Nowadays, we hear a lot about "5G." The term features in the news a lot, phone manufacturers are starting to release 5G devices, and cell phone carriers are all starting to talk about 5G in their advertisements. Beyond that, it's even popping up in some conspiracy theories, just to make things interesting.
The reason for all this hype is that 5G is a technology that could genuinely change the world. It's a significant upgrade from our current mobile broadband technology, and it offers so much promise. Yet if you ask most people what 5G is, what makes it different from our existing networks, and what it offers them, few people know.
This is a problem because we are entering the rollout stage of 5G, which means it is available, but at a relatively high cost. Companies are pushing it on consumers because they want the rollout to go more quickly, but not everyone needs 5G right now, nor can they get it.
So, to help you understand this transition better and figure out when you should get on board, we've put together this guide explaining everything you need to know about 5G.
The term "5G" describes the next generation (the fifth) of commercial mobile phone networks. It follows on from 4G, the current standard, which made mobile broadband (high-speed) internet possible.
Its predecessor, 3G, was the first network to allow for mobile data, whereas 2G introduced digital voice signals. 1G, which was first used in Japan in 1979, was the first mobile phone network and relied on analog signals to transmit calls. This restricted how far signals could travel while also limiting the number of people who could make calls at one time.
Mobile networks have come a long way in the past 40 years. Today, you can video call, stream movies, call, text, and so much more using 4G.
Yet with the capability to do so much, why are we starting to say goodbye to 4G? Well, while 4G has been groundbreaking, the near-universal adoption of smartphones, along with the introduction of new technologies, have made it so that the world needs a new network. Enter 5G.
To understand the transition to 5G, it's important to know what 5G can do better than our current network. The main improvements 5G offers include:
The most glaring difference between 5G and 4G comes in terms of network speed. When using 4G, download speeds top out at about 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps). When operating at this speed, you should be able to download a full-length HD movie in about 10 minutes. However, these speeds are theoretical. Network speeds are impacted by various factors (distance from the tower, bandwidth, device capacity, etc.), so we often don't experience these speeds, though they are possible.
With 5G, peak download speeds are expected to be around 20 Gbps, allowing you to download that same high-definition film in about one second. Can you imagine having a movie ready to watch immediately after clicking download?
Again, these speed figures are theoretical, but 5G promises to be much faster than 4G. The additional speed will not only make the mobile internet experience better, but it will also allow for many more applications, something we will discuss in a moment.
Download speed is an essential component of network quality, but bandwidth is just as important.
For those who don't know, bandwidth refers to the amount of data that can pass through a network at a given time. To use a metaphor, think of a pipe. Bandwidth measures how much water can pass through that pipe, while how quickly it moves depends on other factors.
When it comes to mobile bandwidth, it all has to do with radio frequencies, i.e., the size of the radio waves transmitted between your device and the nearest tower. Today's 5G mobile networks use the same frequencies they've always used, yet there is infinitely more data passing over these frequencies than ever before, which causes them to get clogged and slow down speeds on an individual device.
5G promises to dramatically expand mobile bandwidth, which means users won't see significant slowdowns when there are many devices connected to the network.
The increased bandwidth of 5G is almost more important than the increased speeds, as it will allow for even more devices to connect to mobile broadband services.
5G offers better latency than 4G. For the non-tech gurus, latency refers to how long it takes for data to travel between your device and the nearest tower. It is a significant factor in determining what you can or can't do on a network, primarily because it determines how much data can be processed in real-time.
You need good latency to communicate in real-time through voice or video chat or any other situation with a continuous stream of data. In such cases, data is constantly moving over the network, so any delay will result in a backup that will affect performance, meaning your internet will slow down.
When there isn't much traffic on a 4G network, and you have a good signal, latency is good enough to perform a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) call or even a video chat. Yet, this is not always the case, and 4G is most certainly not capable of dealing with even more advanced technologies such as virtual reality. We'll discuss this more in a moment.
One thing that is on everyone's minds these days is network security. It seems that several times per year, we hear of a major hack on a big company, which puts lots of people's data at stake. Therefore, it's no surprise that increased security has been one of the priorities for those working to make 5G a reality.
Network slicing is one particular security feature that has people rather excited. As the name suggests, with 5G will come the opportunity for network slicing. All this means is that separate private networks can be created. For example, if a large hospital complex wanted to use 5G to connect all its people and devices, it could make its own separate, private network that would more securely harness this mobile broadband network.
As you can see, 5G promises to do a lot of things. You may be thinking, "So what!? 4G is already pretty fast. What's the big deal?"
