5G is the fifth generation of cellular networks, offering higher frequency waves and greater bandwidth on wires and wireless connections. 5G technology launched in 2019, although the top cellular network providers did not fully implement it. A year and a half later, in late 2020, it was still only employed in small parts across the United States. 4G LTE is still the dominant network as of late 2020 and is generally very reliable.
The main draw of 5G is that, although it won’t be as noticeable for a couple of years, its support of more devices on a network and higher-frequency waves will increase IoT connectivity and speed. This means that the Internet of Things will become even more responsive. More devices will connect to a network, and since the demand for connected devices is already high, networks will be required to support even more. 5G attempts to meet that need.
Once fully implemented, 5G’s significantly higher speeds could shake up the Internet service provider (ISP) market by becoming a formidable competitor to cable.
Jump ahead to:
- History of 5G networks
- Types of 5G technology
- Top 5G service providers
- How does 5G work?
- How is 5G installed?
- 5G phones
- 5G capabilities
- How fast is 5G?
- 5G and edge computing
- 5G in enterprises
- What is 5G used for?
- Why is 5G important?
- Concerns about 5G
- 5G benefits and drawbacks
History of 5G networks
Cellular networks began with 1G, the first mobile network, which was similar to a radio. Conversations could easily be overheard if an eavesdropper accessed the right radio frequency.
In the early 90s, 2G was introduced with better-quality, safer phone calls and text messaging. And 3G, at the beginning of the 21st century, pioneered significant improvements in connectivity and introduced modern phone technology, as it permitted users to video chat, send large files, watch media, and use multiple applications all from a mobile device.
4G, the current network experience across the U.S., provides good network coverage, faster speeds than seen previously, advanced applications, cloud access, and more. But it’s not enough to reliably support IoT, which researchers realized years ago. The heavy use of applications and other technologies that require a lot of data necessitated a rapid increase in cellular network speeds.
Samsung first announced a 5G network in 2013, although some experts dissented because no standards had been developed for 5G yet. Chinese provider Huawei started investing in 5G research in 2009 and invested $1.4 billion in 5G development between 2017 and 2018. Verizon created the 5G Technology Forum in 2015, including other tech companies like Qualcomm and Samsung.
To meet consumer demand for increased speeds, major carriers began implementing their own 5G infrastructures across the world. AT&T deployed some 5G cells in U.S. metropolitan areas in late 2018. In April 2019, South Korea deployed its 5G network, using Samsung, Nokia, and Ericsson hardware. Verizon and T-Mobile deployed U.S. networks in 2019 as well.
In the early stages of deployment, development, and marketing of 5G networks:
- Verizon focused on millimeter-wave 5G, a high-speed spectrum concentrated in large metropolitan areas.
- AT&T also began by focusing on high speeds and cities. It initially notified customers they had a 5G Evolution connection, which it called a launchpad for 5G and which had Advanced LTE capabilities; however, that connection did not meet 5G speed specifications.
- T-Mobile worked to develop its own 5G network for the entire nation, including rural areas.
In late 2020 and early 2021, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) announced a mid-band spectrum auctions, which opened bandwidth previously under the purview of the government to commercial development. All three major providers purchased this C-band spectrum to support their 5G network plans. In early 2022, AT&T and Verizon began deploying their newly acquired mid-band spectrum.
3 types of 5G technology
There are three major 5G spectrums available, based on the length of the waves transmitted between 5G hardware, like cells and base stations. The major service providers had to choose which 5G technology they primarily deployed in its early years. The FCC also places limits on the amount of spectrum available for cellular providers.
Millimeter wave (mmWave) 5G
This is an extremely fast network, but it works best in open air, and it had trouble moving through walls and other hard surfaces when first tested. mmWave 5G was designed for multiple network users in one area, such as a music or athletics venue.
Over the past couple years, Verizon has been primarily focusing on mmWave, or high-band, 5G. High-band speeds can be up to 3 gigabits per second (Gbps).
This network speed isn’t much faster than 4G LTE, its predecessor, but it has a more reliable connection than high-band 5G and can be more widely deployed. Low-band waves travel much farther than high-band: a single low-band tower provides connectivity for users within hundreds of square miles, and speeds can fall between 30 and 250 megabits per second (Mbps), according to VentureBeat.
T-Mobile has stayed more conservative with its 5G deployment, choosing to focus on low-band 5G rather than high-band. As a result, it has the widest-ranging 5G network in the U.S.
