5G is Here! What is it?

Verizon Wireless can claim to have won the race to 5G. They set up their first test networks to provide home internet service in limited markets on October 1st. While it’s not exactly the same as the global 5G standard, they still get bragging rights. AT&T should be the first network that’s truly running on the globally recognized standard with Verizon soon to follow. It’s an exciting new time for wireless technology.

What Is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless network technology created since the first cellular networks. Here’s a brief overview of what each “G” brought us:

  • 1G was the first wireless networks built in the 90’s
  • 2G gave us text messages
  • 3G brought the first internet connections to mobile phones
  • 4G gave us a big boost in connection speed from 3G

Now, however, most of us use 4G LTE, or Long Term Evolution. This standard improves on 4G, especially in speed and consistency. It doesn’t get its own “G,” because LTE is still compatible with 4G phones.

5G is here!
What Is 5G?

5G, however, is a completely new standard that will require new hardware for both phones and towers. The new standard will bring huge improvements in three areas: speed, latency, and capacity.

Fast Download Speeds

Everyone is excited about improved downloads speeds. The “old” 4G wireless network took us from 200 kbps to several mbps. Suddenly we could stream video, even high definition video on the road. Everything got faster. Wireless companies keep improving their speeds, and we might even see speeds go up to 2 gbps. But most people see speeds of only 16 mbps.

5G  promises vast speed improvements over the 4G network. Most people can expect to see speeds greater than 1 gbps. That’ll blow past HD video into mobile 4K. Finally, our streaming video will catch up to our phones’ displays.

That’s only the beginning, though. As the network continues to develop, we can expect speeds to keep getting faster. Verizon expects its 5G network to deliver speeds 200 times faster than many of their LTE customers get now.

Lower Latency

Crazy fast speeds are just the beginning of the 5G revolution. In fact, it might be the least exciting improvement at all. One key feature of the 5G network is lower latency, or the time it takes for the network to process a request. The current 4G network has a latency of about 9 milliseconds while the improved network will have a latency of about 1 millisecond.

That might not seem like a big difference. You might not notice a difference of 8 milliseconds when you’re refreshing your social media feed. This dramatic improvement in latency will be critical for the most time-sensitive signals.

5G Tower
5G Towers will be much smaller

Self-driving cars are a great example. Car companies currently use sensors to detect oncoming traffic, but the 5G network will allow both cars to communicate with each other in under a millisecond. It could allow oncoming cars to communicate with each other quickly enough to avoid a crash.

If you’re not into developing the new generation of smart cars, you might love that the lower latency will make your entertainment experience better. Intense games will react faster than on 4G and the lower latency will make virtual reality and augmented reality systems flow more smoothly and more naturally. Combine that with faster speeds, and you’ll get great user experience.

More Devices at Faster Speeds

The 5G protocol will also allow for more devices to connect at the same times. Part of that comes from the wireless spectrum reserved for the network. In the US, they have reserved the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands for 5G. Most commercial devices use lower bands, so it gets pretty crowded in there. These higher-level bands will have more space for high-speed connection with tons of devices.

These short wave frequencies have a lower range, and they are more easily blocked by obstacles. The current 4G network uses massive, single towers to cover large areas, so they have less individual capacity. So, the 5G network will call for many more smaller cell towers to cover the same area.

There will be more capacity for connections with more capacity for data, too. It will be easier and cheaper to connect tons of different devices. It’s more than phones. Think about sensors, cars, drones, and just about anything you’d want to hook up to the internet.

Because these upper range bands have a much shorter range than the 4G ones we use today, many carriers are looking to use those same lower frequencies for their new 5G network as well. These lower frequency channels will not have the same speed boosts as the higher ones, but they will cover more area. While mobile companies install the new 5G towers, using a lower frequency will get 5G coverage to people while we wait.

Fixed Home Internet

4G networks don’t have the capacity to keep up with the demands of home internet users. It’s too expensive to provide the 190 GB of data each month that people expect. 5G networks should be able to provide that kind of capacity at prices that will compete with current home providers.

Wireless 5G Fixed Home Internet
Wireless 5G Home Internet

The 5G fixed home internet has several advantages over standard wired connections. Rather than burying fiber optic cable for each house, a 5G provider can install a cell tower for each neighborhood with much lower costs. With speeds that can rival current broadband providers, 5G will bring more competition in the home internet market. Verizon even promises to offer truly unlimited home internet when their network is up and running.

This could be a boon for communities without decent broadband coverage. Since it’s so much easier to bring coverage to an area, it may be possible to quickly expand home internet coverage further into underserved areas. But don’t expect that to happen all of the sudden. The lower coverage area for each tower will mean that 5G providers will focus on upgrading their highest density markets first.

When Can I Get It?

5G technology is still in development. Verizon has started testing its first fledgling networks for home internet in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento. AT&T has also started testing in limited markets. So, you won’t see 5G speeds coming to you anytime soon. The best guess is that the networks should be running in 2020. 

That doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it right away, though. Your current 4G phone is incompatible with a 5G network, so you’ll need a new phone to access it. When mobile carriers first introduced 4G service, many phone manufacturers sold phones with 4G hardware before the network was ready. Customers complained, because they thought they were paying more for the same service. It’s likely that phone manufacturers will wait until 5G networks are ready before they start selling compatible phones.

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About the Author: James H.

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