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How 5G Works

A 5G sign
A 5G sign is shown on screen during a keynote address by Qualcomm Inc. CEO Steve Mollenkopf at CES 2017 in Las Vegas. Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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In the U.S., 4G is still the reigning king of cellphone communications standards. But providers are now rolling out long anticipated 5G infrastructure across America and around the world. With 5G, end users like you should see crazy fast data transfer speeds that allow for all sorts of amazing smartphone magic.

5G is the fifth generation (thus, the "G") of mobile wireless systems, a way for devices, both mobile and stationary, to send and receive data without being plugged into a wall in your home or at the office. Typically, a new generation is named (sometimes retroactively) when it denotes a significant leap in wireless mobile technologies. 5G might enable driverless cars, delivery drones, and may even replace the WiFi in your home and office.

You can buy a 5G phone right now if you want, but you may want to hold off. Keep in mind that 5G isn't yet available everywhere – in fact, it's still pretty rare around the world. As of January 2020, just 30 U.S. cities had substantial 5G coverage. That includes, of course, major metro areas like Los Angeles and New York City, among others. Other countries, like South Korea and China, actually got the jump on 5G and have more robust infrastructures in place now – there are roughly 90 and 60 cities in those countries, respectively, sporting this high-speed technology [source: Whitney].

In these high-tech countries, engineers are building a network that is – in select places, anyway – able to provide download speeds of about 10,000 Mbps (megabits per second). Various tests show that in cities around the nation, 5G is already hitting speeds that are 10 times faster than 4G [source: McGarry]. With those kinds of blazing speeds will come even more complex and powerful smartphone apps, among many other benefits. Remember when it took 15 seconds to download a 5MB MP3 file via 3G connection? With 5G, you may be able to download an entire movie in just moments. Giddy-up!

Whether you're an early adopter or slow to adopt new technologies, there's no arguing that mobile communications are transforming modern life, and it's likely that 5G bring even more changes. Keep reading and you'll find out what 5G is and how it might speed up your already quick-paced personal and professional life.

Verizon store advertises 5G
A Verizon store advertises 5G on April 5, 2020. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

As it stands, about every decade or so, communications companies unveil new wireless standards and then deploy the infrastructure to make it a reality. In 1982, the first so-called 1G networks came to fruition, for analog cell phones. 1992 saw the introduction of 2G for digital cell phones, and then 3G went live in 2003. Advanced 4G networks became a reality in 2012 [source: Segan].

Individual companies don't determine communications standards. In the case of 5G, it's a group called Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN), an association that brings together the minds of research engineers, hardware manufacturers, mobile service providers and other entities looking to develop this next-generation system.

As it rolls out across the globe, 5G is likely to improve on 4G in a number of ways. It will send and receive far more data than 4G, and it will be able to support greater numbers of users without getting bogged down. If you've ever been to a large concert or ballgame where your data speeds get exasperatingly slow, you know exactly what we're talking about.

Depending on the apps you use, it may use less power than 4G, so your battery life should (hopefully) improve. That means you'll spend less time scrambling to find a phone charger every day [source: Horwitz]. Service providers, on the other hand, will wring their hands over the fact that 5G base stations devour way, way more energy than 4G – perhaps twice as much or even more, meaning they'll have to spend gobs of cash just to keep the lights on [source: Hardesty].

And 5G should integrate seamlessly with the Internet of Things, the multitude of wireless devices and systems that's rapidly expanding thanks to smart, cheap sensors and, of course, nearly ubiquitous wireless networks. That includes everything from autonomous cars, to drones, to smart doors.

Those are just the biggies. There are a lot of other potential improvements that 5G might bring to the wireless table.

To better understand 5G's potential, it's worth quickly reviewing how cell phones work. You can see the in-depth story at How Cell Phones Work. Cell phones, at their most basic, are essentially two-way radios. They convert your voice into digital data that can be sent video radio waves, and of course, smartphones can send and receive internet data, too, which is how you're able to ride a city bus while playing "Flappy Bird" and texting your friends.

Because there are a limited number of radio frequencies and a whole lot of people with cell phones, cellular systems divide areas into cells that overlap with one another. A cellphone tower in each area transmits the radio signal that you need to talk or use online apps. As cell phone users travel around the area, their phones seamlessly jump from tower to tower. That way, the same frequency can be reused throughout the city without becoming completely overloaded, which results in delays or even service disruptions.

Many areas now have full 4G LTE (long-term evolution) service, the fastest 4G standard. In many cases, 4G LTE is so fast that video conferencing and movie streaming work often without any delays – in other words, much faster than 3G ever dreamed of.

But the widespread use of mobile devices has encouraged people to consume much more data in the form of video and images on their devices. These devices use the same bands of the radio-frequency spectrum that cellphone carriers have always used, which means slowing connections for everyone. To get around the lack of bandwidth and make some space, phone providers have been looking into using millimeter waves rather than radio waves for 5G.

Paolo Colella, Ericsson, drones
Paolo Colella, Head of Region India, Ericsson, hosts the Taste of Barcelona India Roadshow 2017 in Gurgaon, India. 5G might enable driverless cars and delivery drones. Sanjeev Verma/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Radio signals are measured by their wavelengths. The shorter the wavelength, the higher the frequency. 5G signals will use wavelengths (between 30 and 300 gigahertz) that are measured in millimeters. That's why 5G is considered a millimeter wave technology [source: IEEE]

The very high frequency of these signals is important to note. It means that 5G will be capable of incredible data bandwidth, so that many people will simultaneously send and receive nearly unfathomable amounts of data.

