What 5G is, how you can benefit from it, and what its limitations are.
Featuring Tom Merritt.
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5G. You’re hearing it a lot. It’s fast. It’s new. It’s… better somehow?
I know companies say they have it.
I know some phones say they support it.
But what does it even mean?
So Let’s help you Know a Little more about 5G.
The first generation of phones to support 5G are out and most of them are expensive. 5G services are up and running but limited in coverage. That’s going to improve as time goes on. In mid-2020 buying a 5G phone is for early adopters and people who want to be future proof. By 2021 it’s likely to be mainstream.
That’s for mobile though. 5G is also a potential replacement for home internet service because it can offer fiber-like speeds with much easier installation.
Let’s talk a little about what 5g is.
5g is not a thing. It’s a term for a collection of technologies. That was true of 4g, and it was true of 3g. These names mark significant advances in the technology. The G stands for “generation”. So 5 G is the fifth generation of mobile data tech.
Let’s think of 4G for a second. LTE is the main tech used for 4G service. LTE advanced, is new technology that makes LTE work faster. But it’s not a significant new generation.
5g is new stuff. It’s technologies offer greater speed, and more importantly, lower latency and greater capacity. Yeah speed isn’t the biggest advantage of 5G. Let’s talk about that.
Everybody knows well, 5g is gonna be faster, right? You may, sometimes hear people talking about latency, and the fact that 5G will make things feel more instantaneous over the internet. And that’s more important than the speed honestly. But greater –capacity– is something you almost never hear about, and that’s where 5G tech is really going differentiate itself from LTE. with 5G, more devices can connect at once.
That’s why you hear people say 5g will be great for Internet of Things and I’m sure sometimes you think, well I’ve got internet of things they they work right now on on 4G, don’t they? Well, probably not? Think about it. Your Internet of Things devices right now generally work on Wi Fi because the capacity of 4G just isn’t quite good enough. And if you’ve used 4G in a car, you know this.
So what makes a phone 5G?
5G NR is the radio access technology used in standard 5G implementations. It will not be compatible with 4G hardware. This is why it’s different. LTE advanced is new but it’s pretty compatible with existing 4G hardware often with just a software upgared.
5G NR is is not in your device unless you have a 5G NR radio. 5G phones will have to have 5G and 4G radios if they want to receive both, just like you have a separate radio for 3G and 4G service.
So how does it work.
Maybe you heard 5G can’t go through walls, or gets disrupted by rain. Not exactly true. 5G isn’t the problem, the spectrum you broadcast in is.
Think of a radio station. Each radio station broadcasts at a different part fo the radio broadcast spectrum. Otherwise they’d all overlap.
Same with phone service. Carriers broadcast their service in different parts of the a radio spectrum. A radio station might operate at 97.1Mhz. Cell service operates int he hundreds of MHz or up in the Gigaherz part of the specturm.
5G generally is operated above and below six gigahertz. That’s important to know because a lot of the problems above six gigahertz are the ones you hear about and they don’t exist for 5G service below six gigahertz.
You’re gonna run into that thing where somebody says, Well 5g has a problem breaking through walls, and you’re gonna say, my 5g service doesn’t. And then you’re gonna have somebody else say, well, 5G gets 20 gigabits per second, and some will say mine doesn’t.
It’s because 5G services from different companies, and even from the same company in different areas, can operate in different spectrums, low frequency 5G, — for example what T-Mobile has rolled out in the US in the 600 MHz spectrum. That low-frequency — below 6GHZ– spectrum allows for more flexible encoding than LTE and wider channels. They’re not huge, but they’re wider than what LTE can do. So it can be faster– a 25 to 50% increase in speed over LTE and cover the same range.
This low frequency 5G can have the same range you have with LTE. It won’t it won’t have a problem going through walls, and it’ll be faster. And it’ll have 5G’s latency and capacity increase as well.
