5G has spent the past several years making headlines in tech news, and as of 2021, the technology is finally starting to become widespread. But even as 5G increasingly surrounds us, many of us still aren’t entirely sure of—well, what exactly 5G does or is. And even if you’ve done a little reading about it, it can be hard to glean much info other than “faster data speeds for your phone.”
If that sounds like you, don’t worry. From the small cell antennas in plastic enclosures to intriguing questions about self-driving cars and IoT, there’s a lot to sort out about what 5G has to offer. It doesn’t help that the definition of 5G can encompass multiple different standards, or that social media misinformation about 5G is rife. So we’re here to help you figure out what 5G entails and how it will shape your world.
The 5G Crash Course
5G is the successor to 4G, the mobile data technology that created the wireless industry as we know it today. It’s billed as a massive step up from 4G in data speeds and, indeed, research indicates that the maximum speeds of 5G networks could soar to 10 Gbps or beyond under ideal conditions.
How does a 5G network accomplish this? First, remember that all wireless telecom traffic happens through the transmission of waves through electromagnetic frequencies, whether you’re emailing a coworker or listening to the radio. Each type of telecom traffic is allocated a specific range of frequencies. 5G includes, for the first time in years, a significant new expansion in the spectrum of frequencies that telecom companies can use.
To access that newly available 5G spectrum band, telecom companies are building big arrays of antennas housed inside plastic boxes (usually NEMA 4X enclosures or higher). These are called millimeter wave 5G antennas, and they’re the ones you’ve probably heard about. They offer extremely fast speeds, but have a very short range.
However, there’s also sub-6 GHz 5G, a lower frequency form of 5G that’s slower but still potent. These 5G networks are much more widely available than millimeter 5G, and they’re more cost-effective to deploy.
Why 5G Is Important
The speed boost of 5G has more benefits packed into it than one might initially realize. That’s because it improves on 4G in several important ways:
- Throughput is how quickly a network can transfer large files. You might have heard people talk about, for example, the ability to download an entire season of a show onto your phone in a few minutes through a 5G network. That’s throughput, and it’s probably the most talked-about improvement in 5G.
- Latency is essentially the amount of time that it takes a data packet to travel through a network. Low latency networks are currently most important for applications like gaming, but the ultra-low-latency networks that 5G promises will open the door for all kinds of technological advances.
- Spectrum access is the amount of frequencies on the radiation spectrum that wireless networks have access to. Because 5G uses frequencies that previously weren’t accessible for telecom traffic, it gives our mobile networks far more bandwidth on which to direct their loads. That’s good news in terms of easing the burden on our overloaded 4G networks.
In the end, the question might be less “What does 5G offer other than faster wireless broadband?” and more “What things does faster wireless broadband unlock?” Because, as it turns out, there are a lot.
The Many Applications of 5G
Mobile data on your wireless devices will be the most obvious application of 5G. A mobile user connected to 5G will experience substantially faster data speeds, thanks to the benefits we described above. That means it’s faster and easier to do everything you use your mobile devices for—from gaming to streaming to using social media.
However, there’s another massive use case for 5G that’s only just beginning to crest the horizon: the Internet of Things. As you might know, IoT is the term for the huge networks of smart devices that operate in our world today. In the future, IoT networks will be even larger and contain even more complex devices, including devices like self-driving cars that can’t afford any latency at all.
5G is going to be a big part of the action as IoT achieves ubiquity in one sector after another. In key industries like medicine and manufacturing, 5G will be indispensable for everyday operations. Robust low-latency 5G data networks will power everything from sensors in a factory’s machines to patient monitoring in a hospital, gradually making them part of the fabric of society in a way that even 4G never achieved.
5G in 2021 and Beyond
It’s been over two years since the first 5G networks launched, and there’s a widespread feeling that the technology may finally be ready to break out. Every major smartphone manufacturer now offers a 5G-capable phone, and the three biggest U.S. wireless carriers have all rolled out what they claim are nationwide 5G networks.
That claim might be a little bit premature. Most people with 5G phones still aren’t consistently getting 5G at all, let alone at the promised speeds. Right now, our 5G networks definitely aren’t ready for the more data-intensive applications previously discussed. But 5G will keep growing as telecom companies continue to build out the infrastructure, and it’s likely only a matter of time before the tech is almost as ubiquitous in our cities as 4G is now.
Notice that we said “in our cities.” In rural areas, the future of 5G is much less certain. The millimeter wave 5G technology that offers the fastest speeds mostly just isn’t feasible in rural areas. Rural customers are too spread out, and millimeter wave 5G has trouble with woods and rural terrain in general. However, low- and mid-band 5G offers possibilities for rural deployment that could substantially boost wireless speeds outside of cities.