What is 5G? How is it better than 4G?

5G networks will boost wireless throughput by a factor of 10 and may replace wired broadband. But when will they be available, and why are 5G and IoT so linked together?

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5G wireless is an umbrella term to describe a set of standards and technologies for a radically faster wireless internet that ideally is up to 20 times faster with 120 times less latency than 4G, setting the stage for IoT networking advances and support for new high-bandwidth applications.

What is 5G? Technology or buzzword?

It will be years before the technology reaches its full potential worldwide, but meanwhile some 5G network services are being rolled out today. 5G is as much a marketing buzzword as a technical term, and not all services marketed as 5G are standard.

[From Mobile World Congress: The time of 5G is almost here.]

5G speed vs 4G

With every new generation of wireless technology, the biggest appeal is increased speed. 5G networks have potential peak download speeds of 20 Gbps, with 10 Gbps being seen as typical. That's not just faster than current 4G networks, which currently top out at around 1 Gbps, but also faster than cable internet connections that deliver broadband to many people's homes. 5G offers network speeds that rival optical-fiber connections.

Throughput alone isn't 5G's only important speed improvement; it also features a huge reduction in network latency. That's an important distinction: throughput measures how long it would take to download a large file, while latency is determined by network bottlenecks and delays that slow down responses in back-and-forth communication.

Latency can be difficult to quantify because it varies based on myriad network conditions, but 5G networks are capable of latency rates that are less than a millisecond in ideal conditions. Overall, 5G latency will be lower than 4G's by a factor of 60 to 120. That will make possible a number of applications such as virtual reality that delay makes impractical today.

5G technology

The technology underpinnings of 5G are defined by a series of standards that have been in the works for the better part of a decade. One of the most important of these is 5G New Radio, or 5G NR, formalized by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project, a standards organization that develops protocols for mobile telephony. 5G NR will dictate many of the ways in which consumer 5G devices will operate, and was finalized in June of 2018.

A number of individual technologies have come together to make the speed and latency improvements of 5G possible, and below are some of the most important.

Millimeter waves

5G networks will for the most part use frequencies in the 30 to 300 GHz range. (Wavelengths at these frequencies are between 1 and 10 millimeters, thus the name.) This high-frequency band can carry much more information per unit of time than the lower-frequency signals currently used by 4G LTE, which is generally below 1 GHz, or Wi-Fi, which tops out at 6 GHz.

Millimeter-wave technology has traditionally been expensive and difficult to deploy. Technical advances have overcome those difficulties, which is part of what's made 5G possible today.

Small cells

One drawback of millimeter wave transmission is that it's more prone to interference than Wi-Fi or 4G signals as they pass through physical objects.

To overcome this, the model for 5G infrastructure will be different from 4G's. Instead of the large cellular-antenna masts we've come to accept as part of the landscape, 5G networks will be powered by much smaller base stations spread throughout cities about 250 meters apart, creating cells of service that are also smaller.

These 5G base stations have lower power requirements than those for 4G and can be attached to buildings and utility poles more easily.

Massive MIMO

Despite 5G base stations being much smaller than their 4G counterparts, they pack in many more antennas. These antennas are multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO), meaning that they can handle multiple two-way conversations over the same data signal simultaneously. 5G networks can handle more than 20 times more conversations in this way than 4G networks.

Massive MIMO promises to radically improve on base station capacity limits, allowing individual base stations to have conversations with many more devices. This in particular is why 5G may drive wider adoption of IoT. In theory, a lot more internet-connected wireless gadgets will be able to be deployed in the same space without overwhelming the network.

Beamforming

Making sure all these conversations go back and forth to the right places is tricky, especially with the aforementioned problems millimeter-wave signals have with interference. To overcome those issues, 5G stations deploy advanced beamforming techniques, which use constructive and destructive radio interference to make signals directional rather than broadcast. That effectively boosts signal strength and range in a particular direction.

5G availability

The first commercial 5G network was rolled out in Qatar in May 2018. Since then, networks have been popping up across the world, from Argentina to Vietnam. Lifewire has a good, frequently updated list.

