Everything you need to know about 5G: What it is, what it isn’t

5G is all the rage with wireless carriers these days, but as with everything new, there’s a lot of confusion and misinformation circulating. Let’s dig into what 5G is, and more importantly, what it isn’t.

To start with, “5G” is not “5GHz”. 5GHz is one of the three bands consumers can use with WiFi. We talked about the Pros and Cons of 5GHz WiFi a little while ago.

5G is a marketing term which addresses speeds and technologies which wireless carriers use to deliver data to our mobile devices (and may have the potential of replacing hard-wired Internet connections to our homes). Since “5G” is a marketing term, specific definitions differ based on context and implementation. Generally speaking, 5G is the successor to LTE (or LTE-A). More specifically, 5G is the consumer term for the ITU IMT-2020 standard which provides for speeds up to 20 Gbps – yes, twenty gigabits per second. To accomplish speeds approaching this, higher frequency waves (“millimeter waves”) are being explored – somewhere in the range of 15 GHz – but before we get too deep into details of where we’re going, let’s go back to where we came from and where we are now.

smartphone wifi performance

A Brief History of Wireless Data Standards (WWAN)

Back in the day, it was easy to differentiate types of wireless data (WWAN vs. WLAN). Today, however, those lines are being blurred.

WLANs (Wireless Local Area Networks) are generally referred to as WiFi and typically cover your house, a store, or your school or work. They’re local, and their range covers a few thousand square feet. Thanks to some innovative hardware, the “Local” of “Local Area Network” is being redefined – for example, I receive my Internet from a cable modem that’s 1.2 miles away from my house via an 802.11ac 5GHz signal. Using the same hardware, I can send a 5GHz WiFi signal 10 miles – and a 2.4GHz signal even further.

WWANs (Wireless Wide Area Networks) are generally what we’d consider to be delivered by “cellular” or “wireless carrier” companies, and is what we’re talking about in this article.

Here are a few of the more notable wireless standards, and their download speeds – potentialdownload speeds, that is.

  • GPRS: 0.086 Mbps
  • EDGE: 1.6 Mbps
  • EV-DO: 4.9 Mbps
  • HSPA: 14.4 Mbps
  • LTE: 300 Mbps
  • WiMax: 365 Mbps
  • HSPA+: 672 Mbps
  • LTE-A: 1Gbps for fixed users
  • LTE-A Pro: “in excess of 3Gbit”

Typical throughput (the speeds that we see on our devices in everyday use, and which is what we’re really interested in) is hard to quantify. This metric depends on many protocol issues including transmission schemes (slower schemes are used for longer distances from the access point, for example), packet retransmissions, and packet size, etc. And let’s not forget the number of users on a tower, and the backhaul data speeds to that tower – both which significantly impact the speed that you feel when using your cellular data.

5G Huawei Mate X

Where does 5G fit in?

5G is the fifth generation of cellular network technology, and the 3GPP association defines any system using “5G NR” (5G New Radio) software as “5G” – regardless of speed, throughput, or spectrum which it uses.

As we mentioned earlier, others prefer using “5G” for systems which meet the requirements of the ITU IMT-2020 standard.

What everyone agrees on is that 5G will be “fast”. One way to accomplish the speed goals of 5G is by using a different part of the wireless spectrum. For all those keeping score at home, the higher the frequency, the more carrying capacity that band has (2.4 GHz is “slower” than 5 GHz, for example). The downside is that higher frequencies don’t travel as far (2.4 GHz signals can go further that 5 GHz signals, again, for example). The higher the frequency, the higher the supported data transfer speeds without interfering with other signals, but the shorter that signal can reach.

5G NR can include “lower frequencies”, below 6GHz (FR1); and “higher frequencies”, above 24GHz (FR2). The most common FR1 being used for 5G in this range is 3.5 GHz, though we should see quite a bit of “millimeter wave” spectrum utilized as 5G expands. For FR2, Verizon is using 28 GHz, and AT&T is using 39 GHz. The FR2 side allows frequencies up to 300 GHz.

5G NR speeds in the sub-6GHz bands (FR1) can be a bit higher than 4G, while using a similar amount of spectrum and antennas. All that is technobabble for explaining that some “5G” networks will be slower than some advanced 4G networks. The T-Mobile LTE/LAA network gets 500 Mbps and higher in Manhattan and Chicago.

