If you’ve paid any attention to commercial advertising put out by telecommunications companies within the last year, you’ll notice “5G” is the hot button buzzword. So popular, in fact, that American-Canadian actor Ryan Reynolds is featured in a 30-second clip attempting to explain it with the help of a technology expert…Ryan still doesn’t quite grasp it.

In a nutshell 5G is the fifth-generation mobile network and the goal is to create a massive network connecting machines, objects, and devices. To do so, this network must deliver increased data speeds, extremely low latency, and more reliability across the board. For those in the industry, the successful deployment and utilization of 5G means positive impacts in transportation, healthcare, agriculture, manufacturing, and even everyday consumer experiences on mobile networks.

In the long run this will be a major driver to economic growth across the entire world. By impacting and enhancing mobile broadband services, mission-critical communications, and the Internet of Things (IoT) there is the potential for 5G to make a difference in just about every facet of human life that relies on data connectivity.

In the short run we’re a little way off from experiencing the wide-spread utopian effects of this upgraded generation in wireless technology, but most of the groundwork has been laid and only time will tell whether the roll-out and deployment of 5G will live up to its endgame promise.

5G is more so an investment in our future. This delayed reaction and full force feel is only natural in the industry. It took 4G almost 2-3 years to have an influence on how we connect with one another. First appearing on phones in 2010, it wasn’t until Snapchat (2012), Uber (2013) and widespread video calls on 4G LTE networks that we felt the change here in the US.  

The Nitty Gritty

5G offers up more options when it comes to operating frequencies. There’s a low, middle, and high band which determines both the frequency range and number of channels.

Low and middle band 5G allows you to combine two 100MHz channels, so 200MHz frequency, plus three or more 20MHz 4G channels stacked on top of that.

High-band allows you to use eight 100 MHz channels. However, the speeds provided from using multiple airwaves simultaneously mean nothing if these airwaves aren’t available.  

4G combines up to seven 20MHz channels, totaling 140MHz frequency, but much of the time phone are only using up to 60 MHz or less. So, for now, there is the need for carriers to share both 4G and 5G channels based on demand. This is called dynamic spectrum sharing, or DSS.

How Does This Actually Work?

All cellular networks, 5G included, use cell sites to divvy up territories into sectors and send data via radio waves. These cell sites must be connected to a network backbone through a wired or wireless connection.

5G networks use an encoding method called orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), like that of 4G, but with lower latency and more flexibility. The mind-boggling gigabit speeds from the 5G radio system are because it is made to use such large channels, again, up to 100 MHz compared to 20MHz channels on 4G airwaves.

This is a much larger roadway, which in turn requires larger unobstructed segments of airwaves compared to 4G. This leads to the utilization of higher, short-distance millimeter-wave frequencies. Meaning: 5G must handle more smaller cells to boost capacity by taking advantage of these wider bandwidths and smarter antenna technologies.

Ok, so is this safe?

Let’s not sugar coat it. The rollout of 5G has ignited conspiracy theories and world-wide protest. The use of electromagnetic radiation to encode and disseminate information sounds a little scary.

However, it’s not so scary when you read into the facts of this network and understand the frequency for 5G is below that of infrared light. The energy per photon is not near great enough to break molecular bonds. There is no science to support 5G towers are emitting radio waves to either cause cancer, coronavirus, or damage molecules of organic life.

Both low and mid-band 5G are modeled after radio frequencies that have been used in the US for decades. Most of the fear mongering is about the high band millimeter frequencies, which are technically microwaves, but these mmWaves don’t do a great job at penetrating human flesh. At the highest power level (higher than any 5G network uses) the most it does is make things a bit warm as these mmWaves pass through a molecule.

What does this look like now?

5G hiccups across the three major US carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) will most likely smooth out at the latter part of this year (2021 at time of writing this) or 2022. At the start 5G networks were still using 4G to initiate their connections, which was called “non-standalone.” Now we are seeing “standalone” networks being established.

With that said, as of November 2020, there was no protocol for using 5G to make voice calls. Meaning your phone would revert to 4G network to make a regular phone call. This unnoticeable transition is part of the 5G spectrum. Allowing the invisible back and forth between both networks until 5G is fully integrated.

The relationship between 4G and 5G has led to AT&T to coin it’s 4G network “5G Evolution” as it leans on improvements to 4G being a steppingstone to true 5G. To the uninformed consumer, they think they’re reaping the full benefits of a 5G network…when they aren’t. Ah, the power of phrasing.

What’s the point?

5G is made for more than just downloading Netflix at an alarming rate on your phone or having a flawless Facetime session with your grandmother.

For the average consumer, this can mean a boom in competition when it comes to home internet service. Instead of digging up house-by-house to install fiber optic lines, service providers will only need to install fiber to cell sites every flew blocks and give customers wireless modems.

These home modems will need an upgrade in their antenna module, which extends the range of 5G networks and are a great component for home units.

The transformation of mobile phones into conduits for virtual reality experiences is also an attractive consumer-level application of 5G networks. Low-latency and constant speeds lay the groundwork for flawless augmented reality for those interested.

On a greater scale 5G aims to make an impact on industrial applications like automated manufacturing, driverless cars, transportation management, remote healthcare, and agriculture.

The potential to connect so many devices via 5G may very well change the way we live, work, create, and communicate in the years to come.

But, with any great advancement in technology, only time will tell.