What Is 5G? An Electrical Engineer Explains the Technology

Telecommunications companies around the world are expanding their next-generation, or 5G, networks.

5G stands for fifth-generation cellular network technology.

It’s the technology that enables wireless communication – for example, from your cellular phone to a cell tower, which channels it to the internet. 5G is a network service provided by telecommunications carriers and is not the same thing as the 5 GHz band on your Wi-Fi router.

5G offers an order of magnitude – 10 times – more bandwidth than its predecessor, 4G. The greater bandwidth is possible because over and above low and medium frequency radio waves, 5G uses additional higher-frequency waves to encode and carry information.

Bandwidth is analogous to the width of a highway. The broader the highway, the more lanes it can have and the more cars it can carry at the same time. This makes 5G much faster and able to handle many more devices.

Most newer smartphones work with 5G networks.

5G can deliver speeds of around 50 megabits per second, up to more than 1 gigabit per second. A gigabit per second connection allows you to download a high-definition movie in less than a minute. Does this mean no more bad cell connections in crowded places? The increased bandwidth will help, but just as increasing the number of lanes on highways does not always reduce traffic jams, as more people use the expanded highways, 5G is likely to carry a lot more traffic than 4G networks, so you still might not get a good connection sometimes.

In addition to connecting your phone and cellular-enabled laptop, 5G will be connecting many other devices ranging from photo frames to toasters as part of the Internet of Things revolution. So even though 5G can handle up to a million devices per square kilometer, all that bandwidth could be quickly used up and require more – a future 5.5G with even more bandwidth.

Flavors of 5G

5G can use low-, mid- and high-band frequencies, each with advantages and disadvantages. Lower-frequency waves can travel farther but are slower. Using higher frequency waves means information can travel faster but these waves can only go limited distances. Higher-frequency 5G can achieve gigabit-per-second speeds, which promises to render ethernet and other wired connections obsolete in the future. Currently, however, the higher frequency comes at a higher cost and thus is deployed only where it’s most needed: in crowded urban settings, stadiums, convention centers, airports and concert halls.

A type of 5G service, Ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communications, can be used where data needs to be transmitted without loss or interruption in service – for example, controlling drones in disaster areas. One day, after the technology is more robust, it could even be used for remote surgery.

Written by Prasenjit Mitra, Professor of Information Sciences and Technology, Penn State.

This article was first published in The Conversation.

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Comments ( 18 )
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  • Renato, Croatia

    This is the opinion of an engineer who was paid by a 5G consortium. And this is the opinion of independent (not corrupt) engineers and scientists:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKhG9seiAlU

  • JP

    “5G offers an order of magnitude – 10 times – more bandwidth than its predecessor, 4G.”

    This is mis-characterized. 5G doubles the bits per hertz compared to LTE, not 10X. There appears to be a 10X gain because of 5G being deployed on wider spectrum in other bands however if LTE were deployed on the same width of spectrum, the 5G gain is only 2X.

    The major gain is due to new spectrum allocations, not as much from 5G technology. Though double is still good and 5G also has better latency than LTE in same situation.

  • Sapan Banerjee

    How it effects on your existing cell phone? Is 5G limited to transmission only (from the tower to SIM card) and doesn’t effects on your phone? Or, do I need to get a new 5G phone?

  • Ron Poinvil

    Renato, That video is BSC.
    Bat Sh!t Crazy

  • Antonio Martins

    I’m a telecommunication specialist in Brasil. I worked at a big state provider! The providers have to deploy a big infrastructure each time that the technology changes at a billions dollars of costs! Then as they won’t invest these money, they’ll continue using the same existed backbone and transfer it available band little by little to the new platform. At the beginning the subscribers will like it because there will be a little bit users and active devices. Continuing they will finish transferring the whole band to the new platform and the old one stop working! Like happened from 2G to 3G, then from 3G to 4G, and now… In fact the promise of extreme high speed and low latency never occurs!