5G FR2 Deployment Scenarios

5G FR2 has a few different deployment targets:

  1. Femto Cell:targeted at providing access for homes and businesses with a capacity of 4 to 32 users and a range of 10s of meters.
  2. Pico Cell:targeted at providing access in public areas (malls, airports, train stations, office buildings) with a capacity of 64 to 128 users and a range of 10s of meters.
  3. Micro Cell:targeted at providing access to fill coverage gaps between Pico Cells and Metro Cells, can cover 128 to 256 users, with a range of a few hundred meters.
  4. Metro Cell:targeted at providing access for suburban/urban areas with a capacity of more than 250 users and a range of hundreds of meters.

For comparison, WiFi is targeted at homes and businesses, typically providing access for less than 50 users, with a range of 100 meters; which puts today’s WiFi on-par with a 5G Pico Cell.

While cellular and WiFi currently hold separate and distinct use-case scenarios, 5G sees these lines blurring and some 5G deployments may even use signals in unlicensed frequency bands which are also used for WiFi rather than bands which are leased by specific carriers. The distinction between the two may come down to the type of network (local area versus wide area) the user is trying to achieve, rather than the distance at which the user homes to gain Internet access.

5G Concerns

No new technology is ever without controversy, and 5G is no different.

Spectrum

The frequency proposals for many 5G deployments will be very near that which is used for weather and Earth Observation satellites, particularly those which monitor water vapor. The concern is that 5G networks may interfere with weather prediction, with objections coming from the United States’ NOAA, NASA, Navy, and DoD – which played it’s “detrimental to national security” card.

National Security & Surveillance

Many of the hardware vendors which are providing 5G hardware are either based in China, or have production facilities in China. This has raised concerns of the potential of espionage by the United States, Australia, the UK, and the Netherlands, resulting in taken actions having been taken to restrict or eliminate the use of Chinese equipment in their respective 5G networks. The Chinese government as well as named Chinese vendors have denied these allegations.

Health Concerns

As with any type of electronic communication, there are concerns regarding electromagnetic radiation and the potential for adverse health effects. While health concerns related to radiation from cell phone towers and cell phones are not new, the broad range of frequencies which 5G will use make pinpointing any potentially valid concerns nearly impossible – such concerns should be less about 5G in general, and should be more appropriately directed at the use of particular frequencies used by specific implementations of 5G.

Where those two concerns intersect is in the use of millimeter wave frequencies which have not been extensively tested for their effects on people.

Security & Privacy

Back in the 1990’s, home users didn’t have to worry too much about malware, viruses, identity theft, or cybercrimes because computers were rarely always connected to the Internet (and when they were connected, the data rates were relatively slow). As the years progressed, our connection speeds increased and we could keep our computers “always on”, which meant the bad guys had significantly faster and more reliable access to our machines when attempting to infiltrate our systems. With mobile devices, their targets have become even more plentiful.

As we blur the lines between cellular and WiFi, securing our networks (while maintaining access to all our devices and services) will become harder, potentially allowing for more attack vectors. Mixed security deployments could harbor massive DDoS attacks, crypto-jacking, and cyberattacks.

Additionally, as the coverage area of a cellular cell becomes smaller, the ability for corporations and government agencies (and criminals) to pinpoint our locations and track our comings and goings is greatly increased.

Summary

If 5G lives up to its promises, the current (and limited) spectrum in which we live should be able to accommodate more people, more uses, and more devices. These connections should be faster, more reliable, and more ubiquitous.

However, exactly what 5G is has yet to be defined, let alone realized in a practical sense. The 5G deployments we’ve seen to-date are more “proof of concept” than they are foretellers of the future of the “standard”.

Lastly, 5G is often described as a universal solution for all Internet connectivity issues – it is not. As Member of Parliament of Canada David de Burgh Graham says, “5G is not a magic bullet that will fix everything”.

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About The Author
Joe Levi
Joe graduated from Weber State University with two degrees in Information Systems and Technologies. He has carried mobile devices with him for more than a decade, including Apple's Newton, Microsoft's Handheld and Palm Sized PCs, and is Pocketnow's "Android Guy". By day you'll find Joe coding web pages, tweaking for SEO, and leveraging social media to spread the word. By night you'll probably find him writing technology and "prepping" articles, as well as shooting video. Read more about Joe Levi here.