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5G technology: What is it, and what’s all the fuss?

ACG Technical Editors Team
ACG Technical Editors Team

Up until this year, much of what the average person knew about 5G was likely limited to what cell phone carriers promised: faster speeds and better connectivity on our mobile devices.

But in reality, 5G technology’s growth — from the first home network trials in 2018 to its current global presence — is beginning to show how 5G can serve people on a much grander and more complex scale.

Continue reading to learn more about 5G technology, how it works, and what it means for society.

5G Technology: The Highlight Reel

5G is the fifth generation (that’s what the “G” stands for) of cellular technology. Introduced in 2019, the technology was originally harnessed for home internet use, but the ultimate vision for 5G has always been bigger than that. 

Here are the basic ideas behind 5G tech.

  • Currently, 5G seeks to combine and connect more disparate technologies to improve internet functionality and accessibility for more people. Improvements and accessibility are achieved through bigger channels and faster response times.
  • 5G will eventually run on its own dedicated — and thus even faster and more responsive — network architecture. Antennas using MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) will allow more transmitters and receivers to move data at the same time.
  • 5G is meant to be agile and flexible to reach and connect more devices. Over the next few years, 5G technology combined with machine learning will enable faster, real-time experiences that will eventually require integrations with deep learning and AI to keep pace with society’s demands.

By taking advantage of the cloud and, eventually, a denser network architecture, 5G will theoretically process and transmit data closer to the edge, achieving the kind of speed so many of us are expecting from this new technology.

How Does 5G Tech Work?

5G is meant to work better with cloud technology by connecting more devices across broader stretches…in theory. To understand how that works, we need to review low-band, mid-band, and high-band frequencies.

Low-band frequency: This offers the slowest speed but is accessible to the most people because transmission requires fewer towers while still achieving broad reach. Think of how television and radio broadcasts can reach devices across hundreds of miles; that’s an example of low-band at work.

Mid-band: Largely seen as the “just-right” option, mid-band covers a wider spectrum of radio wave frequencies and is fast enough to provide a noticeable improvement in connection speed. Plus, it has a broad reach.

High-band: Also known as millimeter wave, this is where 5G will primarily operate in the future. It’s extremely fast but also extremely easy to interrupt — these waves won’t pass through walls like waves in low-band will. Because of this, 5G technology requires numerous small access points (not a few large towers) to be effectively used by the masses on an everyday basis.

Note that we said high-band is where 5G will operate in the future. Right now, it’s a little more complicated.

Currently, many people technically have access to 5G technology through compatible devices, but they’re lacking the 5G experience they were promised. That’s because although 5G can technically run on any frequency, the low-band and mid-band channels are crowded, and the high-band channels aren’t widely available through phone carriers and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yet.

If the channels aren’t there, the promised 5G-speed won’t be there, either. So as of now, 5G-compatible devices need an assist from 4G networks to perform at all, let alone at their best. This is a non-standalone connection with the goal being for 5G to develop into a standalone network (i.e. the 5G network won’t have to build off of existing 4G LTE networks to function properly). But again, because a change this massive takes time, 4G and 5G will work together for the foreseeable future: experts don’t expect most people to experience the real power of 5G technology until 2027.

Key Terms and Questions Surrounding 5G

Because it feels as though the world has been talking about 5G forever, you’ve probably heard some new words and phrases associated with the technology. We rounded up some of the most frequently heard to give you more context for future conversations.

What is low latency?

Latency is the speed at which information travels between devices. When people say a streaming show or video game is “lagging,” they’re describing latency. In those specific situations, they’re experiencing high latency; the audio might not match up with the visual, for instance, because the information isn’t coming through quickly enough.

5G technology is touted for its low-latency potential. This allows data to travel so quickly that responses arrive in near real-time. This feature of 5G will be key to using this technology in industries where time is of the essence.

What is network slicing?

