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What is 5G and how does it work?

5G is next generation wireless network technology that is helping to change the way people live and work. It is faster and able to handle more connected devices than the existing 4G LTE network, improvements that are enabling a wave of new kinds of tech products.

5G is the next generation of mobile internet connection and offers much faster data download and upload speeds.

Through greater use of the radio spectrum, it will allow far more devices to access the mobile internet at the same time.

5G wireless technology delivers higher multi-Gbps peak data speeds, ultra-low latency, more reliability, massive network capacity, increased availability, and a more uniform user experience to more users. Higher performance and improved efficiency empower new user experiences and connect new industries.

How does 5G work?

Wireless communications systems use radio frequencies, also known as spectrums, to carry information through the air.

5G operates in the same way but uses higher radio frequencies that are less cluttered. This allows for it to carry more information at a much faster rate. These higher bands are called ‘millimetre waves’ (mmwaves). They were previously unused but have been opened up for licensing by regulators. They had been largely untouched by the public as the equipment to use them was largely inaccessible and expensive.

5G networks use a type of encoding called OFDM, which is similar to the encoding that 4G LTE uses. The air interface is designed for much lower latency and greater flexibility than LTE, though.

Whilst the higher bands are faster at carrying information, there are some potential issues with the way that information is sent, especially over large distances. The speed you get will also depend on which spectrum band the operator runs the 5G technology on and how much your carrier has invested in new masts and transmitters.

The technology uses smaller transmitters placed on buildings and street furniture, as opposed to using single stand-alone masts. So, we may see clusters of smaller phone masts closer to the ground transmitting so-called “millimetre waves” between much higher numbers of transmitters and receivers. This will enable a higher density of usage. But it’s expensive and companies could face challenges deploying lots of new masts.

Current estimates say that 5G will be able to support up to 1,000 more devices per metre than 4G.

Benefits of 5G

Much of the hype surrounding the rollout of 5G has centred around speed, however, as we have already discussed, there are other benefits of the 5G network. Some of these other benefits include:

  • Reduced latency – this is the time it takes for a mobile phone (or other connected devices) to make a request from a server and get a response. 5G is predicted to reduce latency to virtually zero.
  • Connecting to the cloud – 5G will make communication with cloud platforms, including Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, faster and easier.
  • Increased bandwidth – 5G will have great bandwidth meaning it can handle many more connected devices than previous networks. This will mean no more patchy service, especially in crowded areas like stadiums and at large events. It also allows for more connected devices, from smart fridges to self-driving cars which will increase the opportunities for the advancement of IoT-connected devices.

The main benefit of the 5G network still relates to speed with some claiming that peak speeds could eventually exceed 10Gps.

How fast is 5G compared to 4G and 3G?

The fastest 5G networks are expected to be at least 10 times faster than 4G LTE, according to wireless industry trade group GSMA.

Some experts say they could eventually be 100 times faster.

That’s fast enough to download a two-hour movie in fewer than 10 seconds, versus around 7 minutes with 4G. Actual download speeds will depend on a number of factors, including location and network traffic.

3G has average download speeds of 8Mbps and a maximum of 384Kbps, 4G has a 32.5MBps average download speed and a maximum of 100Mbps. 4G+ has a 42Mbps average and a maximum download speed of 300Mbps. While 5G, by comparison, has an average download speed of 130-240Mbps and a theoretical maximum of 1-10Gbps.

The big improvement in speed and latency will come when service providers roll out standalone 5G networks, where both the core and radio networks use 5G tech.

They could easily achieve gigabit-plus browsing speeds as standard. The rollout of these sorts of speeds will differ from country to country and in many cases, from network provider to provider, depending on the investment in transmitters and masts.

Is 5G safe?

As reported in PC Mag, “Online conspiracy theories have blamed 5G for everything from cancer to coronavirus, but they tend to fall apart at the slightest tap of actual facts. Low-band and mid-band 5G are based on radio frequencies that have been used for decades.”

Forbes also reported on the safety of 5G, “With each new generation of WiFi that comes out, a new wave of fear-mongering health claims emerges. They always come along with the same arguments:

  • Humans have never been exposed to this much of this type of radiation before,
  • Scientists have not demonstrated that the proposed new infrastructure won’t be harmful to humans,
  • The World Health Organization has already declared radio-frequency (WiFi) radiation to be “possibly cancerous,”
  • And therefore, we should declare a moratorium on this technology until its safety has been established.

Fortunately, science already tells us that 5G almost certainly poses no danger to humans.”

Since these early claims, the World Health Organisation has since come out with a further statement with regards to the safety of 5G, “Any health effects of low-level electromagnetic fields, if they exist at all, are likely to be very small compared to other health risks that people face in everyday life.”

Writing for Forbes, Ph.D. astrophysicist, author and science communicator Ethan Siegel sums up the safety of 5G perfectly, “There are lots of real hazards out there in the world, but 5G — much like vaccines, fluoridated drinking water, and the vapor trails left by airplanes — aren’t among them.”

How will 5G shape future technology?

Due to 5G’s high capacity and low latency, advanced processing will be able to be handled remotely rather than relying on mobile devices and headsets for local handling.

This greater capacity will enable the growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) devices, with goods including refrigerators, lights, cars and even advertising hoardings being able to connect and communicate with one another. Whilst IoT devices are already taking hold in the market, 5G will improve the speed and capacity whereby almost every device could become connected and ‘smart.

While the Internet of Things is already being used in a number of applications, it is in the realm of transport where it will likely have the biggest effect when coupled with the new network. We have talked widely about the implications of IoT technology on the transport industry and you can read more in our recent post.

Autonomous cars are one of the areas expected to benefit from the global rollout of 5G. Not to be confused with driverless cars, the connected car is one that is equipped with Internet access and often a wireless local area network.

Autonomous cars are not something new. Many of today’s modern, high-end cars have connected features including ABS, power steering, lights and entertainment systems. More recently, advanced driver assistance systems such as adaptive cruise control, parking assistance, navigation telematics, vehicle monitoring, and hands-free calling have all been introduced.

Where 5G will be a game-changer will be in improving the ability of these systems to communicate with each other in real-time, as well as communicate with other connected vehicles on the road, helping to improve safety and reduce congestion.

Eventually, cars could connect to everything around them, from vehicles to road infrastructures such as traffic lights and even the roads themselves.

Read more about smart city transport solutions that will benefit from 5G in a recent post.


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