is actually less than 4G.

This doesn’t bother too many people, thanks to the blazing fast speed and ability to participate in absolutely the highest bandwidth activities you can find. 

The interesting thing we mentioned was that the actual broadcast equipment for 5G really doesn’t need to rely on traditional-looking towers. It can be stuck on the side of a building, water tower, or even up in a tree.

What exactly has 5G brought us in improvements? Here are a few:

  • Much higher network traffic capacity
  • Greatly reduced latency for upload/download speeds
  • Supports more devices simultaneously
  • More suited to support smart vehicles and homes

What does all this techno-babble mean to the consumer on the street with a smartphone clutched in their sweaty little hands? More information can be transferred faster than ever before. You should have fast responses even in high-density areas like airports and urban areas.

Thanks to lower latency and higher bandwidth, expect to be able to stream a 4K video in seconds, conduct a crystal-clear Zoom meeting while you’re walking down the street, and play online games from anywhere without a hitch or glitch.

After that spiel, the question probably comes to mind: Is there anything bad about 5G? Is it the perfect mobile technology? Well, obviously, it isn’t perfect. It’s expensive, both to build out the networks and to buy 5G-capable smartphones. There’s also the matter of access. Though 5G technology was introduced in 2015, it is still only available to around 25% of the United States. It’ll likely be close to the end of the decade before it is what we will consider a mature technology in terms of function and availability.

A final drawback we’ll mention is that 5G, at present, will require many more cell towers and small cell broadcasting units in order to cover the same area as 4G. This means more equipment to maintain and repair and more of a visual eyesore if you worry about those kinds of things.

How 5G Cell Towers Work

To achieve the higher speeds and greater bandwidths that 5G has been able to do requires new technology, of course. Things like millimeter waves, beamforming, and MIMO are common terms when you discuss 5G. Let’s take a quick look at each of these and how they advance the mobile phone connection game.

Millimeter Waves

Millimeter waves refer to the frequency at which 5G networks broadcast data. While 4G was focused on the lower end of the spectrum, 5G has moved up into the higher frequencies, specifically the 28 and 39 GHz bands, which are referred to as the millimeter wave spectrum.

These higher frequencies can carry massive amounts of data at a very high speed and with little latency. This is the only way to meet the massively rising demands of mobile-first consumers who use their smartphones to interact with connected homes, AR/VR devices, cloud gaming, self-driving vehicles, IoT sensors, and more. Much more.

The big benefit of 5G technology is that it will make all this available at scale to billions of smartphone users rather than millions, and that’s where we’re headed.

This superhighway of frequencies isn’t all puppies and unicorns though. There are still challenges to be overcome, specifically relating to how to get more distance out of the 5G signals. In urban environments especially, obstructions arise in the form of buildings and trees.

While the 5G technology wrinkles are still being ironed out, trust us, this is going to be good.


When it comes to mobile broadcast technology, there has traditionally been the problem of the signal dispersing to some extent before it reaches a receiver. 

It’s been a constant thorn in the side of mobile technology engineers. The development of beamforming, though, has allowed vendors to fine tune the signal transmission so that much less of the data gets lost in the transmission process.

Beamforming allows a 5G tower or even a small cell to fine-tune a broadcast to a particular phone, laptop, or autonomous vehicle. This creates a more efficient connection and makes for a better user experience.

Beamforming is handy and expands the appeal of 5G technology, but it’s not a perfect process by any means. The three main drawbacks are related to hardware complexity, high cost, and heavy power demands.

Massive MIMO

Massive MIMO has been a player on the mobile technology scene for years and is proving to be a great help to 5G’s lauded ability to scale up enough to meet the mobile phone needs of everyone on the planet. A tall task. Here’s how MIMO helps.

MIMO is the practice of placing a lot of antennas on a tower, in this case, the 5G variety. When you have multiple antennae working in tandem it can’t help but increase the overall connectivity and speed.

For MIMO to work properly requires the use of algorithms that advise the antennas where to focus their energy. The “massive” in the term simply refers to the high number of antennas in use at any particular installation. The more you have, the more “massive” it is. 

Having come to the end of our bragging about massive MIMO, let's point out a few drawbacks to the technology. First, as mentioned, it is a highly complex process that probably wouldn’t be successfully implemented by your basic high school graduate. 

