If you have been following tech news lately, there is a good chance you have heard something about 5G. This next generation of wireless technology is all the buzz these days. The thing is, as many companies tout the benefits of 5G, consumers still don’t know much about what 5G really means. Sure, companies say it’s faster and better technology, but what does that mean for you?
What Is 5G?
The easy answer is that it is the next generation of wireless network technology. Currently, most of our smartphones and tablets work with 4G (or 4G LTE), which is fourth-generation technology. 5G is simply the next step and is far more evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. As part of a text definition, 5G, by design, should be able to handle more connected devices than today’s 4G networks. The hope is that it will allow new technologies that were unable to find success with 4G technologies to become mainstream.
On a technical note, 5G adds three different aspects that make it a bigger deal than 4G: It allows for significantly faster speeds, lower latency (faster response) and simultaneously connecting more devices. On the subject of connecting more devices at once, think about smart devices in your home, office and eventually in your cars. For now, 5G networks are still very much in their infancy. It’s going to take a few years before we see the coverage rival that of today’s widespread 4G networks.
How 5G Works
Depending on your location, there are three basic variations of 5G coverage: low-, mid- and high-band coverage. High-band is a short range 5G network that likely only covers a few blocks from any one tower. This millimeter wave coverage (or mmWave for short) has a limited range requiring denser coverage (think more towers) in a geographic area.
One way high-band 5G carriers are solving this is the use of 5G small cells. Femocells, picocells and microcells can reach anywhere between 10 meters and two kilometers and can dramatically improve 5G coverage in buildings. Because it is a higher band, it also has a more difficult time passing through walls and windows, hence the use of small cells indoors. The good news is that high-band speeds can be super fast. Under ideal conditions, users can hope for speeds between 1Gbps and 3Gbps or higher, which makes it at least 30 times faster than today’s 4G networks.
A more ideal spectrum for 5G, mid-band is able to carry a lot of data with the signal covering more distance from a tower. This is one of the most deployed 5G types around the world right now and will likely be what is found in more urban/metro areas. Also known as Sub-6GHz (less than 6 gigahertz), coverage can carry for at least several miles and does a better job of penetrating walls and buildings than high-band 5G.
Under ideal circumstances, mid-band speeds can be anywhere between 100 MB and 900 MB but as high as 2Gbps. Mid-band generally exists in the 2GHz to 6GHz frequency range, hence it’s Sub-6GHz name. As this is a common frequency around the world, many 5G-ready devices will arrive already supporting this technology.
Transmitting at between 600MHz and 850Mhz, low-band 5G will travel the most distance out of any of the three 5G frequencies. That is especially good news for rural areas where towers may require more distance between them. The flip side to that is this frequency range acts as more of a baseline for putting down blanket coverage than it does real 5G performance.
In this frequency range, customers can expect speeds that are only incrementally better than 4G (30 to 250Mbps) but not much more. The use of low-band 5G is more about providing a wide swath of coverage and speed and will be determined by proximity to the nearest tower. One definite positive note for the lower band is that it is among the best at penetrating walls and windows for indoor coverage.
Benefits of 5G
In a world obsessed with faster downloads and instant gratification, speed matters. This is very much a selling point of 5G. In addition, 5G can handle more connected devices at once than 4G on a single tower, leading to less spotty or slowed service in a crowded area.
When it comes to speed, depending on the type of 5G you are connecting to, the speed can be as much as 10 times faster than 4G. There are some experts who say those speeds can actually reach up to 100 times faster than 4G. In an ideal scenario, you could download a movie in less than 15 seconds whereas it could take as much as 10 minutes with 4G.
The Internet of things will benefit tremendously from 5G. Connecting devices to other devices and allowing them to communicate will offer vast improvements in our daily lives. This technology will likely enable autonomous cars to talk to each other while eliminating potential road dangers.
Cons of 5G
Don’t let online conspiracy theorists fool you. There is no massive 5G threat to taking over your minds, nor is it responsible for the coronavirus. Low-band and mid-band 5G are using the same radio frequencies that have been used for dozens of years, especially in the United States. Instead, the biggest con of 5G right now is likely the time it’s going to take to complete a rollout. Broad networks are expected to be in a good place in 2025 with around 50 percent of all mobile connections being 5G, according to GSMA.
One additional concern about 5G is the security and safety of the networks being built around it. As 5G is likely to power new technology like self-driving cars and healthcare systems, the networks need to be secure against hacking and/or hijacking attempts.
Another con for 5G is that almost everyone will need new devices and technology to take advantage of its improvements. That means new manufacturing equipment for businesses, new smartphones and tablets with 5G modems, etc. Farms will need new 5G-enabled equipment to run a fully-integrated autonomous system for watering and irrigation. The good news is that there is already a good selection of smartphones that incorporate 5G modems from brands like Samsung and Apple.
Even with all of the benefits 5G can offer, we’re still years away from truly seeing them come to fruition. Around the world, wireless carriers are building their networks in earnest. More importantly, they are not shying away from talking up their own networks over that of their competitors. If you are keen to try it out, you first have to get one of these 5G-enabled mobile phones.