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What Is 5G Technology? Breaking Down the Hype, the Tech & the Timeline

by Margaret Joy
⏱9 minute read

The complete guide to 5G: What it is, why it matters, and where it stands right now in the US and across the globe.

It’s barely rolled out, but from the recent advertising deluge, you’d think 5G is here and already bringing us into the same 21st-century world that Back to the Future envisioned. Everyone seems anxious for our 5th mobile generation, from media hype to 5G-capable phones on the market (despite lack of coverage in America). And yet most people have little to no idea what 5G actually is. How short our memories are that we’ve forgotten the years-long rollout 4G took. Or that we view 5G development as a race à la Sputnik when it’s as natural a technological evolution as Apple releasing an iPhone every year. 

We wrote this breakdown in the hopes of bringing some sense to the 5G din, debunking a few myths, and providing a technically accurate—yet understandable—explanation of the world’s latest tech craze. 

graphic explaining 5G-related acronyms
A handy acronym guide to the rest of the article.

The Generation Evolution: From 1G to 5G

Each new mobile generation marks a major addition to its capabilities. First we had voice: plain and simple analog calling. 2G brought text and a shift to digital. 3G? Data! Are you having flashbacks to those horrifying phone bills of the aughts? 4G gave us the Internet on our phones. The initial 4G launch came on the heels of the iPhone’s debut. This perhaps best underscores how each new generation ushers in fantastic new technologies as unfathomable to consumers then as the thought of life without them is now. 

Graphic showing the difference between mobile generations 1G to 5G

5G’s contribution—IoT Connectivity (and then some)—is as influential and full of potential impact as 4G and the budding smartphone age. IoT isn’t as neatly categorized as “Internet” or “Text,” but we’d hardly expect the fifth decade of mobile development to be so contained. Vastly reduced lag and latency combined with faster, more efficient connections mean we’re on the verge of unprecedented real-time data sharing.

Keep in mind that mobile generations don’t drop like Netflix seasons. It takes about a decade for each new generation to be fully developed, deployed, and dependable—and 5G even more so. True, localized testing started toward the end of the 2010s, but don’t expect it to be the norm any time soon.

Graphic showing the definition of latency and lag.

So What Is 5G?

In a nutshell, 5G stands for fifth generation mobile network. But when people talk about it, they rarely mean its literal definition. What the new generation will allow in terms of technical prowess and innovation is what gives meaning to the term.

5G will allow data transfer to expand past single mobile devices to connect homes, cities, and the entire IoT. Think of cars—not necessarily the self-driving trend of late—connected to the Internet and able to communicate with each other. Real-time data transfer happens faster than humans can react. As a result, cars could recognize an imminent crash and stop or adjust course before human drivers could. Modern technology like VR operating on 5G speeds show us that remote surgery is on the horizon. The point? People in rural areas or those who need a specialist won’t have to travel the world to receive the care they need. Connected cities can automatically check infrastructure stability or manage traffic lighting in the name of efficiency and smoother routing. 

"You can download an entire movie in three seconds.That's gonna be fast. I mean, we're still going to spend 45 minutes trying to decide which movie to download but once we've decided? Three seconds, my friends!"

Machine to Machine (M2M)

Machine to machine communication occurs when machines directly share data without human assistance. This is likely where 5G’s potential will have the strongest impact. 

It’s not surprising why we haven’t heard much about M2M. For starters, it’s not going to impact daily consumer life for years. Plus, some might jump to the “Robot Apocalypse” conclusion when they hear that machines can communicate without us. M2M development isn’t the layperson’s arena; it’s a playground for the Elon Musks of the world to unleash their inner Willy Wonka. 

Machine Learning & Artificial Intelligence

Machine learning (ML) and artificial intelligence (AI) are some of the biggest buzzwords in recent years. They’ll come into play with M2M to improve efficiency and automation so that the humans behind them can focus on innovation and streamlined services. 

As we said, this is years away from affecting our daily lives in terms of smart cities or cars that talk to each other. While we’re streaming ultra-HD movies, M2M will trickle down to our daily lives in small, invisible ways like how we handle online payments or expect Amazon packages— all that behind-the-screen functionality we assume happens when we tap our screens.

Deploying 5G: How 5G Mirrors 4G’s Timeline

The timelines for 4G and 5G are nearly identical, right down to AT&T announcing it has the newest generation ready when it’s just a hyped-up version of the current network. (You may have heard of 5Ge, but it’s not really 5G. It’s just 4G LTE dressed up in new marketing clothes.) 

