What is 5G? An electrical engineer explains | Kiowa County Press

Telecommunications companies around the world are expanding their next-generation, or 5G, networks. Guo Shining/VCG via Getty Images

Prasenjit Mitra, Penn State

5G stands for fifth generation cellular network technology.

It is the technology that enables wireless communication – for example, from your cell 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 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 beyond low and medium frequency radio waves, 5G uses additional high frequency waves to encode and transport information.

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

The upper right corner of a smartphone screen showing signal bars, 5G indicator and battery indicator
Most new smartphones work with 5G networks. Fernando Gutierrez-Juarez/photo alliance via Getty Images

5G can deliver speeds of around 50 megabits per second, up to over 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 that there are no more poor cellular connections in crowded places? Increasing bandwidth will help, but just as increasing the number of lanes on freeways doesn’t always reduce traffic congestion, more people use widened highways, 5G is likely to carry a lot more traffic than 4G networks, so you might still not get a good connection sometimes.

In addition to connecting your cellular-enabled phone and laptop, 5G will connect 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 used up quickly and require more – a future 5.5G with even more bandwidth.

The flavors of 5G

5G can use low, mid, and high frequencies, each with its pros and cons. Low frequency waves can travel farther but are slower. Using higher frequency waves means that information can travel faster, but these waves can only travel limited distances. High-frequency 5G can reach gigabit-per-second speeds, which promises to make Ethernet and other wired connections obsolete in the future. Currently, however, the higher frequency comes at a higher cost and is therefore only deployed where it is most needed: in crowded urban environments, stadiums, convention centers, airports and concert halls.

A type of 5G service, Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications, can be used when data needs to be transmitted without loss or interruption of service – for example, to control drones in disaster areas. One day, after the technology is more robust, it could even be used for remote surgery.

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Prasenjit Mitra, professor of information science and technology, Penn State

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