You need people with big brains and math and technical skills. This comes at a correspondingly higher price tag in salaries. The other notable problem that can manifest with massive MIMO is that the narrow beams are easily knocked out of alignment, which messes up the very thing they are trying to achieve - namely, create high efficiency and reliability.

Benefits of 5G Cell Towers

We’ve talked about some of the general ways 5G connectivity is already improving lives and will do even more in the future. In particular:

Benefits of 5G cell towers

  • Data transmission improvement in speed and capacity
  • Better and safer IoT and autonomous vehicles
  • Better coverage in rural and urban areas
  • Fewer dropped calls

Let’s dig deeper.

Increased Speed and Capacity

At the heart of the promised increased speed and capacity lies the millimeter wavelength that carries 5G. If you have any knowledge of radio broadcasting, you realize that over-the-air frequencies can be too busy with too many broadcasters competing for limited bandwidth. In the radio world, that’s where you hear one station bleeding over onto another.

Simply put, 5G has been allowed to move into higher frequencies that have not been used yet. Not only are these higher frequencies uncluttered, but they have the innate ability to offer much more bandwidth and connection speed. While lower frequencies are muddling about with too much activity, the millimeter waves have the capacity to comfortably carry every single person on earth’s phone connection.

Advancements in IoT and Autonomous Vehicles

IoT stands for Internet of Things. If you aren’t familiar with the idea yet, don’t look now, but it’s all around you. Simply put, the IoT is the idea and growing reality of connecting any device with an on/off switch to the internet and other connected devices.

The IoT is a giant network of devices and people that collect and transmit data about how they are used and the environment around them. Your wireless home security equipment is part of the IoT. So are billions of industrial sensors that play critical roles in a variety of manufacturing processes.

An interesting permutation of this concept is autonomous vehicles. They are autonomous only by the grace of hundreds, maybe thousands, of tiny sensors placed all around and inside the vehicle. These sensors monitor the exterior driving environment and send split-second communications back to the steering components when adjustments need to be made on-the-fly.  

When human lives depend on this communication, you want the fastest, most reliable possible. Hello, world. Meet 5G

Improved Coverage and Connectivity

Even in the heart of the most urban city, phone users hit dead spots and slow connections all the time. Some are related to bad coverage. Others are due to too many people on a network at the same time.

We’ve already talked about how specific 5G technology like millimeter waves, beamforming, and massive MIMO directly addresses the slow/unreliable problem. Well, 5G is also in the process of attacking the problem of undercoverage.

We’ve all seen traditional cell towers associated with 1G through 4G networks. They are tall, ungainly things that don’t typically sit well in an urban landscape. With the advance of 5G, though, broadcast equipment doesn’t even have to sit on a tower. It’s been miniaturized to the point that you can hang it on the side of a building or a utility pole.

This is how 5G is in the process of improving these things for all mobile users.

Increased Business Efficiency

If anyone needs a fast, reliable connection, it’s business owners and the employees they hire. Communication is the name of the game in business. In order to turn potential customers into current customers and then keeping them long-term requires great customer service backed up by top-notch communication.

The bottom line is that anything that promotes better communication experiences is good for business. We’ve said it before, but let’s do it again. Hello, business world. Meet 5G networks.

Improved Remote Learning and Working 

In these post-pandemic days of remote work and tele-learning, it’s never been more critical to be able to rely on your mobile connections, and that’s what this all really comes down to. Life has moved online to an extent not many of us would have imagined ten years ago. 

To keep our online life going requires ever more reliable and functional technology. That’s what 5G brings to the table. Though not the final iteration for sure, it’s the best of the best of what we have now. For all reasons we’ve already put forth in this article, it’ll re-imagine the faces of working and learning too.

Addressing Concerns About 5G Cell Towers

If you’ve been very long on this planet, you’re probably aware that nothing is 100% perfect. For every advantage, there are likely to be a few disadvantages. It’s no different with 5G technology. We’ve gone to great lengths to enumerate the positives, but we would be remiss to not mention the negatives too.

5G towers are associated with increased levels of radiation, potential negative effects on wildlife, and an impact on the environment in general. There are even privacy concerns. None of these should be dealbreakers, but let’s look at each more closely. The good news is that these negative side effects are not occurring in a vacuum.

Vendors and other stakeholders in the industry, as well as watchdogs of all sorts, saw these problems coming and have already begun researching how best to address and minimize them.

