What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of mobile technology, how a mobile phone communicates with the phone network. While it is the fifth generation, it isn’t exactly a direct replacement for the 4G network. 5G communication happens over extremely short wavelengths at extremely high frequencies to support the transmission of massive volumes of data. These ultra-high frequencies require a clear line-of-sight for communications between the device and the tower. This differs from existing 4G networks which work at lower frequencies with their multi carrier transmissions, thus supporting lower throughput than 5G but more than the spread spectrum radio technology of 3G. What all started with those big cellular phones found in suitcases communicating over an analog 1G network at 2.4 Kbps to 14.4 kbps will be communicating digitally (since 2G) over 5G with data rates around 10 Gbps.

There are three pillars that describe the problems that 5G is trying to solve:

  1. Faster speeds
  2. Lower latency
  3. More devices

Speed is the most visible part of the upgrade from 4G. With all the video being streamed these days, you might think that downloading an average length HD video for offline viewing taking four-five minutes isn’t that long, but with 5G that time drops to less than ten seconds. Both these times are a big improvement from the hours needed over 3G. It is important to point out, though, that not all 5G communications will initially be at the 10 Gbps just mentioned. And, just because 5G rolls out doesn’t mean your old device will communicate over it. In fact, they won’t. AT&T is rolling out the first 5G in Dallas, TX, Waco, TX, and Atlanta, GA. If you happen to live in those cities and want to experience 5G speeds, you’ll need to get a new device that works over 5G (and simultaneously still works over 4G, so you’re not stuck in the isolated 5G land). Huawei recently announced the first 5G chipset for mobile devices. Once hardware manufacturers get ahold of these chips, they can start making the phones that use them. In turn, this will allow you to play in the three starter cities if you purchase said devices.

The second pillar of change with 5G is latency. Latency is defined as the time it takes to send a data packet between devices. 4G has a latency rate of around 50 milliseconds. With 5G, you can expect a reduction to about one millisecond. For downloading a game/movie, ultra-low latency isn’t that big of a deal. You can afford a delay of a few extra milliseconds. But… imagine if that 5G device is controlling a car/plane on autopilot or a medical device monitoring your loved one’s vitals. In these cases, those extra milliseconds could cost someone their life if the device controller doesn’t receive a signal in time to process and react before there are deadly consequences.

You can mostly blame the Internet of Things (IOT) for the third problem pillar. As more and more devices have wanted to always be connected to the cloud, the original address space for such devices has become nearly exhausted and a new address space has been defined. That not so new space is called Internet Protocol version 6 (IPv6). While IPv6 is mostly required for any 4G device nowadays, it wasn’t part of the original 4G specification. Now, the network naming space defined by IPv6 allows the billions of connected devices to communicate successfully.

It is important to understand that 5G support isn’t limited to mobile phones and works more like wireless in your home. The previously mentioned cars and medical devices are an obvious secondary market, but not the only ones. Instead of requiring the phone or cable company to dig up your street and lawn to provide your home or business with a higher grade of service, home and business wireless networks and set-top boxes can communicate over the 5G network, making broadband upgrades so much easier and ultimately quicker. As soon as a provider makes the 5G signal available from that nearby phone tower, any number of devices can communicate over it. Home alarm systems won’t require connection over a home’s landline and will react more quickly when insecure problems are detected. Driving down a street with one of those “Slow Down” signs that flash when you go too fast? Imagine if the sign connected to your car which provided the driver’s name. How much differently would you react if the sign explicitly included your name, showing “Slow Down, John.” Or just imagine a “smart” road with accident detection cameras communicating with your nearby car and Waze, directing your car’s autopilot to a less congested roadway. The options are unlimited when you don’t require that wire.

The road to 5G will take time. While PyeongChang showed off 5G capabilities during the 2018 Winter Olympics, the build-out for 5G support internationally is just starting. For starters, the three cities AT&T announced in early 2018 that will support 5G is just the tip of the iceberg for the year. By the end of 2018, you can expect the AT&T 5G service in a dozen cities, with nine of them yet to be named. As more places experience the speeds and low latency found in the 5G standard, even more isolated communities can experience the speeds found in the AT&T 5G phone plans.