Experts have long touted 5G as a world-changing leap in wireless technology.
But even though most major carriers have now launched some version of 5G, that high-speed, ultra-connected future still seems a long way down the road.
So what is 5G? How does it work? And when can we expect to see the next generation of internet begin to change the world? Experts weigh in about what’s in store.
WHAT IS 5G?
It’s the fifth generation wireless network and is considered to be a significant step up from 4G LTE networks, mostly in terms of speed.
5G will initially augment and eventually supersede 4G LTE, just as 4G did to 3G about a decade ago and 3G did to 2G a decade before that.
“5G is just an evolution of cellular, mobile technology,” said Kevin Gifford, a research professor at the University of Colorado Boulder with a focus in wireless engineering. “In terms of the differences between 4G and 5G, for the normal consumer it’s just going to be faster data rates. That is going to be the primary change … faster download speeds and lower latency.”
Each new generation of wireless network brings advancements in mobile capabilities.
The first generation brought analog voice; the second introduced digital voice; the third introduced mobile data, enabling access to functions like email; and 4G ushered in a new era of mobile internet, opening the door for things like ride-share apps and video streaming.
What sets 5G apart from its predecessors is its ability to use different radio frequencies, specifically high-band or millimeter waves, which cycle at a very high rate and transmit data incredibly quickly.
Accessing those high-band waves, Gifford said, means 5G networks can transmit data somewhere between 10 and 100 times faster than 4G.
WHAT IS THE CURRENT STATUS OF 5G?
All four of the major U.S. wireless carriers have now launched some form of 5G, but nothing that brings it close to its potential.
Current 5G offerings either work on the low-band spectrum, which offers slightly increased speed but nothing near the blazing potential of high-band, or on some combination of both low and high.
AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are all working to roll out high-band in highly populated areas, but it’s expected to be a lengthy process.
Because the high-band waves that give 5G its speed only travel short distances and have trouble penetrating walls, wireless providers will need to install many small cell sites to transmit the 5G signals.
Building that type of infrastructure, Gifford said, is time-consuming, costly, and might only be practical in some cities.
“In dense urban cities like Denver, Los Angeles, New York City — when [the carriers] roll out 5G they will make it millimeter wave, because they have a high user density,” Gifford said.
But in rural areas where the population is less likely to bring a good return on investment, carriers might opt only to offer low-band 5G. And even in areas where high-band is practical, Gifford said, the infrastructure will likely take years to build.
HOW MIGHT IT CHANGE THINGS?
Although it’s expected to open the door to revolutionary innovation, 5G is still a nascent technology, so it’s unclear what impact it will eventually have.
Consumers will immediately benefit from faster download and upload speeds, higher bandwidth, and lower latency times.
And Joel Rushing, a senior communications manager for T-Mobile, said that as developers and businesses are able to use the network, it will bring benefits “like longer battery life [for devices,] Internet of Things applications, augmented reality, and more.”
5G should also change how wireless carriers generate revenue, Gifford said. Their focus on consumers as the target market is shifting; now the emphasis is on industry verticals.
“As an example, they’ll be targeting a vertical for the energy industry, or the oil and gas industry, or for municipalities …,” he said. “They’ll target those business industries and try to support them for a greater return on investment.”
Davin Neubacher, CEO of Springs-based IT services company Navakai Inc., said 5G’s increased connectivity will give people more opportunities to work remotely, which could have an impact on data security.
“We see the biggest impact on the business side of things because now people are going to work remotely way more effectively than they have in the past, because of the speed,” Neubacher said. “Now you’ve got people with their laptops, working really wherever they want … and with 5G and that open kind of network, it brings some security vulnerabilities along with it.”
COULD 5G SIGNALS IMPACT OUR HEALTH?
Because 5G networks use a band spectrum previously unused by wireless networks, there’s speculation that the radiation it emits might be hazardous.
Perry Wisinger, a professor of accounting and finance at Regis University who’s conducting research on 5G’s health effects, said those fears have so far been unfounded.
“We are surrounded by electromagnetic radiation everywhere … but it’s largely broken up into two categories,” Wisinger said. “One is called ionizing radiation and the other is non-ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation is scary stuff … but 5G is not ionizing radiation. I don’t know of anyone in the scientific community who would say that 5G is anywhere near being ionizing. But be that as it may, you’ve got a lot of people out there who hop on the internet and Facebook who think all radiation is equivalent.
“Well it’s not. Some of it’s scary, most of it isn’t.”
WILL 5G RENDER OLDER DEVICES AND NETWORKS OBSOLETE?
To access the 5G network, consumers will need to upgrade their mobile devices. But 5G won’t make old devices obsolete — they’ll still be able to access 4G LTE, at least for the foreseeable future.
But installing high-band throughout the country will take significant infrastructure upgrades.
A cellular system has three main components: the device, a cellular base station and a core. All of those, Gifford said, will need to be upgraded to accommodate 5G.
“Replacing the phones, that’s actually pretty easy to do. They just add another chip that will support the bands that 5G is in,” he said. “The harder swap is updating the radios that are on the base stations. Right now, all those radios on the towers … are LTE radios, and those LTE radios connect to your phone just using LTE. So when the vendors have to switch out the radio … it’s still going to be anchored to the same core and the same network switching. So … the third step is to update the core that’s doing all the switching.”
All that, Gifford said, means it’ll be “at least two years before the systems are in place and you really see 5G take hold.”