What is 5G? The Next Generation, Explained


With telecommunications companies rolling out 4G cellular networks in many urban centers across the United States, most consumers aren’t thinking about the next generation — 5G — just yet. Countries like Korea and technology development firms worldwide, however, have already started designing the future of cellular connections. So what is 5G?

Wait and See

First of all, users should be prepared to wait. According to a PCWorld article, 5G won’t be widely available until at least 2020 — so says Vish Nandlall of technology giant Ericsson. Nandlall also believes that all users will have more mobile connections at their disposal, up to 10 per person, and that the “Internet of Things” will affect the spread of 5G.

In addition to smartphones and tablets connecting via cellular networks, the Internet of Things also includes other connected devices such as sensors on vehicles or tracking chips on packages. The result is a network which serves two purposes: Giving bandwidth-hungry users the room they need to download files and access social media while also allowing devices to create stable, long-term connections.

What is 5G? It’s Faster!

Of course, the largest draw of 5G networks is speed. While no official standard has been developed, expect peak speeds of around 10 gigabytes per second (Gbps) or 10 times faster than peak 4G speeds. For users still on 3G networks or standard broadband plans, this could mean speeds up to 1,000-times faster. The most connected country in the world, South Korea, is already taking a shot at developing 5G and has put $1.5 billion into the project and plans to roll out a trial network by 2017. The country has a large 4G network, making theoretical upgrades much simpler, but there are still few details on exactly how their 5G technology will perform.

It’s worth noting that each “generation” of cellular technology comes with a specific focus. 3G networks consumerized data transfer, while 4G focused on improved streaming video. Theoretically, 5G will be about creating networks, which are able to intelligently handle and prioritize massive numbers of connections all while delivering unparalleled access.

Nuts and Bolts

But how will 5G achieve higher speeds and better network connections? According to researchers at Alcatel-Lucent’s Bell Labs, one likely scenario is the use of multiple frequency bands. Currently, 4G and 3G devices establish connections with local base stations using microwave transmission frequencies between 3 and 30 gigahertz (Ghz). Downloading and uploading both occur via the same link, and the frequency band never changes. 5G, meanwhile, may rely on multiple links and different frequencies to produce heterogeneous downloads and uploads rather than relying on a single connected base.

In addition, the Bell Labs researchers predict a switch from microwave to millimetre wave transmissions as the microwave band becomes too crowded. Millimetre wavelengths range from 3 to 300 Ghz and offer much more bandwidth real estate for telecommunications providers. The trade-off? The long wavelengths of these signals mean they can be blocked by walls, weather or even people. To overcome this issue, one possible solution is the use of directed antennas which compensate for any blockage.

Improving on multiple input multiple output (MIMO) technology may also form a part of 5G infrastructure. By outfitting base stations and devices with multiple antennas, signals can be transmitted and received much more easily and over more than one frequency. The result? Ideally, fewer lost connections and higher overall data transfer rates. Along the same lines, there’s speculation that 5G devices will be able to communicate with one another without using a larger network. This should make sensor data easier to transfer in a corporate setting and also let users connect smartphones to tablets or desktops without relying on cellular base stations.

What is 5G? While nothing’s written in stone, expect faster speeds to take center stage, bolstered by higher frequency transmissions and multiple antennas. In addition, 5G should increase the number of wireless connections available both for users and businesses and will likely focus on the creation of cohesive, intelligent national and global networks.