One thing to keep in mind, though, is that not all 5G networks deliver on all the technology's promises yet. Some early 5G offerings piggyback on existing 4G infrastructure, which reduces the potential speed gains; other services dubbed 5G for marketing purposes don't even comply with the standard. A closer look at offerings from U.S. wireless carriers will demonstrate some of the pitfalls.

Wireless carriers and 5G

Technically, 5G is available in the U.S. today. But the caveats involved in that statement vary from carrier to carrier, demonstrating the long road that still lies ahead before 5G becomes omnipresent.

Verizon is making probably the biggest early 5G push. It announced 5G Home in parts of four cities in October of 2018, a service that requires using a special 5G hotspot to connect to the network and feed it to your other devices via Wi-Fi.

Verizon planned an April rollout of a mobile service in Minneapolis and Chicago, which will spread to other cities over the course of the year. Accessing the 5G network will cost customers an extra monthly fee plus what they’ll have to spend on a phone that can actually connect to it (more on that in a moment). As an added wrinkle, Verizon is deploying what it calls 5G TF, which doesn't match up with the 5G NR standard.

AT&T announced the availability of 5G in 12 U.S. cities in December 2018, with nine more coming by the end of 2019, but even in those cities, availability is limited to the downtown areas. To use the network requires a special Netgear hotspot that connects to the service, then provides a Wi-Fi signal to phones and other devices.

Meanwhile, AT&T is also rolling out speed boosts to its 4G network, which it's dubbed 5GE even though these improvements aren't related to 5G networking. (This is causing backlash.)

Sprint will have 5G service in parts of four cities by May of 2019, and five more by the end of the year. But while Sprint's 5G offering makes use of massive MIMO cells, they aren't using millimeter-wave signals, meaning that Sprint users won't see as much of a speed boost as customers of other carriers.

T-Mobile is pursuing a similar model,and it won't roll out its service until the end of 2019 because there won't be any phones to connect to it.

One kink that might stop a rapid spread of 5G is the need to spread out all those small-cell base stations. Their small size and low power requirements make them easier to deploy than current 4G tech in a technical sense, but that doesn't mean it's simple to convince governments and property owners to install dozens of them everywhere. Verizon actually set up a website that you can use to petition your local elected officials to speed up 5G base station deployment.

5G phones: When available? When to buy?

The first major 5G phone to be announced is the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which should be available by the end of the summer of 2019. You can also order a "Moto Mod" from Verizon, which transforms Moto Z3 phones into 5G-compatible devices.

But unless you can't resist the lure of being an early adopter, you may wish to hold off for a bit; some of the quirks and looming questions about carrier rollout may mean that you end up with a phone that isn't compatible with your carrier's entire 5G network.

One laggard that may surprise you is Apple: analysts believe that there won't be a 5G-compatible iPhone until 2020 at the earliest. But this isn't out of character for the company; Apple also lagged behind Samsung in releasing 4G-compatible phones in back in 2012.  

Still, the 5G flood is coming. 5G-compatible devices dominated Barcelona's Mobile World Congress in 2019, so expect to have a lot more choice on the horizon.

Why are people talking about 6G already?

Some experts say 5G won’t be able to meet the latency and reliability targets it is shooting for. These skeptics are already looking ahead to 6G, which they say will try to address these projected shortcomings.

There is a group that is researching new technologies that can be rolled into 6G that calls itself

The Center for Converged TeraHertz Communications and Sensing (ComSenTer). Part of the spec they’re working on calls for 100Gbps speed for every device.

In addition to adding reliability, overcoming reliability and boosting speed, 6G is also trying to enable thousands of simultaneous connections. If successful, this feature could help to network IoT devices, which can be deployed in the thousands as sensors in a variety of industrial settings.

Even in its embryonic form, 6G may already be facing security concerns due to the emergence of newly discovered potential for man-in-the-middle attacks in tera-hertz based networks. The good news is that there’s plenty of time to find solutions to the problem. 6G networks aren’t expected to start rolling out until 2030.

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