What is 5G?

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5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology. It’s set to be a huge change in how people — and machines — access the internet.

The benefits of 5G would go well beyond streaming mobile HD video. 5G promises speeds fast enough to run smart cities and coordinate a network of autonomous vehicles. 

This article will explore:

  • Current and anticipated 5G data rates
  • How 5G technology works
  • Whether there are any health risks associated with 5G wireless technology
  • How 5G will be used
  • When 5G will be available
  • Which devices can run on 5G networks

Understanding 5G

The “G” in “5G” stands for “generation” — 5G is the fifth major overhaul of cellular networks. But what do consumers and businesses get when they subscribe to a 5G network?

How Is Internet Speed Measured?

Internet speed is measured in bits (b) per second (s) (bps), and denominations thereof, for example:

  • Kilobits per second (Kbps — a thousand bits) 
  • Megabits per second (Mbps — a million bits)
  • Gigabits per second (Gbps — a billion bits)

A bps measurement tells us how much information can move through a connection each second. 

If a device is connected to a network with a high bps, this means it can: 

  • Load websites faster and stream higher quality video (download speed)
  • Store files in the cloud quickly and transmit video calls smoothly (upload speed)

Ping is another important factor when measuring internet speed. Ping measures how quickly a mobile device can send a message to a server and receive a response. Ping expresses latency or lag in milliseconds (ms). Low latency means smoother communications and online gaming.

How Fast Is 5G?

A body of the United Nations, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), sets standards for communications networks. 

The ITU’s first definition of 5G came in 2015, via a roadmap for network development known as IMT-2020. This standard required that 5G networks support download speeds of up to 20 Gbps (gigabits per second) and upload speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

20 Gbps is incredibly fast, but not likely to be reflected in the “real world” any time soon.

The first 5G networks in the US are typically reaching speeds between 150 Mbps and 1 Gbps, with speeds as fast as 1.8 Gbps having been reported.

How Much Faster Is 5G than 4G?

Comparing 5G to 4G is not straightforward, partly due to the lack of a clear definition of 4G. 

When 4G came along, a number of technologies attempted to use the label despite failing to meet with the ITU’s standards. 

According to the ITU, 4G must be capable of providing download speeds of up to 1 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 500 Mbps. This is much faster than most people’s “4G” mobile internet, and faster even than most household fiber-optic broadband speeds.

Some 4G technologies can reach the ITU’s standard of offering 1 Gbps downloads, such as 4G LTE (“Long-Term Evolution”) Advanced and WiMAX 2+. These network technologies are considered “true 4G,” and are delivering speeds comparable to current 5G networks.

However, most commercially available “4G” networks are, strictly speaking, actually a variant of third-generation networks.

For example, 4G LTE, which offers maximum download speeds of 100 Mbps and maximum upload speeds of 50 Mbps. Even the nascent 5G networks currently available are faster than the LTE connections most consumers are used to.

How Does 5G Work?

Faster connection speed isn’t the only change brought about by 5G. 5G works in a fundamentally different way from previous generations of mobile network technology. The difference is important.

5G operates on three separate spectrum bands, that deliver different speeds and different signal strength.

The GSMA, a trade body representing major mobile network operators, divides 5G spectrums into the following bands:

  • Low-band (sub 1 GHz), which delivers lower speeds of around 100 Mbps but provides excellent building penetration and signal strength.
  • Mid-band (1-6 GHz), which can deliver faster speeds of up to 1 Gbps with relatively low latency, but poor building penetration.
  • High-band (6 GHz and above, including “millimeter-wave” (mmwave) bands above 24 GHz), which deliver extremely high speeds of up to 20 Gbps (eventually).

Different service providers will need to deliver their 5G services at different frequency bands. In the US, for example:

  • T-Mobile and is offering long-distance 5G coverage on the 600 MHz low-band frequency.
  • Sprint has launched mid-band coverage on the 2.5 GHz frequency in several cities using “Massive MIMO” radio technology.
  • Verizon and AT&T are investing in the higher frequencies of 28 GHz and 39 GHz, using “small cells” to deliver high-speed hotspots in concentrated areas.

Are There Health Risks Associated with 5G?

New technology often provokes health fears. The World Health Organization (WHO)’s research concludes that concerns over mobile phone base stations and Wi-Fi signals are unfounded. But is 5G different?

It’s true that there is substantial concern about the introduction of 5G. For example: 

  • Members of the US Congress have expressed disquiet about the use of millimeter-wave band technology and the installation of hundreds of thousands of small cells.
  • A group of scientists from across the EU is appealing for a moratorium on the roll-out of 5G.
  • Towns and cities across the UK have banned the introduction of 5G network technologies until further research has been carried out.

The common theme to these concerns is that not enough research has been carried out into 5G technology. However, as yet, there is no solid scientific research demonstrating that 5G technology is harmful.

Uses of 5G

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a standards organization responsible for developing 5G, defines three main use cases for 5G networks:

  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
  • Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communications (URLLC)