5G (short for fifth generation) is an umbrella term that describes the collection of standards and technologies that define the current generation of wireless network connectivity. First rolled out in commercial applications in 2019, 5G promised a significant increase in network speeds and a decrease in latency compared to 4G LTE networks.

Initially, many operators offered 5G-branded services that mixed 4G and 5G technologies and in practice provided speeds closer to the former. But 5G has become near-universal in the U.S. and most developed countries, and just about any new cellular wireless device you purchase today will be 5G-enabled.

In the public mind, 5G is mostly associated with cell phones, and those remain by far its most widespread use case. But 5G is also the first wireless technology that telecoms are using to compete with cable or fiber for fixed home internet use. It also has a number of industrial uses. 5G does all this safely, and anything you might read about the supposed dangers of 5G is simply false.

 How does 5G work?

 At a fundamental level, 5G works on the same principles that have defined mobile networking since its beginnings in the late 1970s. A physical base station, in the form of an antenna or set of antennas, broadcasts radio waves to nearby devices and receives responses from those devices, allowing information to be sent back and forth. The area covered by radio waves from a single base station is known as a cell, which is why we refer to cellular networking and cell phones.

These base stations in turn are connected to one another and (usually) to the internet backbone. That usually takes the form of a high-speed physical connection, although base stations in distant locations may themselves connect wirelessly. Either way, the purpose of each base station is to connect all the devices within its cell to the wider network.

Underlying 5G technologies 

This broad outline could apply to previous generations of cell networks. But a number of evolutionary advances to wireless technology have been combined to make 5G different and faster than 4G and earlier network standards.

  • Millimeter waves. There are a number of slices of the radio spectrum available for 5G, but in general 5G signals are between 30 and 300 GHz—a higher frequency band than those used in previous generations. Radio wavelengths in these frequencies are between 1 and 10 millimeters—thus the name. These high-frequency signals can carry more information per unit of time than lower-frequency signals, which gives 5G an edge.
  • Small cells. Millimeter-wave technology was traditionally expensive and difficult to deploy because signals at these high frequencies attenuate more quickly and are more prone to interference from physical objects. 5G tackles this problem with a different type of base station. The huge antenna masts that have dotted the landscape for years delivered 4G and earlier signals to devices as much as a mile away; 5G base stations, by contrast are much smaller, and in densely populated areas may be sited only 250 meters apart, creating much smaller cells. These 5G base stations have much lower power requirements and can be much physically smaller than previous generations of wireless networking gear, allowing them to be attached relatively unobtrusively to buildings or existing utility poles.
  • Massive MIMO. Don’t let the small size of these base stations fool you, though: they pack in a lot of individual antennas that work together in a fashion known as multiple-input multiple-output, or MIMO. Massive MIMO can handle multiple two-way conversations over the same data signal simultaneously, and that means that 5G networks can handle as many as 20 times more conversations than their 4G equivalents. This allows each individual 5G base station to communicate with lots of devices, which has implications for IoT and industrial use. One way that 5G base stations hone in on individual devices and establish the best possible connection is through beamforming—a set of techniques that use constructive and destructive radio interference to focus a signal in a specific direction. This has the effect of boosting a signal’s strength, helping the base station get a better connection with less power outlay.
  • Network function virtualization. The backbone of 4G and earlier networks were typically built out of specialized network equipment, which each component serving a single role. If the network needed to be rearchitected, then extensive physical work was required. 5G networks take advantage network function virtualization, or NFV, which abstracts much of the work traditionally done by that network hardware into software that can run on standard server platforms. This means that 5G networks can be modified on the fly to accommodate changing conditions.
  • Network slicing. One capability of that NFV brings to the table is network slicing, which makes it possible to run multiple logical networks over the same physical infrastructure and wireless frequency bands. This is a wireless version of a virtual network, with the all the advantages that carries.

Each of these technologies on its own is more evolutionary than revolutionary, but combined, they put 5G leagues ahead of its predecessors: 5G networks have typical download speeds around 1 Gbps, ahead of 4G and at par or better than traditional cable internet services. The protocol can theoretically deliver 20 Gbps. 5G also beats 4G latency by a factor of 60 to 120.

What is 5G used for?

5G networks today mostly support cell phones and similar devices, offering network speeds that beat 4G, but often don’t hit the technology’s peak potential. This is all well and good—everyone uses cell phones, 5G can support more devices per base station, and people like faster download speeds—so 5G benefits consumers.

One new feature that 5G brings to the consumer market is wireless home internet; in the U.S., Verizon, T-Mobile, and Starry all offer this service at speeds and prices that are competitive with cable internet. 5G home internet customers connect to the same 5G networks that cell phones use via a specialized wireless modem. The service is only available in select markets because carriers want to make sure that they have the capacity to provide data at the levels that home internet users expect. Unlike most cell phone plans, none of the current 5G home internet offerings have data caps.

Some of the more exotic technologies that were supposed to be enabled by 5G’s fast downloads and low latency, including augmented reality and remote-controlled robotics, haven’t hit the market yet and may not for many years. But other 5G uses in industrial settings are beginning to make the transition from hype to reality.

Industrial 5G: IoT and beyond

Wi-Fi has been the go-to technology for building and campus level wireless networking for so long that most people don’t even consider the alternatives. But organizations might benefit from setting up a private, local 5G network instead. The “small cell” nature of 5G means it’s possible to set up a network that covers a relatively small area; and, thanks to massive MIMO, 5G can accommodate connections from a vast number of devices, perfect for industrial settings where IoT sensors are deployed. Local 5G has helped Del Conca USA automate its factory, for instance, and integration companies are increasingly adding 5G to their toolkit when helping customers with their wireless connectivity needs.

Is 5G safe?

Before we wrap up, let’s address some of the rumors about the potential harmful effects of 5G signals. Perhaps these concerns arose with the proliferation of 5G networking equipment, which seemed to some to have mysteriously popped up across major cities overnight.

Some of these worries—that 5G was the real cause of COVID-19, for instance—are hopefully easy to dismiss out of hand. (COVID-19 is a disease caused by a virus, not radio waves.) Slightly closer to reality is the worry that high-frequency radio waves like the ones used by 5G could have negative effects of the human body. But as we noted, one of the challenges in using millimeter waves is that they’re quite weak, having difficulty penetrating through solid matter, and one of the advantages of 5G is that it manages to get a lot of signal coherence out of very low-powered broadcasts. Someone could bombard your skin with millimeter-wave signals at power levels many times higher than what 5G uses and at most you’ll feel very slightly warmer.

A more concrete worry revolves around the so-called C-Band, a block of spectrum that represents a so-called “goldilocks” range that balances data throughput and ability to propagate over long distances. C-Band signals are close to (but don’t overlap) with the frequency used by the radio altimeters used in some airplanes to measure height above ground. Due to worries from airlines and the FAA, wireless carriers agreed to postpone the rollout of C-Band service until July 2023 and not use it at all near airports; airlines in turn have agreed to retrofit their plans with altimeters that used different frequencies.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.


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