What is 5G? All you need to know 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? mail.com offers some quick facts about 5G technology.
Woman's hands holding smartphone with 5G symbols above it
What does 5G technology mean for you?

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.

Simply put, 5G is meant to offer an even more interconnected world, with virtually everyone and virtually everything wirelessly connected. As the new wireless standard meant to stretch globally, 5G is here to change the game when it comes to connection and accessibility.

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 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.

Real-life 5G

Imagine, you’re driving on the road like you always do and look over at the car to your side and notice there is not a person behind the wheel. In fact, there is nothing behind the wheel. Don’t panic, it is an autonomous car. But do you know how they are able to work? Through highly innovative technology that is enhanced by 5G. 5G offers a network for self-driving cars to maintain their infrastructure, data in high volumes, and keep pedestrians and riders safe – Afterall a driver is not necessary. Next time you see one of those cars now you know a bit more about how they work!

Healthcare also has a future with 5G technologies as it offers changes to medical treatment, evaluations, and procedures. Robotics and technology are already used across health fields. From a wearable device such as a pacemaker, to a robotic arm for surgical purposes. Using 5G within the healthcare field can transform the way medical needs are met, health monitoring, virtual doctor visits and etc. This is because they allow for remote data feedback between networks making way for physicians to receive direct feedback in patient monitoring and remote access. The introduction of medical equipment that utilizes 5G networks is still new and the risks and benefits are continuously being assessed.  

5G pros and cons

Everything has its advantages and disadvantages, for sure! Even groundbreaking 5G is not immune from disadvantages as we move towards a 5G fluid world.

  1. Increased speed: 5G is significantly the fastest wireless network yet. We are able to have quicker downloads, better streaming, and reduced delays or latency for important moments like gaming or video conferences.
  2. Bandwidth: The increased bandwidth of 5G makes way for new capacities and reliability.
  3. Driving Innovation: Innovative technological uses are made possible by 5G. Many sectors will be enhanced such as healthcare, transportation, etc.
  1. Not available to everyone: Highly populated urban areas are at the forefront of 5G rollout while rural areas can experience challenges with connectivity.
  2. Infrastructure building: Building the infrastructure for 5G is costly leading to higher costs for consumers in the end as service providers have to charge more.
  3. Security Risks: The risk of cyberattacks is increased due to 5G having a lack of security protocols such as encryption when transferring data.

Do I need a 5G phone in 2023?

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 still work on 5G networks – they will simply continue to operate at their current speed rather than the faster 5G speed. 5G is regarded as being 10 times faster than 4G.
If you are planning to buy a new smartphone, the chances are already good that it will have 5G on board. One thing to keep in mind is that 5G does take more battery power than 4G. You might find yourself noticeably having to charge your phone more frequently. You might also see a 5G UC icon on your phone. The UC stands for ultra capacity, and it indicated that the phone is connected to mid-bands or mmWave. 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 has become less of an issue than before as the technology and coverage has become more widespread.

Is 5G dangerous?

Some people are concerned that the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) used in 5G technology might pose a health risk to humans. This 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 about whether or not people also need to upgrade their home Wi-Fi systems to get 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.

This article first appeared on October 24, 2021 and was updated on September 28, 2023.

 Images: 1&1/Shutterstock

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