A simple Google search on 4G yields results stunningly similar to current 5G headlines. “Don’t Expect 4G Near You Soon,” “What Does 4G Mean,” and “4G is a Myth and a Mess” are common themes. 4G standards were finalized in 2009, but the initial rollout for America’s major networks took between another one to three years. Of course, that didn’t stop 4G-capable phones from entering the market before the networks were ready—just like 5G-capable phones. 

5G standards were finalized in June 2018. The following December, AT&T launched the first American 5G network. Verizon and T-Mobile followed in spring and winter 2019, respectively. Based on the time it took 4G to truly spread across the country, we’d be surprised if 5G is the new normal (i.e., fulfilling the promises laid out in Super Bowl ads) in the next two years, let alone this year.

4G-Adoption-curve
Via CTIA

That said, Verizon’s CEO thinks half the country will have 5G access in 2020. Emphasis on access—he also believes that half the country won’t adopt 5G until 2024. That timeline makes sense, as there are relatively few 5G devices available. Without devices that can connect to the network, access isn’t much more than a PR talking point. 

Device availability aside, 5G requires bigger infrastructure changes than 4G, so widespread expansion might take longer this time around. Considering the network promises to be 20 times faster than our current 4G and enable Tony Stark-level technological advances, we’re not surprised. 

gif of Iron Man from a Marvel Movie
We're not saying we can all be Iron Man, but we are saying 5G brings us closer to Stark-level tech.

Why the Wait for 5G? The Technical Side Explained

Short version: Red tape and infrastructure. Long version: Actually, same. We’ll spare you the government red tape jokes, but building and implementing new technology infrastructure on a national scale is a formidable project. Take FiOS, for example. It seems a pretty standard option at this point, right? Well, Verizon is still coming through Brooklyn (one of the most FiOS-covered cities in the country) neighborhoods to install fiber cables. We know, it’s easy to forget that the Internet actually needs hardware to function. The prevalence of cloud technology and WiFi furthers this non-corporeal notion (unless, of course, you live near data centers). Like FiOS needs cables and the cloud needs data centers, 5G needs special hardware too. But that’s the last piece of 5G infrastructure: the first one is spectrum.

5G Spectrum

Spectrum is a terrifically complex piece of the 5G puzzle. We’re not going to dive into it here fully, but we’ll go over the relevant Cliff’s Notes. Spectrum in the mobile world refers to the radio waves that carry signals to and from our mobile devices. Your Instagram likes, your texts, your Google Maps directions—everything is a signal sent over a specific radio frequency. 

This is radio spectrum in the US:

United States Frequency Allocations Chart 2016
“Complex” may be an understatement.

Suffice to say that the government divvies up spectrum and auctions it off. If multiple organizations had access to the same spectrum slice, they’d interfere with the other’s communications. Think of driving from one city to another. You start on your favorite radio station, and the farther you go, the more it crackles. As you get closer to the next city, you hear a new station cut in and then take over completely. These stations are on the same frequency. Now picture the same situation but with an airport tower and your mobile carrier sharing a frequency. The result would be disastrous. 

Every new mobile generation has used more spectrum, just not nearly on the scale we see with 5G. This generation is about more than smartphones, iWatches, and Alexas. The entire IoT is in play, as is M2M. The demand is so great that carriers are even using multiple frequency bands, and the FCC agreed to a new auction.

5G Wavelength: Low Band & Mid Band & High Band (Oh My)

Previous generations used mid-band and low-band frequencies. Those are still in play, but 5G also uses high-band spectrum, also known as millimeter wave (mmWave). 

Graphic showing mmwave name explanation

High frequency provides more bandwidth, a necessary component for 5G standards. Unfortunately, mmWave is easily distorted and can’t travel very far. Basically, the stable part of the spectrum can’t handle the bandwidth 5G needs, but the super fast part of the spectrum isn’t reliable enough to fly solo. Enter adaptive beam switching: fancy tech speak for “Your phone is constantly scanning for interference. It jumps to a different band when necessary until it sees a way back to the faster one.” 

In short, your phone does spectrum gymnastics to make sure the video you’re streaming doesn’t falter for a second. 

T-Mobile gif explaining 5G spectrum bands
T-Mobile breaks down the different bands.

