During a recent conversation with a non-techie friend, I was asked about the impending rollout of 5G cellular networks. Specifically, my friend wanted to know what the big difference was compared to the established 4G standard. I answered their question in a serious tone: Well, it's one G better, isn't it?
While this answer was not particularly helpful to my friend, it does reflect the current level of confusion, misinformation, and downright kookiness surrounding the upcoming 5G revolution. Let's take a closer look at what this new wireless technology is, what it isn't, and how it will likely impact the wireless world.
What is 5G?
As its name suggests, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking technology. After existing wholly in the research and development stage over much of the last decade, 5G has finally begun trickling down to the consumer level.
5G cellular networks will offer faster data speeds than current 4G networks — up to 10 times faster, according to most expert opinions based on real-world testing. 5G will also have higher bandwidth capacity, allowing many more devices to be simultaneously connected to a network without bringing it to its knees.
5G also offers lower latency rates than 4G (down to one millisecond in some cases, comparable to many wired broadband connections), which further speeds up the communication between 5G-enabled devices. This feature will become rather important in the near future, for reasons that we’ll get to a little bit later on.
The trade-off for this greater speed is that the operating range of a 5G network (which uses higher frequencies than previous cellular standards) is shorter than the range of existing 4G networks. You may be familiar with this phenomenon if you own a dual-band wireless router.
While the higher frequency 5 GHz band offered by such a router typically provides faster data transfers, the lower-frequency 2.4 GHz band offers greater connectivity range than the 5 GHz band. The dual-band functionality offers flexibility, but each band also comes with limitations.
The reduced range of 5G will complicate the rollout of new cell networks. 5G networks will need more cell towers, spaced closer together, than existing 4G networks. From an infrastructure perspective, the material and labor costs required for 5G installations will likely be reflected in the pricing of new contracts.
No matter how fast 5G is, consumer adoption will likely be slow until the available inventory of 5G-enabled devices grows to a decent size. As of this writing, there isn't a wide selection of devices capable of taking advantage of 5G networks, and the devices which can handle 5G are fairly expensive. The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus is arguably the current flagship 5G network phone. The OnePlus 8 and Motorola Edge Plus phones are also well-reviewed 5G candidates. Apple's next iPhone release, likely to be called iPhone 12, won't take place until later this year.
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