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The latest on 5G: what you need to know

We'll all have 5G phones someday, but the really exciting part of the 5G story is about other devices, including those yet to be invented.

By now you've surely seen the ads and heard the hype: 5G is the new king of wireless services. And that, we are told, will usher in a brave new world of connectivity.

Dig deeper, though, and things start to get complicated. For starters, to get 5G today, you'll need a new handset and a new data plan. You'll also have to wade through a plethora of services, frequencies, and geeky acronyms.

But faster phones are only a small part of what 5G promises. A wireless 5G connection could one day replace your current home or business Internet service, for example. Enterprises will deploy private 5G networks in combination with a new generation of Wi-Fi to connect people and machines in new ways. Countless devices on the Internet of Things will connect over 5G. And the open architecture of 5G will let companies build new, yet-to-be-imagined services on top of the network.

The tl;dr: It's a big hairy deal.

But not to worry. We have your back. We've broken down in plain(er) English what 5G is, why it matters, and how it could change your life, in ways both prosaic and profound.

Low, medium, and high band

The standards for 5G define three classes of service in different radio frequency ranges: low band (below 1 GHz), medium band (1 GHz to 6 GHz), and high band (24 GHz-plus).

The higher the frequency, the faster the data transmission on it. But higher frequencies are also harder to implement reliably. High-frequency signals don't penetrate objects like walls and are more vulnerable to distortion.

The higher the frequency, the more cells a carrier needs in an area to provide service. This is why the early classes of service are mostly in the low bands, which can be implemented on existing cellular infrastructure.

This last point is related to another 5G transition technology that is common now: non-standalone mode. In this setup, the device communicates with the faster 5G New Radio, but the core of the network remains 4G. Standalone mode uses 5G for the whole network, including the core.


What 5G service is like now

The ultimate promise of 5G is to enable incredibly fast, unbelievably responsive Internet wherever you happen to be, as well as to connect the 100 billion-plus devices expected to be online by 2030. That, in turn, will allow for all kinds of groovy sci-fi scenarios, from smart cities to driverless cars to augmented reality.

That's mostly not here yet. The speed of 5G from T-Mobile and AT&T is faster, but not wildly so. Verizon has delivered much faster download speeds, but coverage is focused on big cities and the really high speeds are available only outside.

Part of the problem is that carriers are at first deploying 5G on their 4G infrastructure. This non-standalone 5G allows the major telecoms to offer nationwide 5G coverage, even though the offerings generally fall far short of 5G's capabilities and the expectations set in advertisements. In August 2020, T-Mobile launched a standalone 5G network using the low-band 600 MHz spectrum, but early tests suggest it's not much faster than non-standalone networks.

This will take many years

Most 5G service available now is low band and therefore not radically faster than good 4G service. High band is sometimes called millimeter wave, or mmWave, because the radio signals are 1- to 10-mm wide, or roughly the size of a raindrop. A low-band, 600 MHz radio wave, by contrast, is half a meter long.

But these tiny mmWaves are easily absorbed by buildings, trees, and even windows. And their range can be measured in meters, not kilometers. That means you need to be super-close to an mmWave transceiver/cell to get that mind-blowing speed and near-instantaneous response, and therefore the higher the wavelength, the more cells will be needed.

In a city, the buildings themselves present obstacles for 5G signal. But it's not easy even in the country, where hills and trees get in the way. The days when you can go for a long drive from the city out to a ski resort and have steady, high-speed 5G signal all along the way are some time off.

So should I buy a new 5G phone or not?

If you're already in the market for a new phone—or you're one of those people who simply have to have the whizziest handset available—feel free to get a 5G phone. Just don't expect it to be that much better than your old 4G one. And by the time more advanced 5G services are available, you'll probably be ready for a new one.

If the phone you want has 5G support, that support is, at worst, harmless. You probably want other features and cost to drive the purchase decision.

The good news is that, so far at least, costs for 5G service from the major U.S. telcos fall pretty much in line with costs for 4G, assuming you opt for a plan with unlimited data. Whether they stay that way, who knows?

When will we see advanced 5G features?