As you drop from high band to low band, you sacrifice speed and bandwidth for reach. This is where the networks had to make a choice—which band to emphasize? Verizon chose to go all-in on mmWave. As of now, it mostly works like a WiFi hotspot. When you can get it, it’s great. But it’s only in very specific points near 5G small cells, so coverage is spotty at best. T-Mobile went for a mix of bands, shown in their gif above, to maximize coverage. Low band is the best bet for rural areas, and it appears they’re focusing most mmWave spectrum on boosting densely trafficked areas. We saw the carriers go head to head in Super Bowl ads, with Verizon calling out T-Mobile’s low-band 5G as slower than Verizon 4G. T-Mobile tested its 5G against Verizon’s in the stadium to rather painful results

As much as we love seeing Awkwafina on our screens, remember that this drama is mostly marketing. Time will tell which band deserves the most attention, but current chatter leans toward mid-band

5G Towers (Small Cells)

The good news about 5G cell towers is they’re pretty tiny. “Tower” is a fairly misleading name, so people also call them small cells. The bad news is they don’t have the same range as regular 4G cell towers, so we need more of them. A lot more.

Getty Image of 5G hardware at the 2018 Winter Olympics
5G small cells in use at the PyeongChang Olympics in 2018 (Getty).

Which brings us to point #103 of infrastructure delays: Not in My Backyard. We’ve heard this before with wind turbines. (See: The ever more ironic “Save Our Sound” campaign against renewable wind energy in Nantucket Sound.) Granted, 5G cells are significantly smaller than wind turbines, but it’s still a lot of hardware at once. On top of that, carriers can’t just drop small cells on every street lamp they see; there are technical difficulties and red tape around that too. 

Between angry residents, permit rigamarole, and legal battles, 5G deployment has hit some serious roadblocks at home. 

Where Does 5G Stand in 2020?

People love to discuss the 5G race. And yes, there are economic benefits to launching the world’s newest mobile standard first. Historically, the first country to launch a new mobile generation reaped exceptional economic benefits. Europe had the edge on 2G, Japan on 3G, and the US on 4G.

Screenshot showing economics benefits of America's 4G wireless leadership, courtesy of CTIA
What happens when a country leads a new wireless generation. Via CTIA.

As mentioned earlier, though, we’ve evolved since the 20th-century space race. If it only came down to which region launched 5G first, Asia has the rest of us beat by a long shot. South Korea had functional 5G at the Winter Olympics, a year and a half before all American carriers had entered the game. 

5G Across the World: China, Europe, and the US

However, the wireless world isn’t so border driven anymore. Modern technology allows us to connect with anyone across the globe from our kitchen tables. The economic benefits in question come from innovation, and we hardly know what 5G is capable of yet. Some of the world’s greatest minds choose to work from America. It’s difficult to envision them taking their work elsewhere merely because America is lagging behind other nations in deploying a network that’s barely functional yet. 

On paper, America’s failure to launch 5G as fast as China comes off as a significant economic loss. In reality, we see how the world has changed and connected in the past decade, so having the first network seems about as important as getting the new iPhone the day it drops. 

The biggest concern with China’s dominance in 5G is over infrastructure and their advanced deployment schedule compared to the US. Officials are concerned that if Chinese companies build out 5G infrastructure in other countries, they’ll slip in back doors that allow surveillance on Western data. This is no joke, but not just because of 5G—cyberterrorism is frequently considered the biggest threat to the US today. 

On the other hand, China manufactures practically every piece of our favorite hardware. A fact which the 2020 coronavirus epidemic brought into sharp relief. 

Huawei store
Chinese tech giant Huawei recently took Apple’s spot as the world’s second-largest smartphone retailer.

American fears, bluster or real, weren’t enough to stop European countries from accepting Huawei’s help setting up their networks. And in the spirit of transparency, 5G infrastructure development isn’t a one-way street out of China. According to the Chinese embassy in France, “China had used foreign companies such as Finland’s Nokia (NOKIA.HE) and Sweden’s Ericsson (ERICb.ST) to equip its own domestic networks.”

Britain partnered with Huawei for non-core infrastructure. Germany shrugged off American pressure to ban the tech giant outright. Multiple countries are working together on 5G. Verizon even opened a lab in London to encourage international collaboration. 

Looking Ahead

We laid out our opinions on the 5G roadmap, but with so many variables in play, it’s hard to make an accurate guess at the rollout timeline. For the moment at least, we’re playing the waiting game as networks continue fine-tuning their coverage and the hardware catches up. Hopefully some of the promises laid out by 5G developers will have tangible results by the time we all have a 5G phone in our pockets. 

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