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:
- Edge Computing
- How it Works
- Benefits and Drawbacks
Cellular networks started simply with 1G, the first mobile network, which was rather like 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. 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, our current experience, provides good network coverage, faster speeds than seen previously, advanced applications, cloud access, and more. But it’s not enough for the Internet of Things, and researchers knew that years ago. Though 5G did not become a buzzword until recently, it’s been in talks and development for more than five years. The heavy use of applications and other technologies that require a lot of data necessitated a rapid increase in cellular network speeds.
Not all forms of 5G are created equally, and not all wireless network providers are trying to use them all at once. The main service providers have had to choose carefully which 5G technology they’re primarily deploying.
Millimeter wave (mm wave) 5G: this is an extremely fast network version, but it works best in open air and had trouble moving through walls and other hard surfaces when tested. Mm wave 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 the wireless provider focusing on mm-wave, or high-band, 5G.
Low-band 5G: this network speed isn’t too much higher than 4G LTE, its predecessor, but it is much more reliable and can be more widely deployed. T-Mobile and AT&T have stayed more conservative with their 5G deployment, choosing to focus on low-band 5G rather than high-band.
Mid-band 5G: this finds the middle ground between speed and coverage. However, the military has had a monopoly on it in 5G’s early stages. The Trump administration announced in mid-2020 that mid-band 5G would be auctioned, so it may become more available for providers sometime in 2021.
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.
Verizon appears to lead in fastest 5G speeds, but it’s only available in a few cities comparatively. T-Mobile and AT&T’s focus on low-band 5G means they have slower 5G but also have deployed 5G in a lot more urban areas than Verizon has.
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 that 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 the Internet of Things 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 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. Fiber optic cables provide greater bandwidth on a network.
The fiber optic cable market is growing as demand for cables increases: China and the United States are two of the largest fiber optic cable markets currently.
5G technology will require enormous amounts of fiber optic cable to be effective: 5G hasn’t been fully deployed and will take years to be. Fiber optic cables must be placed in many more locations before 5G can reach everyone for whom it’s intended. 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 because more efficient cables and hardware have been installed.
Edge computing is essential to 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 for 5G to even be somewhat effective. Multiple cables and cells will sit within one square mile.
Some towns and neighborhoods have fought the installation of 5G hardware, mainly because it affects natural beauty and infrastructure. Though at first glance that may sound picky, 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. And the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given cellular service providers power over local governments to install technology; there isn’t a lot they can do to prevent it. Since that’s usurping local leaders’ power, many local governments have taken legal action.
Some small communities are also contesting 5G deployment in their neighborhoods because of health concerns: individuals are concerned about possible ramifications when 5G boxes and cells are placed close to their houses. They don’t want to risk serious health problems from the technology when those ramifications have not been fully researched and tech corporations have avoided discussing them at length.
The top cell phone providers have been marketing and selling 5G-supporting smartphones for a while: they started selling 5G-enabled phones in 2019. A few examples of 5G phones include:
- iPhone 12
- Samsung Galaxy S20
- Samsung Galaxy A51 & A71
- Motorola one 5G UW
Only phones that have 5G technology installed at their creation can use 5G technology. Previously-made smartphones cannot.
Some 5G tech researchers have discovered that 5G is often slower than 4G due to poor deployment and low reliability. If a phone loses its 5G connection in the middle of transmitting data or downloading an item, it has to default to 4G, which slows the ongoing process considerably.
As advertised, 5G will have media download speeds many times what 4G currently allows. The high-band, millimeter-wave 5G in large cities will provide immediate real-time data for technology such as virtual surgeries and self-driving cars.
At the moment, however, many of these capabilities are largely hypothetical. At the time of this writing, 5G is not even close to being fully operational, and the extremely-fast version (millimeter-wave 5G) barely works in a realistic city setting, since it has so much trouble moving through walls, or anything else solid for that matter. Low-band 5G, deployed by T-Mobile and AT&T, is much slower than mmwave 5G and has had more success. It’s easier to deploy widely, while Verizon’s ambitious high-band tech is only in a few select cities. However, low-band 5G is not always much faster than 4G. But cellular customers have had a better experience with it than with high-band 5G, which sometimes completely cuts out and transitions back to 4G, slowing download processes even more.
How fast is 5G, then? Right now, it’s actually sometimes slower than the standard 4G or 4G LTE, which makes sense because currently 4G is much more thoroughly deployed. The fast technology of 5G requires much additional hardware; it doesn’t come from nowhere. That technology hasn’t been installed in most areas of the United States. In fact, in the latter half of 2020, many other countries such as South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Australia have seen significantly better 5G speeds than the United States.
Cell service providers claim extremely high download speeds and aim for real-time data transmission. Verizon in particular is mainly promoting its urban millimeter-wave high-speed 5G plans. The ideal 5G speed is 10-20 gigabits per second, which is much faster than any strong 4G LTE connection. If everything worked optimally in such a cellular connection, 5G could be fast indeed.
Those speeds are also 20 or more times faster than the fastest cable internet download speeds, which could create significant competition between 5G and cable providers for internet customers. However, the fastest Ethernet speeds – 100 Gbps and higher – remain significantly faster than 5G’s highest expectations, so 5G is unlikely to become the network of choice for corporate networks.
The cellular and wireless provider industries want better download speeds, device connectivity, and network support for the increased use of smart technology. Because networks have to support so many devices, they need technology that can transmit more data more quickly. 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 become remote – a process begun in the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 – the additional bandwidth will be needed for video conferencing and corporate network access.
Telehealth is one of the most critical reasons for 5G deployment. It’s a standard now due to the COVID-19 pandemic; patients find it not only more safe but also more convenient, especially if they are house-bound or struggle to get out in general. Research suggests that 5G may permit virtual surgeries as well (performed physically by technology and operated virtually by a doctor). That would require near-perfect real-time data transmission.
In the future when it is effectively deployed, 5G will provide greater bandwidth and faster network speed to a world that’s clamoring for more data, 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.
5G Internet provides advantages for technology users who want to have better access to media and experience better networks overall. There are also a few less-advertised possible disadvantages of 5G tech. The consolidated lists below are very brief and highlight just a few benefits and drawbacks.
- Better network access and speeds for customers who live in rural areas (near the edge)
- Faster and more accurate telemedicine
- Good Internet connections in crowded areas (such as stadiums or other large venues) where many users are on the same network
- Connected network of smart devices (smart infrastructure) in cities that aim to help vehicles drive better and navigate traffic
- Possible negative effects of radiation on health have not been fully researched yet, but some existing research from doctors and scientists suggest 5G technology is harmful for humans
- Installing hardware almost everywhere could significantly detract from natural beauty and architecture
- Many local communities’ desires to avoid an influx of 5G technology are being overridden by technology corporations
5G promises many great advantages, but the journey to full adoption will be slow and fraught with issues.