What is 5G? A Guide to the Transformative Wireless Tech That’s Being Hyped to Change Everything

October 9, 2018, 12:09 AM UTC

Imagine you’re sitting at a red traffic light. The light turns green, allowing you to proceed. As you take your foot off the brake, however, your car senses that a vehicle approaching the intersection is moving too fast and will likely run the red light. In response, your car applies the brakes to keep you safe as the scofflaw blasts through the intersection.

Your car didn’t see the other vehicle using motion sensors or cameras, which is how today’s crash-avoidance systems work. Instead, your car was talking to the other car wirelessly via 5G. It knew the direction of travel, the speed, and whether or not the driver was braking. Your car saved your life thanks to the power of 5G.

This is just one scenario of many thousands that will be made possible by the next-generation of wireless networks—if we choose to believe the marketing departments of carriers and equipment vendors. Real-world deployments will play out differently and won’t initially live up to this level of hype. Here’s why.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless networking technology. The high speeds you enjoy on your phone today are powered by 4G, which has been the prevailing technology the last five to eight years. Globally, most people see maximum 4G speeds of about 16.9 megabits per second (Mbps), according to Open Signal. 5G promises to deliver Gigabit speeds (>1Gbps). Where 4G allows you to stream your favorite YouTube videos in full HD, 5G will make it possible to stream 4K HDR content—and more.

But 5G isn’t all about speed. The 5G standard (called 5G New Radio, or 5G NR), also includes shifts in how many cell sites are required and how many devices can connect to a signal cell site. For instance, Today’s networks rely on 200-foot towers to blanket large areas with signal. About 25,000 are sprinkled around the U.S. There will be far more 5G cell sites, each covering a smaller area. Moreover, those 5G sites will be able to connect many times more devices to the network at once. And that’s important because there will be many more devices demanding data. Think sensors and cars, not just phones.

The third goal of 5G is to lower latency, or how long it takes the network to respond to a request. Today, latency is about 9 milliseconds (ms). With 5G, that will drop to 1ms. Latency is particularly critical in automotive applications. Think about the distance a car travels at 60mph in 9 ms compared to in 1 ms. That distance can be the difference between life and death. Latency is also key to providing good experiences when exploring new worlds in virtual reality, or stomping through the latest online multiplayer video game.

Spectrum plays a major role in 5G as well. There are two basic sets of airwaves being prepped for 5G, those above 6 GHz, called millimeter wave (mmWave), and those below 6 GHz. In the U.S., mmWave airwaves are centered in the 28 GHz and 39 GHz bands, while sub-6 GHz will fall in the 3.5 GHz band. There is more availability in the high-spectrum airwaves.

What companies will offer 5G services?

The same companies that power your phone today will eventually be the ones bringing you 5G. The major U.S.-based carriers, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless, are all hard at work on their 5G networks. Each has a different launch window, but those launches are nearly here.

A bevy of telecommunications equipment providers are supporting the networks’ efforts. Qualcomm and Intel are leading the way with 5G modems, while Ericsson and Nokia are creating tower and backhaul gear that will be used in the U.S. China’s ZTE and Huawei will play a larger role in 5G networks deployed across Asia and Europe.

Gadget makers are preparing their devices for 5G, as well. For example, LG hopes to launch the first 5G-enabled phone early next year, while Motorola has developed a 5G modem that can be attached to its modular Moto Z3 smartphone.

When will 5G service launch?

It’s already here—sort of. On Oct. 1, Verizon launched what it claims is the country’s first 5G network. Sadly, it’s not truly 5G and it’s not being used how you might think.

Verizon is using technology that doesn’t conform to the 5G NR standard set by 3GPP, the industry standards body. Instead, it uses Verizon’s proprietary 5G TF standard. Verizon plans to transition from 5G TF to 5G NR as soon as it can.

Further, Verizon’s 5G service is fixed and only available in small parts of four markets (Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.) Fixed 5G serves as a fiber or cable replacement. It is beamed from towers to your business or home, where special equipment receives the signal and provides internet inside. This is not for mobile devices, such as phones, laptops, or cars. Verizon’s mobile 5G service will get off the ground in early 2019.

AT&T plans to launch mobile 5G in as many as 19 markets by the end of the year. The company has indicated that its first 5G device will be a mobile hotspot, able to connect multiple devices to the network at once. Mobile hotspots are popular with business users who need on-the-go connectivity for laptops, tablets, and other gear. AT&T will launch 5G-equipped phones during the early months of 2019.

T-Mobile says it will offer 5G mobile service to an unknown number of markets during the first half of the year and reach the entire country at some point in 2020.

Sprint has been less specific about its 5G network plans, but says it will be first to offer a 5G phone during the first half of 2019.

And of course, these nebulous launch dates are all subject to change.

What will 5G technology be able to do?

Verizon probably has the right idea. It is offering 5G as a broadband replacement service. This is ideal for remote areas, or any place not served by cable or fiber. 5G has the speed, capacity, and latency to provide a good broadband experience in the home or small business.

5G will lead to the creation of 3 million new jobs, with $275 billion in direct investment, and $550 billion in economic growth, according to CTIA – The Wireless Association.

The other areas where 5G will have a big impact include driverless or automated cars, fleet asset tracking and management, sensors, drones, smartwatches, healthcare monitoring, and of course mobile devices. Once the networks are up and running, it will be up to the carriers, equipment makers, and developers to put them to use. You can be sure they are already thinking up myriad ways to charge users to access those networks.

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