Lately, internet service providers like Verizon have been installing 5G networks in certain cities as a sort of test run before potentially expanding this new technology out to the rest of the nation. Meanwhile, smartphone makers like Samsung have released special 5G variants of their models to support this. We all know what 4G data is, but how exactly is 5G better?
One thing to note: 5G data is entirely different from AT&T’s 5G Evolution, or 5GE. If you’ve been to 5GE-supported locations with a modern enough phone, you may have seen the 5GE icon in place of the standard LTE – but be warned: 5GE is NOT 5G. In fact, it’s essentially just 4G LTE with a slight speed boost, a 4G LTE+ if you will. It has the same features as 4G LTE, like three-way carrier aggregation(which assigns more frequency blocks to a user to increase their data rate), 4×4 MIMO support(multiple-input multiple-output, which uses extra antennas to multiply radio link capacity), and QAM-256(which raises the number of unique data waveform shapes, with each representing a different binary number in order to increase data rates and efficiency). It’s sort of a cheap trick in my opinion, but now, they and other companies have begun implementing actual 5G networks in certain locales.
The primary feature of true 5G that separates it from 4G is the set of spectrums used in 5G. To begin, there are sub-1GHz low-band frequencies, which provide great coverage at the expense of relatively low speed. They use existing 4G networks in tandem with newer encoding and greater channel sizes in order to have a speed advantage when compared to 4G LTE. T-Mobile is at the forefront of this, having acquired vast amounts of 600MHz spectrum from the FCC. Next up is the mid-band spectrum, currently being pioneered by Sprint, who plans on using clusters of antennas and beamforming(targeted beams of connection to individual users) in a system called Massive MIMO. As one would expect, mid-band 5G provides greater speed than low-band at the expense of shorter range and less building penetration – Sprint hopes to use Massive MIMO to mitigate this drawback.
Finally, we have high-band spectrum, also known as millimeter wave. This is big-boy 5G if you will. Millimeter wave, with great amounts of untapped frequencies reaching well into the 30GHz+ range, provide ludicrous levels of speed within a relatively miniscule range. This technology, being implemented by AT&T, Verizon, and co., works best in the select cities where these ISPs have currently and will soon install their small cells – if you look, you’ll find many of these across the city, covering the entirety of the population in a blanket of absolutely insane data speeds. Furthermore, 5G networks use the new OFDM encoding, which is similar to LTE but allows for, once again, greater efficiency and transfer speeds.
As for applications, there are many. Soon, autonomous vehicles will be able to use 5G to communicate with other vehicles and more safely and efficiently transport passengers. The low latency of 5G could be harnessed in physical therapy, telemedicine, and perhaps remote surgery. The Internet of Things will expand, with new communication and information possibilities being brought to the otherwise mundane appliances in your home. City governments and other companies will be able to monitor systems more easily and with greater precision through the use of 5G – this will enable them to troubleshoot any potential mishaps sooner. Last, but certainly not least, there is the obvious benefit to the average consumer in terms of data speeds and the like.
ISPs like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have begun a sort of race to see who can expand 5G to the greatest consumer base in the shortest amount of time. Modem manufacturers such as Huawei, Nokia(yep, they still exist), and the above Qualcomm have jumped into the uncharted waters of 5G as well, seeking to promote their technology to smartphone makers and other technology companies. From all this, it seems very clear that despite the health concerns of bodily exposure to millimeter-wave and the FCC’s regulation on certain spectrums, the United States is quickly rushing toward a 5G future and all its possibilities, with the rest of the world to follow in its wake. What will change? What won’t? These questions and many more will be answered in the months and years to come, but for now, we can only watch in awe as this supposed revolution takes place.