This is understandable. However, not only is 5G going to improve the experience of using the mobile internet, but it's also going to open up the door for a wide range of new technologies, some of which stand to have a dramatic impact on our world.
Here are some of the new applications for 5G mobile broadband internet:
Maybe you've noticed that pretty much every device and appliance these days comes rigged to connect to the internet, from light bulbs to dishwashers. This phenomenon is known as the Internet of Things (IoT), and it's the wave of the future. By connecting to the internet, these devices can do so much more.
For example, your smart refrigerator can keep track of the supplies you have inside and then trigger an online purchase that will make sure you never run out. Your thermostat can tap into the weather forecast and adjust automatically so that your home is at the perfect temperature while also conserving energy.
These applications are fantastic, but they also put tremendous strain on the networks they use. At the moment, since most still rely on WiFi, devices can only communicate with one another if they are connected to the same network. This limits what can be made "smart" since it has to be something near a WiFi router.
With 5G, improved bandwidth and speed will allow for more devices to link, which will expand the capabilities of the IoT. Cars, bikes, streetlights, and so much more would be able to harness the power of the internet to collect information and improve performance.
No, 5G isn't going to fill the atmosphere with more water, leading to more clouds. We're talking about cloud storage, which allows us to store files in a remote location.
Cloud technology is helpful because it means we can rely less on our device's internal memories. In other words, we can worry less about running out of space and having to make that difficult decision of what to delete so that we can take one more photo.
The cloud currently exists but is limited by 4G technology due to the amount of data that can travel across the network at once. 4G's latency issues also hinder it. Data in the cloud has to be available at a moment's notice, and this limits how much data we can store "up there." If we put too much, accessing it could become difficult depending on what else we're doing and who else is accessing the network nearby.
With 5G, bandwidth and latency improvements mean that we can store more data up in the cloud and worry less about accessing it since the network can handle many more demands at once without sacrificing speed or security.
You've probably heard that "automation is the future" and that virtual and augmented reality are "the next big thing." Maybe you've also wondered why there aren't more examples of it available to average consumers.
When it comes to automation, there just aren't as many applications. Industry has been using automation for decades, and it's poised to get better with 5G. Improved bandwidth, speed, and latency will allow for more real-time monitoring to help bring about massive efficiency improvements.
In terms of daily interaction, one area where 5G will bring more automation into our lives is with cars. Self-driving vehicles are just around the corner, but for this technology to work, cars need to be able to communicate with one another (or at least their onboard computers do). This requires an internet connection. On a 4G network, this wouldn't be possible. There isn't enough bandwidth, and latency is an issue.
However, 5G networks can handle the data transfer between vehicles on the road, though it may take quite a long time to reach the universal coverage required to make this possible.
Also, expect to see more augmented and virtual reality features become available for your phone. For example, you may be able to video chat using special glasses and an app and make it seem like you were sitting in the room next to the other person. The phone would gather video footage from your side, send it to the other side, and then virtually recreate the space.
This sounds cool, but doing so requires a ridiculous amount of data being processed all at the same time, something that can only happen when 5G networks are up and running.
Of course, not all applications of 5G have to do with video chatting and entertainment. The healthcare and banking industries and law enforcement will be able to use technologies that will all make it easier for them to do their jobs.
Without a doubt, 5G is going to be a game-changer. Not only does it improve upon existing technology, but it also opens the door for some exciting new applications, all of which promise lots of big change going forward.
Curious about the technology behind 5G that makes it such a big deal? Here are some of the key advancements that the 5G network relies on to deliver on its promise as being the next generation of mobile broadband networks:
To understand what makes 5G special, we must remember that our current mobile networks are modeled on the radio. We got the idea for the technology because we had figured out how to transmit sounds over radio waves. Phones were invented separately, but it wasn't long after this happened that people started thinking about combining the two technologies and creating mobile phones.
This means that early mobile phone networks were designed using a particular set of radio frequencies, so all networks have used the same ones until now. This has made things rather crowded, and it's part of why we are running up against speed and bandwidth limitations with 4G.
The response has been to implement what is called millimeter wave technology into 5G. This means data will be translated at much higher frequencies, making the wavelengths very small – only about a millimeter tall.
Doing this will allow many more devices to connect to a tower at once, reducing latency and improving bandwidth. It will also allow for more data to be transmitted at once, which leads to higher speeds.
Making this change means revamping the very foundation of today's mobile networks. Though to make the improvements in performance the world needs, such a change is necessary.