But it won’t be that much faster. This may be another point of confusion where you see some company claim their 4G is faster than some other company’s 5G. That’s because the speed potential range overlaps. So 5G service operating at the bottom of its potential might in some cases be slower than LTE working at the top of its potential. But that’s likely not to last. Those bragging rights will be short-lived.
The 5G service that can’t be touched by LTE though is the high frequency service in the 28 gigahertz 38 gigahertz spectrums, way up there, often referred to as millimeter wave service abbreviated m-m-wave. So when you hear somebody say, Oh, this service is millimeter wave, this is the one they’re talking about.
MMwave gives you really big channels. This is when we need to use the word bandwidth more appropriately. We often use bandwidth interchangeably with speed because better bandwidth often leads to better speeds. But bandwidth is actually the breadth that a signal can use. And MMWwave service at that high spectrum gives you wide wide bandwidth channels for very high speeds. Buuuuut — millimeter wave is the technology that drops off faster over distance. It works great when you’re close to the source. So you need more connections.
That’s why some carriers can roll out 5G faster than others. If you’re usubng below 6GHz you can use your existing cell towers. But if you’re going to do it in millimeter wave, you’re going to have to add more base stations and you’re going to need them to connect to to landline backhaul more often. MMwave is also the one that has more problems penetrating walls. We’ll get to that when we talk about how it works a little bit later what they’re doing to mitigate that it’s not gonna be as bad as you think I know. I’ve heard some people say 5G won’t be able to work inside. But you’ll be able to get 5G inside if its low frequency and even if it’s millimeter wave there’s way to use it inside.
But before we get to using MMwave 5G inside for mobile we should acknowledge that this high-speed wireless service is great for your home internet because it’s cheaper than laying cable and offers more capacity for traffic than 4g does. A lot of carriers stopped laying fiber to the home because they knew that they and their competitors could eventually set up 5G in a neighborhood. Why spend money on expensive infrastructure if someone can come in more cheaply 5 years later and outcompete you before you’ve recovered your investment?
With in-home service the wall thing isn’t a big deal either because you can put the receiver anywhere it gets a good signal, maybe even outside, and then your router broadcasts it through WiFi to the rest of your house.
Now, let’s talk a little bit about the speed.
LTE is fast. LTE can get speeds up to two gigabits per second. So as we mentioned, the speed difference between 5G and 4G may or may not be apparent depending on where you are. That’s why AT&T couldn’t resist calling its newest 4G service, 5g evolution. Causing a LOT of people to think they had 5G when they do not. What AT&T calls 5G Evolution or 5GE is just 4G Advanced LTE that can reach these higher speeds. But that confusion will persist because, as we said 5G speeds won’t be significantly faster than the top LTE speeds for awhile. Eventually 5G will hit 20Gbps and there won’t be a comparison of course but that won’t be right away. 5G’s early advantage is in latency and capacity. Again, I can’t emphasize that enough. The way you’ll tell the difference between 5G and 4G in these early days may not be by speed so much as– wow I’m in real time practically with my video stream. And you’re on that LTE connection and you’re not. Because of low latency. Potentially one millisecond of latency compared to 4g, which at best is 30, often around 70 milliseconds.
So we’ve been sayiong 5G can do all this better capacity better latency but not always better speeds but eventually sbetter speeds. But why? How does this 5g stuff work?
5G uses encoding called OFDM, which is similar to LTE, but with many more smaller cells, as well as the wider bandwidth that I talked about earlier, and some advanced antenna tech to increase the capacity.
I mentioned needing more smaller cells when you’re at the millimeter wave.
I’ve talked about the wider channels and how that can help speeds and latency even at the lower frequencies.
So let’s talk about that antenna tech. Because that’s going to help solve that getting mmWave 5G inside problem.
One of the reasons you need new hardware for 5G is you need smart antennas in your devices. Smart antennas instantly form directional beams. It’s similar to deep space telescopes. In fact thank deep space telescopes. If anyone says, Why are we wasting money on Deep Space Telescopes – and they won’t take you know, learning as an answer– tell them it’s so you can get your 5G millimeter wave antenna working.
