Everything you need to know about 5G

The next-generation wireless technology is expected to change your life. Just not yet.

What is 5G?

It’s the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology, and it promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage, and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking? Verizon’s network showed speeds surging past 1 gigabit per second.

That’s 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (In optimal conditions, you’ll be able to download a season’s worth of Stranger Things in seconds.)

Is it just about speed?

No! One of the key benefits is something called low latency. You’ll hear this term a lot. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, which sends the request up to the network, and when the network responds, delivering you the website or playing your video.

That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. It doesn’t seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash on a normal camera. 

That responsiveness is critical for things like playing an intense video game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco, though latency will still be affected by the ultimate range of the connection. The virtually lag-free connection means self-driving cars have a way to communicate with each other in real-time — assuming there’s enough 5G coverage to connect those vehicles. 

How does it work?

5G initially used the super-high-frequency spectrum, which has a shorter range but higher capacity, to deliver a massive pipe for online access. Think of it as a glorified Wi-Fi hotspot. 

But given the range and interference issues, the carriers are also using lower-frequency spectrum — the type used in today’s networks — to help ferry 5G across greater distances and through walls and other obstructions. 

Sprint claims it has the biggest 5G network because it’s using its 2.5 gigahertz band of spectrum, which offers wider coverage. T-Mobile plans a bigger rollout of its 5G network in the second half thanks to the use of even lower-band spectrum. And AT&T says it plans to offer 5G coverage nationwide over its lower-band Sub-6 spectrum in early 2020.

The result is that the insane speeds companies first promised won’t always be there, but we’ll still see a big boost from what we get today with 4G LTE. 

Where do these carriers get the spectrum?

Some of these carriers already control small swaths of high-frequency radio airwaves, but many will have to purchase more from the government. Carriers around the world are working with their respective governments to free up the necessary spectrum. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is holding more auctions for the so-called millimeter wave spectrum, which all the carriers are participating in. 

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Motorola’s 5G Mod, in prototype formJuan Garzon/CNET

Are there other benefits?

The 5G network is designed to connect a far greater number of devices than a traditional cellular network does. That internet of things trend you keep hearing about? 5G can power multiple devices around you, whether it’s a dog collar or a refrigerator. 

The 5G network was also specifically built to handle equipment used by businesses, such as farm equipment or ATMs. Beyond speed, it’s also designed to work differently on connected products that don’t need a constant connection, like a sensor for fertilizer. Those kinds of low-power scanners are intended to work on the same battery for 10 years and still be able to periodically send data. 

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