The real fun starts when telecoms deploy their mid- and high-band standalone 5G networks at scale, which should happen between 2021 and 2023, says Jeff Edlund, CTO of communications and media solutions at Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Two key features make standalone 5G radically different from any of the Gs that came before, says Edlund. The first is network slicing. This allows operators to divvy up their bandwidth to deliver three different types of services:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), which is a really fat pipe for downloading content. You could use it to download a 4K version of "Mad Max: Fury Road" in less than a minute or stream all three "Matrix" movies at the same time. It could also be used to connect surveillance cameras, deliver telemedicine, provide fixed wireless broadband to homes and businesses, and enable other bandwidth-hungry services.
  • Massive machine type communications (mMTC), a low-power, low-bandwidth channel for large numbers of IoT devices to talk to each other or to back-end services. mMTC comes into play when low latency and high reliability are not crucial but power consumption is. For example: Large farms can put 5G sensors throughout a field to measure moisture, temperature, and other environmental conditions.
  • Ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC), which allows you to send a request to a machine and get a response in under 10 milliseconds. Low latency and high reliability are essential for enabling things like driverless cars, robotic surgery, and augmented reality (AR) applications.

A 5G-connected car might take advantage of all three slices at the same time, adds Edlund. It could use eMBB to stream movies to the kids in the backseat, mMTC to locate the nearest gas station or coffee shop, and URLLC for communicating with roadway infrastructure and other vehicles when navigating through a city.

One of the first places many people will encounter low-latency AR may be theme parks. Imagine, rather than a person in a suit, being greeted by a life-sized hologram of a character that interacts with you in real time. Creepy, but cool.

What are the dream applications?

This all comes down to higher speeds, greater bandwidth, and lower latency. Bandwidth is the amount of data that can be transmitted in a given amount of time. Latency is the time it takes for a signal to get from the device to the cloud or edge service. Bandwidth is important both to increase the number of connections possible and for high-bandwidth applications like video. Low latency is important for applications like responsive games.

When speeds are high enough and the latency low enough, applications like autonomous vehicles become a lot more likely. They require the vehicle and the network processes it communicates with to send and receive data about traffic and other conditions in the immediate area and areas ahead at high speed.

Robotic surgery, in cases where the physician may be remote across the network, is another application that requires an extremely fast connection. The physician needs feedback from the surgical devices and instructions back to them to be instant. For the same reason, gaming is an important application for 5G.

Not all 5G applications require high performance; the standard is also designed for applications with large numbers of less performance-intensive devices.

Where does edge computing fit into 5G?

The second feature that sets advanced 5G apart is service-based architecture, says Edlund. 5G networks have been designed from the ground up to embrace cloud-native microservices. In addition to a 5G core on the back end, 5G services can run on servers at the edge, close to client devices.

So, for example, a 5G robotic arm in a factory can communicate with a nearby edge device that has the necessary microservices and data embedded in it, bringing latency as close to zero as you can get. A 5G connected car will need to communicate in real time with devices embedded in other cars, traffic lights, and the roadway; there's no time to wait for responses to come back from an Internet server hundreds of miles and many network hops away. And if a 5G robotic surgeon is busy removing your gallbladder, lag time is the last thing you want.

In fact, surgeons in China have already performed 5G brain surgery on a human patient nearly 3,000 kilometers away.

Why should we use 5G instead of Wi-Fi 6?

At the same time 5G is rolling out, enterprises are also starting to deploy Wi-Fi 6. The next-generation wireless network is roughly three times faster than Wi-Fi 5 (better known to nerds as 802.11ac) and can communicate with more devices at the same time. Over the next few years, even faster Wi-Fi service will be available in the 6 GHz band.

So, which is better: 5G or Wi-Fi 6? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to, says Jeff Edlund. In some situations, like inside airports, Wi-Fi 6 will make more sense, as it will require fewer access points and be cheaper to deploy. But the airport's Wi-Fi 6 network might connect to the Internet via a 5G gateway placed just outside the terminal.

On the other hand, because high-band 5G offers lower latency than Wi-Fi and can support more devices within a small area, it's a better call for dense industrial environments like robotic factories. Bottom line is that many enterprises will deploy both technologies in different ways.

It's still early days for 5G

Even to the extent that we know what can be done with 5G and that we can do it in test labs and limited real-world environments, the industry will be learning a lot over the next few years about how best to implement it all.

For many, the time to start learning is now, by implementing the technology as it exists. This allows organizations to maximize performance and gain early access to advanced applications.

It all can be done now. In a couple years, it should be even better.

Lessons for leaders

  • The speed and capacity of wireless networking is approaching and may exceed that of wired.
  • We are still thinking up new applications to exploit the power of wireless networking.
  • There are many different kinds of 5G with many different uses.

Related stories:

How 5G and Wi-Fi 6 will work together

New tech promises faster Internet no matter where you live

The telecom network is modernizing with containers, cloud-native

This article/content was written by the individual writer identified and does not necessarily reflect the view of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Company.