Mid-band, or C-band, spectrum finds the middle ground between speed and coverage. However, the military had a monopoly on it in 5G’s early stages. The Trump Administration announced in mid-2020 that mid-band 5G would be auctioned.
During the auction that ended in November 2021, AT&T was the highest bidder, laying down $9.1 billion for mid-band spectrum bids.
Top 5G service providers
AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are the three frontrunners in the 5G industry. Verizon announced in spring 2019 that it would be launching a 5G network; since then, all three providers have introduced 5G networks in multiple cities. T-Mobile has installed 5G in hundreds of American cities so far.
Sprint was also one of the providers at the top of the list, but it merged with T-Mobile in spring 2020, allowing the two companies to join forces in the 5G network race. Sprint also had some 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum available that T-Mobile could then deploy.
Initially, Verizon offered a nationwide 5G that more resembled 4G speeds, and its mmWave was deployed only in major cities. As of January 2022, Verizon and AT&T are authorized to deploy mid-band 5G, which will improve their combination of speed and coverage.
How does 5G technology work?
5G technology utilizes fiber optic cables more heavily than its predecessors. Fiber optic cables have a number of benefits for cellular networks:
- Lower latency when transmitting data
- Greater efficiency compared to copper cables
- Faster data transmission
- Greater bandwidth for data transmission
Fiber optic cables run under the ocean, underground, and throughout urban infrastructure. They transmit light at extremely high speeds. Cellular signals are transmitted across these fibers, which may allow different wavelengths to cross them at the same time. This allows the cable to transmit more signals at once, which provides greater bandwidth on a network.
The fiber optic cable market is growing as demand for cables increases. Mordor Intelligence predicts the global market will have a 14.5% compound annual growth rate between 2021 and 2026, increasing from $9.2 billion in 2020 to $20.8 billion in 2026, with China in the lead as one of the largest fiber optic cable markets.
How is 5G installed?
5G installation teams lay fiber optic cables and small cells, devices that are placed intentionally in high-population areas such as cities to develop a 5G network. Radio frequency (RF) signals will pass rapidly across the cables and edge servers in the network. 5G technology will require enormous amounts of fiber optic cable to be effective. Networks require numerous base stations and cells, and fiber optic cables provide the underlying network that carries signals between 5G hardware.
Edge installations are essential for full 5G deployment. It’s one thing to install cables and cells throughout a metropolis, but network providers are also working to make 5G technology available to those at the edge of the network (in more rural areas).
Small data centers and servers placed at the outskirts of a network provide faster network speeds to customers who live in the country or any place that’s geographically separated from the data center. Small cells, servers, and cables deployed across the landscape also mean better data transmission for long distances.
Millimeter wave technology travels only a short distance, much less than a mile and much shorter than 4G’s travel range, so enormous numbers of fiber optic cables and small cells will need to be placed within one square mile for 5G to even be somewhat effective.
Top cell phone providers began selling 5G-enabled phones in 2019. As of February 2022, leading phones included:
- iPhone 13 Pro Max
- iPhone 13 Pro
- iPhone 13
- iPhone 13 Mini
- Google Pixel 5a
- Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra
- Samsung Galaxy S22 Plus
Only phones that have 5G technology installed at the time of manufacture can use 5G technology. Previously-made smartphones cannot.
Mid-band and high-band 5G will have media download speeds many times what 4G currently allows. High-band mmWave 5G in large cities poses the possibility of real-time data for technology such as virtual surgeries and self-driving cars. Other potential 5G applications include:
- Infrastructure 2.0, or smart infrastructure, a technology that will enable some of the self-driving car capabilities by alerting vehicle systems of problems along the roadway
- Security monitoring based on real-time sensor data
- Cloud computing for mobile workforces’ data management
- Accelerated supply chain management for manufacturers
- Augmented reality for product visualization and training new employees
Some 5G capabilities are currently hypothetical. At the time of this writing, mmWave 5G doesn’t work as a solution for any remote operations because it can’t move through walls or other solid surfaces. Now that AT&T and Verizon are more widely deploying mid-band 5G, businesses could see the impact of technologies that require greater speeds during 2022.
Also read: 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and the Future of Wireless Connectivity
How fast is 5G?
The ideal 5G speed is 10–20 Gbps, which can range from 100-1000 times faster than an average 4G LTE download speed. If everything worked optimally in such a cellular connection, 5G could be fast indeed.
On a low-band network, 5G download speeds can reach 30–75 Mbps, according to T-Mobile. Some mid-band networks reach 115–223 Mbps, and T-Mobile estimates a top download speed of 10 Gbps for high-band 5G.