However, there are some limitations to this technology. The critical issue is that these millimeter waves are easily obstructed by buildings or other large objects, which means the signal can be easily disrupted in cities and other areas with lots of interference objects.
The response to this issue from the telecommunications industry is to use small cells. These serve effectively the same purpose as a cell tower, but they are much, much smaller. In most cases, they aren't much bigger than a traditional moving box.
These tiny boxes relay the 5G signal to one another, allowing the signal to travel further from the initial tower. They help overcome the breakdown in the signal that is likely to occur when 5G networks are placed in dense urban areas.
However, for small cells to work in these areas, there would need to be one every 250 feet or so. This adds a complication to the 5G rollout process, as these cells would need to be placed in practically every large city in the US and then the entire world. Installing this infrastructure would be a massive expense, but the advantage is that the cells are so small. Carriers could place them on telephone poles, on top of buildings, on light posts, etc., to expand coverage in cities.
Another extensive development that is helping make 5G possible is what's called "Massive MIMO." MIMO stands for "multiple-in-multiple-out" and refers to antennas that use two or more transmitters and receivers to broadcast data. With the implementation of 5G, we will start to see antennas featuring hundreds of transmitters and receivers.
Once again, this comes back to millimeter-wave technology. As the waves are at such high frequencies, the receivers and transmitters don't need to be as big as they are now (radio waves are much longer and require larger equipment to be received). This means a given antenna tower can handle far more connections without sacrificing the speed with which data is transferred.
Massive MIMO is a key reason why 5G is promising such major upgrades to network bandwidth. It will handle so many more connections at once, meaning you won't have to worry about performance dropping when lots of people are connected to the same tower as you at the same time.
The use of millimeter-wave technology and massive MIMO will also allow 5G networks to use another technology: beamforming.
In essence, beamforming is a way of directing traffic, though in this case, we're referring to signals. Currently, with 4G, when a tower receives a signal, it is then broadcast back out to your device by being sent out over a wide area, one in which you are presumably located. Once your device spots the signal, it downloads the data and presents it to you.
This works, but it has some inherent issues. First, it doesn't always send the data along the most efficient route, meaning it might take longer to travel between your device and the antenna. Second, by taking this more roundabout path, it's being subjected to interference from other signals, which might cause a breakdown in the connection, which could lead to slower speeds or even a complete disconnect.
Through beamforming, antennas can focus their signal on one single device, which ensures it takes the quickest route and doesn't run into any other signals along the way.
All of this translates to reduced latency and faster speeds.
5G networks also promise to make use of full-duplex technology, which means that a transceiver can send and receive data simultaneously. In other words, it will be able to work twice as hard, allowing more data to be processed at a given time. Yet another technology that is going to make 5G even faster and more reliable than our current 4G mobile broadband network.
5G stands to revolutionize the way we think about and use our phones and mobile networks. However, as is the case with any new technology, there are some significant shortcomings. While most agree that the coming change to 5G is a good thing that will bring about lots of positive impacts globally, there are some challenges still left to overcome.
For example, the main disadvantages of 5G include:
Despite these shortcomings, the 5G rollout is very much upon us. Telecommunication carriers are banking on introducing the technology to smaller markets, creating the demand, and then raising the necessary funds to bring it to even more areas.
Given how much it can do and how much it promises to change, you may be wondering if you can make use of 5G today.
In short, you most certainly can. However, you need to make sure you have a 5G-capable device, and you also need to live in an area where there is 5G coverage.
There are currently several 5G devices you can choose from, the three most well-known being the Samsung Galaxy S21, the iPhone 12, and the Google Pixel 4a. However, Huawei and other manufactures also have options.
In addition, Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile (which used to be Sprint until the two merged) all offer 5G coverage in select cities around the country. In reality, what they mean is that they offer coverage in certain areas of certain cities. As we said, the transition is still just beginning.
If you happen to live in an area with 5G coverage, then all you need to do is upgrade your device and enjoy.
We should mention that your 5G experience today may not match up to what it's expected to be. Much of the infrastructure that will bring about all the improvements we discussed earlier is still to be installed. However, you will be able to enjoy much faster download speeds.
5G is clearly so much more than just "a faster mobile network." Yes, it promises much faster connections that will allow us to video chat wherever we are and download movies in a flash, but it will also help usher in a new era of technological change. A new era centered around automation and the connectivity of everything.
While transition periods can sometimes be scary, you need not be worried now that you know everything there is to know about 5G. Just sit back and wait for the future to arrive.