By now everyone has heard the term 5G. What is 5G? How will it affect me? Is it available now?
What is 5G: Wireless communications use Radio Frequencies to carry information. For the purpose of this article, we will talk 5G for mobile devices only. From a technical perspective, 5G (Fifth Generation) networks utilize waveforms that are millimeters in size (much smaller than what is used today) to deliver a higher rate of speed and lower latency in communication. Since this higher frequency technology is newly developed, bandwidth is uncluttered at this time, allowing for much higher overall speeds. However, there is a tradeoff between the faster speeds from using higher frequencies and the overall distance that they can travel compared to 3G and 4G. Another major drawback of 5G technology is that the higher frequencies have a much harder time traveling through objects like buildings and trees – forcing us to install the base stations much closer to each other compared to current cellular towers. Building out that infrastructure is what is taking 5G so long to become mainstream. Even though all the major carriers are marketing their 5G over others, it’s still rare to have full 5G speeds.
5G Speeds: 3G is rated at 7.2mbs, 4G is rated at 150mbs (similar to many homes internet access in the US) and 5G will hit up to 1Gbs. Did you know that 3G networks are still used today despite having such slow speeds? This is because of the same tradeoff that allows 3G’s larger wavelengths to travel greater distances. For certain rural applications, 3G is still very favorable, however 4G is still the most common cellular technology used today. While you’ll often hear 5G being touted in lots of locations, due to the lack of infrastructure, getting full 5G speeds over any real distance is not a reality yet. Unfortunately, many companies use the term 5G as a marketing term more than fact.
Pure speed is not the only factor used when talking about the differences between 3G, 4G, and 5G. Latency, which is the time it takes for each end to receive the information, is another critical component for both ends to talk to each other. 3G has a latency of 65 milliseconds, 4G runs at 40 milliseconds and 5G is reported to run at close to 1 millisecond. The shorter the time both ends of a connection respond the better.
Applications for 5G: Most of us live on our cell phones and tablets these days through cellular connections, so we know very well that the faster the connection and the lower the latency the better. Typically, we only think of our daily cell phone use as the source of internet demand, but really it will be a drop in the bucket compared to what is required for the autonomous cars of the future. These cars will take full advantage of the increased speeds to allow them to communicate with other vehicles on the road to sync their movements The amount of data demanded and generated by these cars will be massive, and 4G systems will not be enough to support it. Pushing and pulling data to cars wirelessly while on the roads will be 5G’s primary use in the future. To do this, we would need 5G base stations every couple of hundred yards along roads. This will hit first in large metropolitan areas and eventually work its way outward to suburbia and finally out toward full rural areas. The second large application of 5G will be IoT (Internet of Things) devices, which are things like smart cities, smart homes, smart agriculture, and any other internet enable systems of the future. Having full arrays of sensors throughout our world will enable new services and applications that we can’t even imagine at this time.
Summary: All of the numbers and expectations that are being thrown around about 5G are all theoretical since a full-scale 5G system has yet to be build. But, once 5G infrastructure is widespread and devices start to take advantage of those speeds, more challenges that we will have to solve are bound to arise. Regardless of the challenges that lie ahead, humans have always pushed on toward progress and we will do the same in this instance until we get it right. I am personally very excited for the future world that 5G will allow us to build and for the applications of 5G that we haven’t even dreamed of yet.