A Beginner’s Guide to 5G
A simple explanation for the layman for how 5G works and the possibilities behind this exciting tech
The world is constantly developing around us, and at times the speed of the development can often leave us behind. One of the major new developments that has been on everyone’s lips is the rollout of 5G networks. Here’s everything you need to know about it.
First off, for the conspiracy theorists out there, 5G does not cause Coronavirus nor does it have any other negative impacts on user’s health. It is no more dangerous to use than the 4G and 3G networks that have already long been adopted around the world.
There are claims that 5G can cause certain cancers, damage human DNA and even cause premature aging. All of these claims are wildly untrue and numerous scientific studies over the years have failed to find any link between the use of cellphones and subsequent cancer growth.
The main cause of concern amongst the public that can lead to these claims is the misinformation and the use of the term “radiation” when referring to cellphone networks. Radiation is a term linked with negative connotations in the mind and reminds people of nuclear weapons.
Although nuclear weapons do cause radiation, an important distinction must be made when comparing that kind of radiation with the electromagnetic radiation emitted by cellphone towers and most of our digital devices.
Without getting in too deep with the complicated scientific explanations, the radiation that has dangerous consequences on the human body is known as ionizing radiation.
This type of radiation has the ability to break chemical bonds within the body, making it highly dangerous. This type of radiation is anything with frequencies above that of UV like gamma and X-rays. The radiation that isn’t strong enough to break chemical bonds, know as non-ionizing radiation, is anything with a frequency less than or equal to UV which includes visible light, infrared and radio waves.
Cellphones, Wifi and even simple radios fall within this area. Only microwaves are the exception to this. Microwaves used in kitchens are widely known to be incredibly damaging to living organisms because they are designed specifically to interact with water molecules.
It should be noted that even though 5G operates on a frequency higher than that of 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G (5G is 24–90 Gigahertz and 1G-4G is around 1–5 Gigahertz), 5G is still well within the non-ionizing range.
With the health concerns out of the way, let's move on to why 5G is such an exciting prospect to look forward to.
5G speeds vs 4G speeds
We are all accustomed to how long it takes to download apps or Netflix shows on the go when we’re making use of our mobile data.
Depending on the size of the file you are downloading, it can often take a considerable amount of time to fully download when you compare it to the speeds you would normally get over Wifi on a high speed fibre connection. With 5G, this becomes an issue of the past. Apps downloaded on your phone will often download faster than they install and a 30 minute show on Netflix can be downloaded in a matter of seconds.
There are a lot of factors that go into download speeds which makes it difficult to predict an exact speed that one can expect. On average, a user can expect an average of about 10–20x times improvement in speeds when using 5G when compared to 4G.
The average speed of base 4G connections is around 10Mbps with 4G LTE-A (in layman’s terms: A faster, more advanced iteration of base 4G) reaching a maximum average speed of about 50Mbps. With base 5G, the slowest average speeds start at 50Mbps and can reach well over 100Mbps. Theoretical speeds of both 4G and 5G are higher, but in the interests of realistic expectations, we’ll keep it to the speeds you can expect in the real world.
This is a great improvement over what we currently have with 4G. However, you wouldn’t necessarily say internet speeds are slow when you’re using a 4G connection, so is a speed increase the only improvement to expect? If so, why is 5G such a big deal?
Well, no. The most notable improvement is that of latency. Latency is the time delay between when a user makes and input into their device, and the subsequent output is created. Latency is measured in milliseconds (ms).
Latency on networks are the greatest bottlenecks when it comes to usage cases like gaming and even autonomous driving tech like what is found in Tesla’s Autopilot feature. Latency in 4G networks can be as high as 50ms which makes it less than ideal to use in a self driving car where the time between and input and an output has to be near instantaneous in certain circumstances like avoiding accidents.
Although it is not a reality yet, the goal is to get latency down to around 1ms with 5G. This low latency opens up a whole new world of possibilities when it comes to streaming TV and games, autonomous vehicles and even telemedicine where surgeons may be able to perform remote surgeries using robots and extremely low latency network connections.
The Downsides to 5G
As with most things in life, good news is often accompanied by the bad. Most notably with 5G is that it is an extremely new advancement in technology and the infrastructure is just not there yet to support widespread adoption; wherever you are in the world. 5G requires the installation of 5G nodes across entire countries and cannot make use of existing 4G infrastructure.
To make matters worse; as the frequency of any electromagnetic wave increases, the range of that wave decreases. This is the reason why your microwave doesn’t heat things up on the outside of the machine, and why your 2.4Ghz wifi has a larger range inside your house than the 5Ghz band.
What this means for 5G at the moment is that unless you are pretty much within view of a 5G node, you cannot access the full benefits of the technology (as mentioned earlier, 5G operates on a higher frequency than 4G does). The main way to combat this downside is to simply install more nodes, which is both incredibly time and capital intensive and therefore likely still a few years away.
At the time of writing, there are only a few 5G supported cities in the United States of which only certain areas have 5G nodes installed.
Another issue is the fact that your smartphone probably doesn’t support the use of 5G. A phone needs specific hardware in order to make use of 5G networks, it is not a feature that can simply be downloaded. There are smartphones on sale that advertise the fact that they are 5G enabled, however, these phones are often top end flagship devices like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra and OnePlus 8 Pro.
Even if you are lucky enough to be in the best case scenario whereby you live right next to a 5G node and you have a 5G enabled smartphone, using 5G on that smartphone is not yet fully optimised as it creates greater than usual amounts of heat and battery drainage on your device.
For these reasons, it is the consensus of most tech-journalists that it is not worth your time or your money to buy a phone purely for the reason that it is a 5G phone. This technology is still in its infancy and requires a few more years of development and fine-tuning before it can be recommended with confidence to the general public.
When all is said and done, 5G is an exciting prospect to look forward to. It has the ability to not only make our lives that little bit more convenient with the faster download speeds, but it also has the potential to revolutionise other tech sectors that take full advantage of its benefits.