Regulations and Safety Guidelines

In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has promulgated regulations regarding the safe use of radio frequencies since 1985. Specific regulations are based on testing to create standards that insure all the electronic radiation flying around isn’t hurting people, either phone users or innocent bystanders.

This testing will continue and likely be ramped up while 5G technology is still in its initial rollout. One thing is certain. The FCC pays close attention to all the different uses of radio frequencies and will sound the alarm quickly and hold vendors responsible for fixing problems as they arise. 

Continuous Research

If you’re looking to be reassured that volumes of intensive research have been completed before bringing 5G technology to market, you’re not going to like what comes next. The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) works hand-in-hand with the FCC to oversee these matters.

FDA doctors, scientists, and engineers monitor all ongoing research in order to change their standards if called for. Thus far, the company line is that there is “no consistent or credible scientific evidence of health problems caused by the exposure to radio frequency energy emitted by cell phones.” 

There are voices in opposition. The Scientific American website is one. A blog published in 2019 pointed out their opinion that “we have no reason to believe that 5G is safe.” They point to the fact that radiation level standards were set in the 1990s and cell phone usage has increased considerably since then.

One thing we can rely on is that further research is progressing. Though vendors push hard to have their services and products approved immediately, there are enough voices of dissent to hopefully keep the industry safe for everyone.

Encryption, Data Minimization, and User Control

These days, when anything happens in the world of communication, either online or otherwise, privacy concerns are raised, and 5G networks are no different. 

The moment 5G technology was announced, murmuring commenced related to whether the new networks would increase a user’s ability to keep their private information private or would blow everything sky high and create an open season by hackers on 5G users.

From what we can see so far, 5G security has upped the ante far above previous iterations of mobile networks.


Encryption is a cybersecurity tactic where data is converted into code that no one else can read until it reaches the end user, where it is decrypted back to readable form. 5G has taken a few proactive steps when it comes to encryption.

First, your 5G identity is encrypted any time you use your phone in a way that sends data, specifically against hackers who try to mimic cell towers. Encryption is also applied to scramble traffic when voice or data travels between your phone and a cell tower.

The bottom line is that 5G’s use of encryption will make it very hard for a hacker even with a powerful computer to try to decrypt your information. They won’t have time because the security algorithms are too strong.

Data Minimization

This techie phrase is actually pretty easy to understand and has a marked impact on the security of your information while using a 5G network. The idea revolves around "how much of your data does a vendor collect while you are actively using the cell service and store afterward?"

Obviously, the less they keep, the less there is for hackers to go after. A skilled hacker can latch on to an innocuous bit of data and follow it back until they find a more serious treasure trove. 5G designers recognized they could increase security by limiting data collection and storage to only what is absolutely necessary.

User Control

In the old days of the internet, website owners and tech service vendors didn’t have to care very much if you had control of the data that was stored on their servers related to you or not. Things have changed considerably. 

Public opinion, massive data breaches, and a healthy hacker class have moved the needle on the topic of allowing the user to have more of a say in how their data is collected, stored, and used. 

For example, non-essential data is no longer collected or stored. What is stored is deleted once it is no longer relevant to the session. Users can log onto their phone’s dashboard and choose security settings for many things they used to not have access to.

The bottom line is that 5G designers have put their money where their mouth is when it comes to incorporating industry-standard security into these new networks.

Final Thoughts

As we come to the end of this article, we’d like to take a moment to mention the main points. 5G cell towers are carrying the latest and greatest version of mobile technology to hit the planet. They are faster, more secure, and an all-around better product than any that have come before.

That doesn’t mean 5G is perfect yet, though, and never will be, but it is better. We’ve tried to fairly highlight the benefits and concerns as we see them.

We are still in the early stages of the 5G rollout. Some estimates say we’re at about 25% coverage now and should be close to 50% within a few years. We’ve mentioned a lot of different ways that 5G has already shown itself far superior to 4G and the others, but we’re sure unexpected developments, probably good and bad, will arise as we go.

Your best bet is to keep at least somewhat informed about where 5G is at. You don’t have to become a tech geek but just pay a little attention to tech news. You might be surprised by what you learn. The goal of this is to make you a better consumer of this exciting service, as it will undoubtedly affect public health, the environment, and privacy for better or worse.

Now we’ll finish off this piece with a heads up. 6G is coming…