  • Sekar

    Interesting. My views shared below.

    Spectrum is a scare resource.

    Scarce resources need to be allocated based on market demand and supply for most efficient allocation. Most efficient doesn’t necessarily imply most effective use of scarce resources like specturm.

    Population going from eight billion to 10 billion by 2050.

    IoT ( Internet of things ) 100 billion going to a trillion by 2050?☺️☺️☺️

    IoT Also clamouring for spectrum.

    Consolidation and prioritisation of Spectrum allocation essential for most efficient and effective use of available scarce spectrum .

    Algorithm required please.

    Views expressed are personal and not binding on anyone.

    • JP

      Generally agree. 5G may or may not always provide higher performance than 4G but it will use the scarce spectrum more efficiently and adding more capacity in same width of spectrum, about double the capacity of LTE.

  • David L Crockett

    The U.S. doesn’t have true 5G! It’s 4G-LTE/5G hybrid! To be able to use true 5G you need all fiber optic carrier cables. The U.S. uses copper and fiber optic cable together which slows down the 5G data flow. It’s like trying to push water flowing through a 12″ pipe, through a 6″ pipe, then back through a 12″ pipe again. The 6″ pipe slows down the flow.
    When China built their 5G network using the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, only the major urban areas could use it as they all had pure fiber optic transmission cable.
    The Chinese scientists then figured out a way to push the data flow through the copper cable most rural areas still used. This is known as second generation 5G or 5G version 2.0 and is something only available in China at the moment. China is also working on developing 6G which they hope to have by the end of this decade. This will be at least 10 times faster than 5G and 100 times faster than 4G-LTE.
    Together with next generation AI, the Chinese are next generation 5G in everything….cell phones, GPS, facial recognition systems, research, their space station (Tiangong-1), etc.
    I just wish the U.S. would wake up and stop pushing 5G as though it were pure 5G.

    • JP

      You are incorrect that it’s not true 5G but you are correct that there may not always be enough backhaul supplied to all cellsites to fully utilize 5G. In many cases more than enough backhaul is supplied, in many cases maybe not.

  • Sars2

    5G is just a name for next level frequency HITTING LIVINGS .. its the wireless ALAKTRON GUN in olds tvs
    .
    .what to do.. this is how we tech ..
    .
    . even elon is hit by these guns .
    .
    .

    • J P

      5G is a protocol, not a frequency. 5G runs on many bands/frequencies including replacing 4G bands.

  • Lawrence

    All 5G will be divided into Civilian, Military and Law Enforcement….
    It would be absurd to think Civilians will get the Largest Chunk….

  • Rodney Moore

    Where is there nothing mentioned that 4G wavelengths has a range of about 10 miles. While 5G wavelengths have a range of about 1,000 feet to receive the ultra speed. Which is not even 2% of 4G’s range.
    I’ve heard it said that changing to 5G will help cover rural areas. I don’t understand how with such a short range.

    • J P

      4G and 5G are protocols, not frequencies. You are talking about bands and basically the higher the band, the less penetration/distance. But 5G is also being deployed on lower bands with great penetration/distance, like 600Mhz. And 5G also replacing 4G on lower bands over time, starting with dynamic spectrum sharing for both 4G/5G within existing 4G bands.

      5G does have better latency than 4G given same environmental situation.

  • SHASHIKANT RANJAN

    रिलायंस जिओ का इंटरनेट स्पीड नहीं बढ़ रहा है

  • SHASHIKANT RANJAN

    रिलायंस जिओ का रात में इंटरनेट चलाता हूं स्पीड नही मिलता है और मैं कहना चाहता हूं कस्टमर केयर से मैं बोलता हूं कि हमको 20 एमबी का हाई स्पीड दीजिए नहीं

  • SHASHIKANT RANJAN

    Reliance Jio ka Internet Speed Nahi mil raha hai Humko Customer se Boliye ki 20MB ka High Speed Chahiye

  • Nicholas

    Scam