The cutting-edge 5G cellular network is set to transform the internet, so what exactly is it and what does it mean for the future of business?

One buzzword that has fairly recently exploded into the technological lexicon is 5G. Poised as the next generation of wireless mobile technology networks, its future is set to transform how we, our devices and our businesses interact with the internet, and each other, in the years ahead.

5G has the potential to completely bolster almost every industry, from healthcare, factory manufacturing, smart cars, the Internet-of-Things, real-time VR & AR technology, and gaming.

On an everyday level, 5G offers exponentially faster download and upload speeds, latency and greater capacity for connections. To better understand these concepts and see what they will mean for everyday users and businesses, let’s have a closer look.

The Family Tree: What is 5G?

As an evolution of mobile network technology, 5G boasts a significant speed increase form 4G/LTE.

The ongoing trend with network technology and infrastructure seems to be that they upgrade every decade or so, and since the last one was in 2010, we’re about due for a new generation of mobile network technology.

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology and is the next step in the evolution of mobile broadband that follows 4G technology, which is also known as LTE (Long-Term Evolution).

Here’s a quick breakdown of the various generations:

  • 1G — the (retroactively named) first generation of completely analogue cellular network systems that came onto the scene around 1982; mobile voice calls were the defining characteristic.
  • 2G — 1G analogue tech jumped to digital systems in 1991; the SMS was introduced as well as cellular data (GPRS and EDGE, etc).
  • 3G — 2G evolved to provide faster internet connectivity in the early 2000s; this age could be characterized as the mobile video age.
  • 4G/LTE — the 2010s saw a similar leap forward in terms of increased internet speeds; we’ve also seen the rise of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) where 4G internet can be brought into homes and offices wirelessly, without the need for copper or fibre optic cabling installation.

Or, in 5Gs case, a massive leap forward because the speeds it promises is over 10 times that of 4G technologies. As opposed to 4G which could download a full HD movie in about three minutes (given perfect connection conditions), 5G will able to do the same in about 3.6 seconds. 4G speeds could reach up to 45Mbps, whereas 5G has the capability of potentially reaching up to 10Gbps (but more realistically, 500-1500 Mbps)—the equivalent of current fixed-line broadband capabilities, but wireless.

Now, is this entirely necessary? Probably not, but it’s impressive nonetheless. Plus, increased ability and stability for streaming services will likely mean a decreased need for physical storage, which could end up dropping the prices of mobile devices.

The greatest advantage of 5G tech, however, comes in the form of three other factors: 

5G has Greater Capacity

Capacity, latency and coverage are three areas that set 5G apart .

We’ll go a little more into the specifics of 5G radio wavelengths in the next section, but for now, let’s just say that 5G will have 100-times more available connections than 4G technologies.

This would make a huge difference in public and crowded places where everyone is using their mobile devices at once. More connections mean more users receiving better and more consistent signal and thus a better user experience and quality of service all around as cell sites don’t get choked and overburdened with traffic.

5g has Less Latency

Another factor is latency, which is the amount of time (measured in milliseconds) that it takes for a “button press”—or, more precisely, a signal—to travel to its destination and return to your device and thereby change something on your screen. 5G boasts latencies of less than one millisecond (ms), as opposed to 4G which has minimum latencies of 10ms. 

Not only could 5G be a very valuable advantage for gamers but in terms of things that need near-instant connection, like smart cars that rely on information being shared between various services, real-time VR and AR tech and even robotic surgeries – this is a game-changer.

5g has wider Coverage

The specifics of 5G radio waves mean that they travel shorter distances and do not penetrate through objects as far as 4G signals, but the upside of this is that to combat this, more cell sites will be needed, and thus improving overall coverage. 

This technology is not compatible with 4G technology and will mean an overhaul of the infrastructure, but 5G cell sites are smaller which means they can be located in places that the refrigerator-sized 4G cell sites could not be placed—like on telephone poles, for instance—and take less electricity to power, which opens them up to using solar power. 

In addition, 5G will have a capability called Network Slicing, which will allow mobile data providers to create multiple virtual networks within existing 5G networks. This will allow users to tailor their internet usage, such as speed and latency, to their own needs with a custom virtual connection and allow more flexibility. One will be able to pay for the correct ‘slice’ entirely dependent on one’s needs.

5G will thus offer far more variety in mobile data packages, allowing for more dynamic usage and increasing the network user onboarding capabilities. More cells mean better coverage and, combined with exponentially better speeds, connectivity and latency, mean a far superior and reliable user experience than ever before.

What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?: How 5G works

Higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths mean 5G is faster and can carry more data.

Now the time has come to talk radio waves and wavelengths, but, before we begin, a quick oversimplified science fact is needed:

The shorter the wavelength the higher the frequency, and a shorter wavelength means more “data” in the same period of time than longer wavelengths.