There are some caveats, though. 5G comes in three basic variations: low, mid and high band. High-band 5G (about 28 GHz) waves have short range, and may only be able to span a few blocks of any given area [source: Verizon]. That means 5G may not project over long distances. Smaller frequencies also don't penetrate obstacles very well, so everything from concrete walls to tree leaves may disrupt signals. That makes it a line-of-sight technology – your wireless modem or phone will need to be close to a base station for best transfer speeds.

In other words, because millimeter wave 5G signals have weaker propagation compared to 4G, service providers will have to create a denser infrastructure to ensure consistent service. As with WiFi, 5G will require more base stations in closer proximity to serve many people.

Low-band 5G, on the other hand, transmits at 600MHz, which will work at much longer distance. In rural areas, that means a single tower could potentially serve customers for hundreds of square miles – but the speeds might look more like 4G than the 5G you'd find in a city. Mid-band 5G, then, is the middle ground that you'll often encounter as you roam around from city to city. In some markets in the Far East, mid-band is fast enough for download speeds of 2GB per second. So far, we haven't seen that kind of performance in the U.S., but that should improve as network engineers tweak and improve the infrastructure [source: Horwitz].

5G's infrastructure rollout will continue to be different from 4G's evolution. In the past, communications companies typically build big cellphone towers to propagate cell signals throughout a geographical area. 5G may alter this paradigm. Rather than constructing towers, service providers will just install their equipment (called small cells) on existing telephone lines and buildings. The cells may have a range of around 820 feet (250 meters) [source: IEEE]. To tap into the signal, customers will use wireless modems (or phones) to connect. In turn, that could mean you no longer need that cable-based internet service.

A lot of what 5G really will entail is still in the realm of speculation. One thing's for certain: 5G will be an improvement over 4G in terms of speed and capacity. But the upgrade process will be expensive. Service providers will blow trillions – yes, trillions – of dollars to make the jump from 4G to 5G [source: Bayern]. And you can bet that consumers will have to pay up, too.

protest against 5G
Protesters march against 5G technology on Sept. 9, 2019 in The Hague, The Netherlands. Demonstrators are worried about violations of rights concerning health and radiation, privacy and the environment as tens of thousands of new masts (antenna poles) are planned to be installed. Michel Porro/Getty Images

As with all evolving technologies, the details about 5G will continue to emerge in bits and pieces. No matter what, you can bet that 5G will change your life in significant ways.

And yet, with all the specifications and upgrades and improvements that come with 5G, the technology is also burdened by some concerns that it may harm human health. No, we're definitely not talking about conspiracy theories that 5G caused the spread of the novel coronavirus that resulted in a devasting pandemic – that's patently, demonstrably, dangerously false [source: BBC News]. So if you're one of the people considering burning down a 5G to stop COVID-19 and its awful effects, you can put down the matches, thank you.

What some researchers are really worried about is radiation from 5G's millimeter wave technology. Because it's such a new technology, we really have no idea what sort of effects it may have on human physiology, and even animals and plants, too, due to the roughly 800,000 new antenna sites that will be necessary to create sufficient 5G coverage throughout the country.

The concern is that maybe we humans don't quite yet understand the long-term effects of RF (radio frequency) radiation, which you can more simply call "radio waves." Ultra-high-frequency radio waves really can zap your DNA and cause major health problems. These ionizing radio waves, which include gamma rays, are noted carcinogens that can lead to tumors, cancer, and other potentially deadly effects [source: Behar]. But cellphone signals fall into the non-ionizing category of radiation.

Still, it's unsettling to see that a $30 million study conducted by the U.S. National Toxicology Program (NTP) found that cellphone radiation damaged the DNA of lab rats and led to a rise in cancer rates, too [source: Moskowitz].

To date, the NTP and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have yet to classify 5G as potentially dangerous. However, around the world, some researchers are noting greater prevalence of tumors affecting the neck and head. Those might be due to the ubiquitous use of cell phones in our society — or they might not. Even the renowned Mayo Clinic says that any link between cell phones and cancer is at best tenuous, and the organization cites one study that examined cellphone exposure of more than 400,000 people over the course of two decades – there simply is no confirmed connection between these radio waves and cancer.

That's why experts would prefer that everyone just take a deep breath. They say that 5G radio waves are just another part of the electromagnetic spectrum that we're exposed to every day on this planet. And they repeat, again and again, that there's still no damning evidence that clearly links cell phones to cancer or other negative health effects [source: Finley].

Health problems or no, 5G is coming, and it'll be here sooner rather than later. City dwellers will be the first beneficiaries of this technology's serious speed boosts. Those in the suburbs and countryside shouldn't be too far behind. And when the 5G fantasy finally comes true – and your high-tech life will evolve in new ways you can hardly imagine.

Last editorial update on May 12, 2020 04:12:51 pm.

Author's Note: How 5G Works

If you have a smartphone (and here's betting that you do), 4G changed your life – for better or for worse. You went from 3G, which let you send a few text messages and perhaps surf the web in a pinch, to 4G, which essentially means that you can carry a fully-connected computer everywhere you go, whether it's to the grocery store or just the bathroom at work. 5G will intensify your data-driven life, ratcheting up your internet experiences in ways you can't yet imagine. I'm not entirely sure that my brain is ready for the overload. How about you?

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Sources

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