You may have heard some of the buzz around 5G cellular networks, and in this article I’m going to take a look into what 5G really is, and what impact it’s going to have (if any) on traditional cellular networks.

The “G”s first appeared with 3G technology, and stood for “Third Generation”.   The move to 3G came as smartphones started to become popular and consumers became reliant on accessing websites while away from the home/office.   Websites were getting larger and it was taking too long to download a page with traditional technology.    I know this “third generation” well, as I once worked for a small start-up company called IPWireless who were leading the development of 3G technology!    Eventually, 3G became too slow as trends like streaming video/music put more demands on a network, so along came, you guessed it – 4G!   You may have also seen the name LTE, which was the name of the standard introduced with 4G.   LTE stood for Long Term Evolution and was intended to replace 3G with a much faster technology which should be fast enough for the future (hence the “long-term”).  Well fast forward to today and here we are starting to see the roll out of 5G.

So, what is 5G?   It’s the fifth generation cellular standard and was approved at the end of 2017.   The idea of a “standard” is that it’s an agreed upon set of rules, that means different companies can develop a range of products that can work together.   So, for example, one company can develop a 5G base station (transmitter) that works with another company’s cellular phone.

But 5G isn’t a singular standard – instead this time it covers a range of scenarios.  There are three types of 5G networks planned – low frequency, mid frequency and you guessed it – high frequency.

Low frequency is the type of network that current 4G operates at and is the first we’re going to see.   It’ll use existing 4G network towers and infrastructure, which is currently being upgraded by providers such as Bell, Rogers and Telus.    The added efficiency of 5G technology in this frequency band will bring faster connections with lower latency.   Latency is the round-trip time it takes to send a message and get a reply.  5G promises to bring this latency down to around 1 millisecond.  To put this into perspective, it takes around 100-400ms to blink an eye!

Current 4G networks top out at a maximum of around 2Gb/s where as 5G raises this to around 20Gb/s!

5G also brings the advantage of supporting many more devices than a 4G network can.   Existing networks have to enforce bottlenecks, and throttle connections due to limitations, but 5G networks promise to break through these restrictions.

It’s these low frequency connections that could make a big difference to rural home internet connections, bringing higher speed to remote locations.

The mid-band connections (3.5GHz to 7GHz) use a higher frequency which is currently owned by Inukshuk Internet (Rogers and Bell) and is being used for proprietary rural internet connections.   The Canadian government plans to reclaim and re-auction these frequencies for 5G use next year.   These mid-band frequencies are less popular in the US as they’re currently used by Satellite operators and the Navy, so there’s less push to advance these networks.   5G roll out in Canada is technically easier than in Europe as there you have 27 different countries – all with their own frequency uses and network plans, however you also have a lot more customers willing to pay for the upgrade!

High frequency 5G is the biggest enhancement, however it also requires the biggest investment from network providers.   Due to the millimeter wave frequencies involved, the signal can only reach 100s of meters.   This means you need a “lot” more transmitters – every 100m or so.  These types of networks are really only feasible in large cities, where the density of customers can make such a network profitable.   Network operators in the US are starting to roll out these networks, but only in certain cities, and even then, with debatable coverage.   More cities are coming online next year, but don’t expect to see these types of networks in rural areas – it’s just not economical.

So, what are these fast, low latency networks good for?   Like with 4G, the networks will be ready before anyone will really take advantage of them.  There are only a handful of cell phones available in the US which support 5G – more are coming next year, but these aren’t really going to make the most of this new capacity.

Instead, look to the future where different types of devices will be connected to the internet.   Take the example of self-driving cars.   Using 5G networks, these cars would be able to talk to each other in real time.  If one car detects a collision up ahead, it can instantly notify all other cars nearby to the hazard.

The low power requirement for 5G means it’s suitable for the “Internet of Things” or IoT for short.   IoT brings network connectivity to everyday devices, where machines can talk to machines.

Streaming games promises to revolutionise the profitable gaming console market, but only if the networks have sufficient capacity and latency which 5G brings.

It’s an exciting time, and the roll-out of 5G networks globally will usher in new technologies and advancements – some of which we haven’t even dreamed about yet.