What is 5G? Answers to your questions about 5G technology

It seems like 5G is everywhere now – from ads for cellular carriers and new smartphones to reports of potential dangers of this new technology. But what is 5G and how will it affect you?
Woman's hands holding smartphone with 5G symbols above it
What does 5G technology mean for you?
mail.com offers some quick facts about 5G technology.
 

What is 5G?

“5G” stands for “fifth generation” – as in the fifth standard for wireless connections. Just to review, 1G (1980s) brought us analog mobile voice communications; 2G (1990s), digital mobile voice communications; 3G (2000s), mobile data; and 4G/4G LTE (2010s), mobile broadband internet. And now in the 2020s, 5G is gradually being rolled out to expand these connections between machines, objects and devices.
 

How is 5G an improvement over the previous generations of wireless communications?

It offers much more rapid data download and upload speeds, which not only means that anything that we do with our smartphones will be a lot faster, but that autonomous vehicles, drones, and objects in the Internet of Things (IoT) will be able to communicate with each other virtually in real time. And because 5G makes broader use of the radio wave spectrum, more devices will be able to use the mobile internet at the same time.
 

When we say “a lot faster,” what does that mean?

Some experts say that 5G could achieve speeds about 10 to 20 times faster than the 50 megabits per second currently averaged by 4G mobile networks. This would make it possible to download a full-length, high-definition film in less than a minute, for example. Not to mention unlocking the potential of self-driving vehicles, where real-time information is essential, or increasing internet speeds in remote areas.

How does 5G technology work?

5G is based on orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM), which modulates a digital signal across several different channels to reduce interference and delays in the processing of data (i.e. lower latency) and to deliver greater flexibility. Just like the earlier generations of mobile technologies, 5G networks use signals carried by radio waves, which are on the lower end of the electromagnetic spectrum. These signals are transmitted between a cellular antenna or mast and your phone. What is different is that 5G uses a broader spectrum of these radio waves than previous generations did, opening up high-band, short-range waves that didn't work with 4G technology. In fact, 5G can run on any radio wave frequency – low, middle and high, from the lower bandwidths (sub-6 GHz) all the way up to millimeter waves (mmWave, or 24 GHz and up). The combination of this wider range of bandwidths and advances in antenna technology will allow 5G to increase capacity by up to four times over our current systems.

Do I need a 5G phone in 2021?

To benefit from the advantages of 5G networks, you will need a 5G phone. However, if you have a 4G phone that you are happy with, you don’t need to rush out to replace it. 4G phones will still work on a 5G network – they will simply continue to operate at their current speed rather than the faster 5G speed.
 
If you are planning to buy a new smartphone, the chances are already good that it will have 5G on board. 5G phones are becoming increasingly mainstream, with almost all new smartphones priced above $300 offering 5G. When looking for a new phone specifically to take advantage of 5G, the main factor is probably which mobile carrier you use. Different service providers are taking different approaches to 5G, with some offering better coverage at different frequencies within the 5G range. So it is still worth confirming that your selected phone model covers all three – low-band, mid-band and mmWave – although this should become less of an issue in the future as the technology and coverage becomes more widespread.

Is 5G dangerous?

Some people are concerned that the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) used in 5G technology could pose a health risk to humans. The concern is less about the low-band and mid-band radio frequencies, which have already been in use for decades, than about the higher-band or mmWaves, which are a new feature of 5G technology. This is because moving up the electromagnetic spectrum means a move in the direction of frequencies that have been associated with an increased cancer risk. However, radio waves, including all of those used by 5G networks, are below the frequency of visible light and thus classified as “non-ionizing”. This means they are still well under the level of energy needed to cause the kind of damage to human cells associated with cancer. In contrast, “ionizing” radiation occurs on the other end of the EMR spectrum, above the frequency of visible light – for example, X-rays or the UV rays associated with skin cancer.
 
It is true that while the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that “to date, no adverse health effects have been established as being caused by mobile phone use,” it still classifies ALL radio frequency radiation as “possibly carcinogenic,” meaning that further research is warranted because the long-term effects cannot yet be fully assessed. This applies to all mobile phone technologies, not just 5G. To put this level of risk into perspective, many other common human behaviors, such as consuming alcohol or processed meats, are currently categorized as greater cancer risks than mobile phone usage.

What is a 5G router and should I buy one?

There has been some uncertainty lately about whether or not people also need to upgrade their home Wi-Fi systems to get ready for 5G. However, Wi-Fi has nothing to do with mobile networks. The confusion probably stems from seeing the term “5Ghz router”, which of course looks a lot like “5G”. But a 5Ghz router simply delivers faster Wi-Fi than a 2.4Ghz router – which may or may not be important to you. Mobile hotspots are a different matter. Much like your smartphone, a hotspot gives you a mobile data connection via a cellular network. If you have ever been working from home and had problems with your Wi-Fi, you may have even used your smartphone to set up a temporary hotspot that lets you stay connected to the internet. Operating on this principle, it is possible to buy mobile hotspots, also known as mobile routers, that can take advantage of 5G networks – as long as you are paying for that service, either from a cellular provider or using a pay-as-you-go SIM card.
 
We hope that this post has cleared up all your questions about 5G! We look forward to your feedback.

 Images: 1&1/Shutterstock
 

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