5G and edge computing
Edge computing first processes data on a local server, rather than sending device transmissions to a data center. Requests that travel to a data center will be slower, and a concentration of requests in one place could overload servers (in addition to creating a single point of failure and security vulnerability).
Instead, edge computing operates from the edge of the network, or the places nearer to users. This means smaller servers installed in a greater variety of locations.
Edge computing aims for low latency. When two servers are physically closer, the time the network requires to transmit data between them decreases, and requests are spread out across servers. It’s one feature of 5G that will allow the new networks to provide faster turnaround for requests and greater connectivity between devices.
Edge technology is essential for 5G to be successful in more areas than just large cities. It helps hold IoT together in regions that don’t have exceptional network coverage otherwise. And corporations are building their own private 5G networks to take full advantage of the new technology.
5G in enterprises
5G will also make high-speed private networks available for enterprises. Businesses can deploy their own private network, designing it and setting up the hardware themselves, or they can purchase a private network from a provider. Having a private wireless network ensures that a business receives all of the bandwidth on the network, rather than having to share it, and can customize aspects of deployment. Some private networks have 5G capabilities alongside 4G LTE. Examples of private networks include:
- Verizon Wireless Private Network
- AT&T Private Wireless Network for Enterprise
- Nokia Industrial-grade Private Wireless
Private wireless networks are particularly useful for manufacturing companies or other industries that rely on real-time sensor data for alerts or notifications. The high speeds from a 5G network, particularly mid-band or high-band 5G, could help prevent physical accidents or system breaches if sensor data picks up a threat quickly enough. Private wireless networks are also useful because they give a business dedicated bandwidth: it all belongs to one company.
Also read: What is a Private 5G Network?
What is 5G used for?
The Internet of Things has been one of the biggest advertised reasons for needing 5G, although good 4G LTE networks also perform reasonably well for supporting smart devices. But anticipating exponential growth of smart devices means preparing for greater bandwidth requirements and faster network speeds.
The IT industry aims to use 5G technology for more ambitious projects, such as self-driving cars, which would require absolute real-time notifications since human response is still faster than most technology.
5G could also increase telehealth capabilities. Many standard doctors’ appointments and other clinical sessions are now virtual, and handling that level of real-time data and streaming requires much faster network speeds and the ability to transmit more data.
And as more and more workers shift to remote offices—a process begun in the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020—the additional bandwidth will be needed for video conferencing and corporate network access.
Why is 5G important?
In the future when it is effectively deployed, 5G will provide greater bandwidth and faster network speed to a world that requires more data transmission, no delays, and greater accuracy. This will particularly benefit businesses that have many employees accessing the same corporate network. Applications that require data to be updated instantly will have more accurate information.
For example, if 5G permits technology like virtual surgeries (operated virtually by a doctor), that would require near-perfect real-time data transmission. 5G will play a key role in the applications that software providers are designing.
Concerns about 5G
Some towns and neighborhoods have fought the installation of 5G hardware because it affects natural beauty and infrastructure. The sheer number of towers, boxes, and cables that need to be installed for effective 5G coverage could prove an eyesore, especially for areas known for their natural or structural beauty.
In 2018, the FCC restricted local governments’ ability to impose fees of their choosing on cellular service providers when they install technology. This received criticism from some, including elected officials and the FCC’s own commissioner, as being a possibly illegal move.
Some small communities are also contesting 5G deployment in their neighborhoods because of possible health ramifications from 5G boxes and cells close to their houses. Lab tests have been done, but no thoroughly conclusive research links radio waves from 5G towers to cancer; however, cancer isn’t the only potential health concern.
Many scientists are primarily concerned that, with all the unknowns about 5G’s health effects, rollout should slow down or stop until they know more details. In Europe, over 180 scientists and doctors have petitioned the EU to halt the 5G rollout, calling for the conduction of studies on potential effects of 5G radiation.
In January 2022, after providers that had purchased the auctioned mid-band spectrum were preparing to install it, major airline company executives contested the deployment based on concerns about negative effects on airline equipment. They stated that once C-band 5G was deployed near airports, aircrafts might not be able to take off. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 5G radio waves could inhibit equipment like altimeters from working properly.
Later in January, the FAA approved some planes’ altimeters to work sufficiently without confusion from 5G signals. Some executives who had previously expressed concern spoke with more enthusiasm about finding a balance between airlines’ needs and Verizon and AT&T mid-band installation.
Also read: An Overlooked Cybersecurity Threat: 5G