5G Defined

Anticipation has been building over the roll-out of 5G technology. With major US mobile carriers having trialed 5G in select cities while continuing to expand the scope of their 5G networks, and with plans for broader roll-out in the coming year, 5G will soon be widely available. However, though 5G is often referenced and is closer to becoming a reality nationwide, not everyone has a clear understanding of what 5G is and how it differs from current 4G capabilities. 

Shifting from 4G to 5G

5G refers to the fifth generation. Since wireless technology came onto the scene, major advancements in data transmission speed and capabilities have resulted in new “generations” that greatly advance the technology, making the new generation incompatible with the previous. The first generation (i.e., 1G) was based on analog cellular technology with eventual progression to digital cellular technology (2G), followed by mobile data technology with faster data rates (3G), and up to the current generation, 4G LTE, which offers mobile internet and substantially faster speeds than its predecessors. 5G will bring yet another significant upgrade that will bring faster speeds and allow greater connectivity to the Internet of Things (IoT). 5G will leverage 3G and 4G technology in an effort to boost data transmission speeds. These faster speeds come from 5G’s use of millimeter wave technology, which utilizes unused bandwidth at the higher end of the wireless spectrum that can move data at greater quantities and speeds than lower-frequency waves used in 4G networks. However, lower frequency waves can travel a greater distance than the higher frequency millimeter waves, requiring a denser network to achieve 5G connectivity. Whereas current networks use fewer but larger cell phone towers that are more spread out, 5G requires the addition of several smaller antennas for the same coverage area. Establishing this infrastructure is one of the greatest challenges of 5G technology but will soon be a reality beyond the initial 5G trial cities.   

Major Improvements 5G Will Bring

  • Speed: 5G will bring a significant increase in download and upload speeds. Whereas 4G speeds are typically below 100 megabits per second, 5G network speeds should reach a minimum speed of 1 gigabit per second and are anticipated to eventually reach up to 5 gigabits per second (1,000 megabits per second is equal to 1 gigabit per second). 
  • Lower Latency: Latency refers to the delay in a network (i.e., the time it takes between issuing a command and the network responding). 5G will reduce latency, making a network more responsive and instantaneous, allowing for improved interactivity for users without delay or lag time. The aim is for 5G to have an end-to-end latency of only a 1-millisecond delay.
  • Connectivity capacity: As the IoT expands, individuals are connecting an increasing number of devices to the internet. 5G will extend wireless services beyond mobile phones to enable greater connectivity for the IoT. Rather than relying on Wi-Fi technology, the IoT will be able to take advantage of the faster speeds and lower latency available through the 5G network. This access will greatly change and extend the IoT landscape.

3GPP Standards for 5G

As 5G becomes a reality, the industry needs guidelines to adhere to. GSMA has outlined the following eight criteria, a majority of which a network should meet in order to be considered 5G:
  • 1-10 gigabits per second connections to endpoints in the field
  • 1 millisecond end-to-end round trip delay (i.e., latency)
  • 1000x bandwidth per unit area
  • 10-100x number of connected devices
  • (Perception of) 99.999% availability
  • (Perception of) 100% coverage
  • 90% reduction in network energy usage
  • Up to 10-year battery life for low power, machine-type devices
Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the international group which governs cellular standards has also released 5G specifications with additional releases anticipated. With the release of these standards and specifications, as well as the broadening network infrastructure, 5G will soon be widespread.

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