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


In 2005, no one watched Netflix in a tent in the Rocky Mountains. It wasn't until years later that fast 4G networks around the world enabled people to stream large amount of data (like those screening of "Top Gun" or "Toy Story") in cities ... and in the middle of nowhere, right on their phones. Now, thanks to the forthcoming 5G standard, digital networks are about to get even faster.

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.

Before you drop everything and run off to buy a new 5G-capable smartphone, understand that 5G doesn't yet officially exist. Most Americans probably won't have access to a 5G network until around 2019 or so. But because mobile devices are big business, giant companies like Verizon, AT&T, Samsung, and Nokia, among many others, are already investing huge money in this latest wireless system [source: Reuters].

They hope to create a network that is – in theory, anyway – able to provide download speeds of about 10,000 Mbps (megabits per second) [source: Nelson]. That's roughly three times faster than current 4G networks, meaning fewer delays and even more complex and powerful smartphone apps, among many other benefits. Remember when it took 15 seconds to down 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.

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
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

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.

Although the standard isn't fully developed yet, 5G is likely to improve on 4G in a number of ways. It should be able to 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 ball game where your data speeds get exasperatingly slow, you know exactly what we're talking about.

It should also use less power than 4G, so your battery life should improve. That means you'll spend less time scrambling to find a phone charger every day.

And it 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 door.

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 cell phone tower in that area transmits the radio signal that you need to talk or use online apps. As cell phones 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.

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

A robot introduces 5G technology to a visitor during the Mobile World Conference 2017 in Shanghai. VCG/VCG via Getty Images
A robot introduces 5G technology to a visitor during the Mobile World Conference 2017 in Shanghai. VCG/VCG 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.

The downside? High frequencies have short range, and 5G may only be able to span a few blocks of any given area. 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 addition to better bandwidth, 5G should have reduced latency, or delay, between the devices it connects. 4G has a latency of around 70 ms (milliseconds); 5G should have less than 1 ms [source: Mobile Foresight]. That means less frustration and more productivity, and in some scenarios, it's a lifesaver. With driverless cars, for example, the vehicles must be able communicate on a nearly instantaneous basis to prevent accidents.

5G's infrastructure rollout will be different, too. In the past, communications companies typically build big cell phone 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 250 meters (820 feet) [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.

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.

A few mobile carriers are launching "pre-5G" versions of 5G that would lead you to believe that 5G is already a well-defined standard. It's not. In fact, no one really knows just yet what 5G will be like because the standard for 5G won't even be finalized until 2018 [source: Frenzel].

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. If there's a drawback, it's that the upgrade process will be expensive. Service providers will blow billions (perhaps as much as $21 billion) to make the jump from 4G to 5G [source: Real]. And consumers will have to pay up too.

Pyeonchang, Olympics
A flag showing the slogan and logo of Pyeonchang's bid for the 2018 Winter Olympics stands at the ski jump stadium in the mountain resort of Pyeongchang. The city won the bid. JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images

As with all evolving technologies, the details about 5G will continue to emerge in bits and pieces. You can bet that 5G will change your life in significant ways.

For one, you'll have to buy a new smartphone. Smartphones are backwards-compatible, for example, your 4G-capable phone will work on older 3G networks. They aren't forwards-compatible, though, so you'll have to buy a new phone to work with the 5G standard. These phones will be equipped with numerous tiny antennas to help you tap into the 5G frequency that's strongest in your location.

In terms of new capabilities, 5G will enable a new range of technologies. Virtual reality may become an actual reality on your smartphone. Simply connect your phone to a VR headset, and with 5G's speed boost, you may see the world around you in a whole new way.

But tech companies are looking beyond the smartphone, which came of age in the 3G era. They want to make bigger, more revolutionary systems that could alter swaths of our society. Driverless cars, which are already a reality, may greatly benefit from a 5G network. That may well translate into safer roads for everyone. Drones for product delivery and law enforcement surveillance could become more commonplace.

In the U.S., it'll be 2019 or 2020 before 5G begins its takeover. One of the first rollouts of the technology is likely to happen during the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, 112 miles (180 kilometers) east of Seoul. Vendors and service providers will use the popular event to showcase their new 5G products.

At the moment, the dream of 5G is just a mirage on the horizon. But in just a couple of years, the 5G fantasy will come true – and your high-tech life will evolve in new ways you can hardly imagine.

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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