The way deep space telescopes find faraway stars is a similar principle to how you’re gonna find your 5G signal when your behind a wall.
Mobile Equipment will use dozens of tiny antennas.
Base stations will have hundreds of antennas because they have that higher capacity.
And they’ll all work in concert to create narrow time varying beams that continually move to stay locked on the desired signal. So when we talk about 5g being a collection of technologies, this is one of the technologies. 4G couldn’t use this spectrum but 5G can because we have this antenna technology.
Now my guess is, especially in the early days, there are going to be more complaints about 5g service inside because for whatever reason, you as a user, are going to run into situations that these tests have never run into and it’s going to take a while to squash those bugs.
But by all accounts, there’s no reason you shouldn’t be able to use millimeter wave 5g inside a building. As long as you’re close enough to the base station because again,, it drops off faster over distance. So there may be more rural gaps, more coverage gaps in the millimeter wave 5g service. I think that could be a significant complaint. And there will be some bugs and stuff in these advanced antennas at the beginning, that may cause weird dropouts. But I think that will get fixed over time.
OK. So faster service. Lower latency. More capacity. What does that get me?
Well, when you’ve got all that, you can do a game streaming service over mobile game streaming services. The whole big deal with a streaming game service is figuring out how to get low latency. You don’t see over mobile because of latency. Well, now you can. Now if you’ve got 5G service as your home service, you can use that one millisecond or eventually it might get lower – latency. And yeah if you’re a competitive gamer, that still isn’t enough, but Wow, that’s pretty good.
Another one is Physical Therapy, I see a lot of examples of using virtual reality, but particularly for physical therapy, so someone won’t have to have the VR all local, whether it’s physical therapy or something else, VR can be streamed over this technology. Virtual Reality being streamed is very difficult.
Smart bandages, that track healing is just one example of a lot of the little things that can happen. And you may well ask, why couldn’t I do a smart bandage with 4g, and it was because of the capacity you just couldn’t. You couldn’t have that many sensors doing that much traffic because of capacity. And the sensors can move. With 5G you can just have it everywhere. high res security cameras, you know, you’ve got that bandwidth. So you can push out all those bits and have high resolution over your camera.
Driverless cars interacting with one another is another example you hear a lot of people talk about, if driverless cars want to talk to each other rather than just be self contained, which will help safety quite a bit if your car can tell the other cars around it, Hey, I’m about to turn left. That’s an advantage driverless cars could have over humans is is the ability to know what the other cars on the road are going to do ahead of time. Well to do that you need low latency, high capacity and and that is something that 5G could provide as well.
In some ways, it’s a lot like having your home Wi Fi level of service available as your mobile service. Yeah 4G almost feels like that. But there are, there are times when it doesn’t. And you know, those times when you’re out and about and you’re like, ah, I wish I could switch to Wi Fi right now.
And there are products that just don’t get made, because they need that consistent, wide ranging high bandwidth, low latency, high capacity service that 5G is going to provide.
Now all of this is not to say that 5G will solve all our ills. I’ve tried to point out some of the pitfalls along the way, but it definitely will be an improvement. And it’ll be interesting to see at what point the service really becomes practical for you to subscribe to and how much they charge for it. I mean, when you’ve got this amount of bandwidth, you really need to have a higher data cap. If you’re going to have a data cap at all.
But all in all it’s it’s, it’s workable, and no, it’s going to not change the world as much as many of the things you read out there, say, but it’s definitely going to change the kinds of devices that we can use and the proliferation of them.
I think that’ll be the interesting thing to see is, you know, smart cities now become much more practical when you have a ubiquitous high capacity, high bandwidth service like 5g.
I hope this helps you understand a little more about what 5G is, how you can benefit from it and what its limitations are.
In other words I hope now you know a little more about… 5G.