Network slicing is essentially moving/creating a slice of a channel to accommodate user needs. It’s a necessary solution as 5G ramps up; the demand for faster connection is there, but reach and availability are limited, so carriers “slice” off part of a network and dedicate it to serving a specific purpose.

For example, if a city hospital relied on 5G technology to perform medical procedures, its network slice would have low latency and a higher bandwidth to ensure the fastest and most reliable connection.

Is 5G technology secure?

Any new technology comes with vulnerabilities, especially in its early stages. With all of 5G’s promise come a few security concerns. Researchers from the Technical University of Berlin found “serious API vulnerabilities” when studying 10 mobile carriers’ 5G APIs. The potential exists for serious consequences, including unauthorized access to data on a large scale. Standardized quality control and implementation will be key to 5G’s growth as more of the world comes to rely on this technology.

And the “Internet of Things” is…?

The Internet of Things, or IoT, is the massive collection of devices, machines, sensors, etc. that are all connected via networks with the ability to exchange data. IoT will rely on 5G network speed to create better, faster connections that power a noticeably more responsive system.

How We Think 5G Will Affect Society

If everything continues to progress as expected, we’ll feel 5G’s societal affect through:

  • More real-time responses in digital settings
  • Improved AR and VR experiences
  • More remote technology
  • And yes, simply better upload and download speeds when streaming content

What’s more, the economic impact of 5G has incredible potential. Accenture reports that through 2025, 5G technology could contribute $1.5 trillion to the US GDP. This economic boost will come from a wide range of sources, including multiple industries as well as consumer behavior.

Healthcare possibilities

Healthcare is one of the first places we look when imagining tech innovations, and it’s no different with 5G. Imagine a surgery taking place without the doctor in the room. The low latency that comes with advanced 5G could make remote medical procedures an everyday reality. The faster processing and data transfer could open the door to remote ICUs, accelerated emergency response. It could also enable more complete care in disaster relief efforts.

Automotive innovations

Self-driving cars are another big topic of conversation among 5G experts. Driverless vehicles still have years of development ahead before becoming mainstream, but there are a lot of possibilities to consider in terms of the safety this kind of technology can offer:

  • Cars that can learn road conditions (or even connect to 5G-optimized roadways) and automatically make necessary safety adjustments
  • Enabling people with disabilities to effectively operate vehicles in ways they previously couldn’t
  • 5G-connected cars can run diagnostic reports on themselves, sending insights to the owner or manufacturer for updates and repairs

But autonomous vehicles aren’t limited to the highway system. John Deere unveiled its first fully autonomous tractor earlier this year, introducing a new way to think about how the agricultural industry will respond to the global need for increased food production. The tractor’s techy components use geofencing to stay within its predetermined field, allowing farm staff to control the tractor from an app as opposed to manually operating the equipment.

Advancing agriculture

Agriculture will also benefit from other 5G-driven technologies, including sensors that provide insights into weather, soil, and crop conditions for better resource management. The ability to use drones to monitor field conditions helps farmers, but can also extend to assisting firefighters with surveying hundreds or thousands of acres during fire season and in emergency situations.

Consumer applications

Outside of industry, consumers have a lot to be excited about in terms of 5G accessibility. Anyone who has ever been to a crowded arena or stadium, for example, knows the feeling of wanting to send a picture or text, only to have your phone essentially throttled by everyone else trying to do the exact same thing.

Wider 5G availability improves this experience, not just because you’re able to send a funny gif to a friend, but because it creates a safer environment if emergencies arise in crowded spaces, too. The focus is often on “faster,” but how 5G networks make us safer should also be considered.

The most innovative and exciting applications for 5G could also be something completely unforeseen right now, as a lot of what this technology can do is currently hypothetical. We’re beginning to see true 5G in action but the growth potential is massive. Learning about the intricacies of this system, the necessary infrastructure, and how it can help society is essential for those who want to maximize 5G’s potential.


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