Another thing to remember about radio waves is that the air in our cities and towns is saturated with them constantly, on many different bandwidths, which means that in order to use a specific bandwidth, it has to be licensed from the body that controls and manages the airwaves—in order to start rolling out 5G service providers will have to obtain licenses to use the specific frequencies needed.

FM radio waves only carry audio (comparatively not much information to that of video) and travel very far because of their large wavelengths of between 88 and 108MHz range—your favourite FM radio station might by 93.8 for example, which broadcasts at 93.8 MHz. 

On the other hand, 5G operates on three different radio spectrum bands: low-band, or sub-gigahertz (< 1 GHz); mid-band, which broadcasts at anywhere below 6GHz and above 1GHz (5G is set to run at about 3.5GHz, depending on what is licensed by government bodies); and high-band, also known as the millimetre-wave (mmWave) spectrum, which is above 6GHz.

4G/LTE only has the technological capability to broadcast on the low-band and mid-band spectrum, which means that it might travel farther and penetrate deeper than 5G, but cannot reach the speeds, capacity and latency that mmWave tech allows. 

As a means to compensate for the lower propagation of the mmWave spectrum, 5G uses technology such as Massive MIMO and Beamforming to better reach mobile devices, which use larger arrays of multiple, smaller antennas (small cells) to send focused beams of signal to devices to smaller geographical zones, rather than just the “spray-and-pray” of 4G antennas.

All this means that less power is needed to send the beam than just constantly broadcasting a signal everywhere, and, together with sub-millisecond latency of device tracking, this beam can even follow you as you move, using the low-penetration of high-band radio waves to their advantage by bouncing beams of walls to sustain connection to your device  (i.e. beamforming).

As mentioned above, small cells’ low-power consumption and smaller size mean that they can be placed in more places—like on every lamppost for example—which could actually help with coverage for previous 4G signal dead spots.

Riding the waves: What does 5G mean for business?

The possibilities of 5G will force innovation and create new technological opportunities we can only guess at.

Many countries and cities have invested heavily in fibre-optic cabling, but 5G will not make it obsolete or wasted investment. Far from competing with fibre providers, 5G needs fibre to function: small cells with mmWave tech still need to be connected to something, after all.

The only difference is that instead of bringing fibre-to-the-home (FTTH) which means having an engineer come to the site and make a plan to do so, taking time and money, the same speeds and service can be delivered wirelessly via Fixed Wireless Access (FWA)—which opens the opportunity for more businesses to get in on that game, provided the infrastructure is there to do so. 

5G networks will affect businesses in many ways, the high-speeds and low-latency it provides will be a massive time-saver for critical business operations.

A single, high-quality and real-time video interview or VR conference, without any signal interruptions, could mean the difference between closing a massive deal and a frozen screen. The high capacity of 5G will also allow the ability to decongest a crowded network with hundreds of devices.

The burgeoning new industry of the Internet-of-Things (IoT), which denotes smart devices that are all connected to the internet, will also benefit from 5G technology. As more and more devices get smarter and are connected to the internet, the capacity of 5G networks will become more and more necessary to handle the load.

5G could also be key technology for fields like AI and Machine Learning, which are fields poised to revolutionize the world as we know it into a new age of industry: Industry 4.0.

Manufacturing will also see the benefits of 5G: as factories are automated and go smart, having the ability to track their efficiency real-time and have all the machines connected to the internet will be a major boon, as it will allow processes to be more efficient while cutting costs. One could monitor and manage production remotely with increased efficiency, as well as speed up processes by having all the needed devices connected to each other.

The capabilities of 5G will also drive new technologies as its low-latency will be absolutely critical to the functioning of smart cars and autonomous vehicles that need as much information as possible in real-time to keep commuters safe—from “talking” to other vehicles to tracking safety hazards and performance tracking. 

5G will also be crucial to the future of the medical sector in the form of aiding robotic surgery, which sees a surgeon in another geographical location performing surgeries via the internet. Every millisecond of latency counts: the closer to real-time a surgeon’s actions are translated by mechanical means, the better overall for patients—and the sub-millisecond of latency that 5G provides is just what the doctor ordered. This can do a world of good for those that do not live close enough to a surgeon.

5G, for all its potential, is only now emerging onto the scene. In South Africa, the 5G spectrum is only set to be opened up in 2020 or later, and only then will the infrastructure start evolving to meet 5G’s needs.

As technology improves, as the 5G infrastructure grows and more and more devices become connected, it’s a good idea for businesses to start planning ahead.

Ultimately, while a lot about 5G is speculation, it is speculation because we just don’t know how 5G will influence technology in the future— yet… One thing’s for sure, it will drive a giant-leap in new technologies from robot surgeons and beyond our current imaginations.

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