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Unless you lived completely off the grid for the past 2 years, you
have undoubtedly heard the term 5G. Many of us have been watching commercials from the large cell service providers promising us 5G coverage nationwide. Has 5G been rolled out nationwide? To answer that question, we must first dive into what it is and how it works.
What is 5G?
5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless. The standards for this were initially set towards the end of 2017 but as of right now we don’t fully know what applications 5G will enable. This generation of cellular will bring three things to the table: bigger channels to speed up data (think of a highway adding an extra lane), higher responsiveness, and the ability to connect more devices at once. Currently, the 5G radio system is non standalone (NSA), meaning it cannot work by itself. When we use our devices right now, we make initial connection to the network utilizing 4G and then it trades of to 5G (where coverage is available). Later in 2020 5G networks are expected to become standalone, meaning 4G coverage will no longer be required. It is important to note that what AT&T calls “5G Evolution” is really an improved 4G.
Low, Middle, and High-band
5G speeds are directly tied to how wide the channels are. There are three options for channel width: low-band, mid-band, and high-band. Low-band are the oldest cellular frequencies on the market and they can extend great distances. However, these channels are not very wide and operate at frequencies below 1GHz. Low-band 5G is slow and feels a lot like 2G-4G. Mid-band is the most common and is currently covering most of the cellular and Wi-Fi we are seeing today. These networks extend about a half mile from their towers and will provide 1-10GHz. High-band, also referred to as millimeter-wave is the newest stuff on the market. It uses airwaves between 20-100GHz and are VERY short range- extending only 800 feet from towers.
High-band hasn’t really been used for consumer devices due to the handheld processing power along with mini antennas that haven’t been available. These millimeter waves drop off much quicker than mid or low-band when you move away from towers, meaning you will need to stay close to them to maintain those speeds and connectivity. Rural networks generally run on a mix of low and mid-band simply because they require fewer, more powerful macrocells to extend connectivity.
High-band millimeter-waves are accessed by “small cells” which are currently only placed in select major cities. These small cells are much lower power but in large metropolitan areas, it is easier to place them close enough together to create a strong handoff as you move around while using your device.
What will 5G be used for?
At the moment the buzz is faster download times, better gaming experience, and streaming Netflix shows like there’s no tomorrow. That’s just skimming the surface of what is to come with 5G. Most of the applications and technologies haven’t even been developed or are in early stages of coming to fruition. The purpose of 5G is to have instantaneous connection for things like driverless cars, automating seaports, and robotics. 5G requires specific technologies to work, chances are your current device can’t even handle it. When you think about 5G, don’t think about watching Netflix on the train, think public safety and big picture business ventures. In the last decade 4G gave us Uber and Snapchat, but 5G is well on its way and consumers have only seen a glimmer of what this technology can bring.