What is 5G?
5G is the fifth installment of wireless network technology connecting wireless devices, like smartphones and tablets, to cellular networks. It is the next generation of mobile broadband that will replace or build upon your existing 4G LTE connection.
Each previous generation of mobile broadband technology has made room for vastly expanded communications and social media networks, as well as waves of new products utilizing the technology. The jump from 3G to 4G, for example, saw noticeably faster data transfer speeds (or latency) made available to a much larger consumer population; as a result, data clouds, mobile streaming platforms, digital home assistants, and video conferences also saw massive rollouts to the public. The jump from 4G to 5G, therefore, is just as if not more likely to bring about a new wave of tech and devices, with more enhanced connectivity and personalized services.
How does 5G work?
Firstly, it is important to note that 5G operates on three distinct spectrum bands, each offering varying rates of cellular coverage and data transfer speeds. 4G LTE operates on just two spectrum bands.
Low-band spectrum is the primary band used by U.S. carriers. While using 5G on low-band will allow for spectacular coverage and penetration of opaque objects (wall penetration), users will likely experience high latency rates when trying to stream or upload large amounts of data. After acquiring a substantial amount of low-band spectrum in 2017, T-Mobile is expected to be the dominant force in providing low-band spectrum on 5G networks.
Mid-band spectrum provides lower latency than low-band, but does not penetrate buildings or enclosed spaces as effectively. Sprint currently owns a majority of mid-band spectrum.
High-band spectrum is where 5G will perform best, offering lightning-fast transfer speeds and low latency. AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are working on rolling out high-band spectrum. To alleviate its major drawbacks—namely, low coverage areas and poor building penetration—major carriers are building low-power, small-cell networks to cover small geographic areas. The output of these power stations can be combined through a process called beamforming to expand coverage and improve high latency rates.
What is 5G capable of?
The most major change coming with 5G will be improved mobile broadband. As capacity for new LTE users continues to deplete in major metropolitan areas, where some are already experiencing slowdowns during peak usage periods throughout the day, carriers will look to expand their 5G networks to more users.
So, what about the new tech? Christian de Looper of Digital Trends reports that one of the first trends consumers should expect to see will be the increased use of autonomous vehicles on pace with the expansion of 5G networks. In the future, de Looper says, our vehicles will communicate with one another and with automakers while on the road, sharing information about vehicle performance, road hazards, and sudden stops, thus improving vehicle efficiency and saving lives.
5G will also allow for widely improved remote control and monitoring technology, thanks to expanded broadband networks’ capacity for massive data transferrings. This could mean that cities will be able to run construction sites and operate heavy machinery remotely, as well as improve maintenance by installing sensors that notify workers when traffic lights malfunction or drains flood, for example. Healthcare will also see improvements with 5G in fields such as telemedicine; more specifically, physical therapy through AR and VR, precision/remote surgeries, and the monitoring of patient conditions, for example.
All of this points to a faster, broader Internet of Things, or IoT. The IoT refers to the network of devices with internet connectivity, ranging from smartphones, tablets, and watches, to at-home consumerism devices like the Amazon Echo (‘Alexa’), the Google Home, and smart fridges. These items currently function by utilizing a broad network of resources to transfer large amounts of data. With the expansion of 5G and small-cell technology, these devices will require fewer network resources, thus allowing for exponentially more devices to connect to a single base station.
It is important to note that while 5G will create immense opportunity for the improvement of our daily lives through the use of technology, there are necessary concerns over consumer privacy. As technology continues to permeate our everyday lives, we must remember that each time we allow devices to perform small tasks for us contributes to ever-growing detailed and personal data sets used and sold by tech manufacturers and data collection services. Such devices, like the Amazon Echo, are listening and gathering data on consumers all the time, even when they are not in use.
With the promise of improved image quality on photo/videography and streaming devices, for example, also comes the reality that facial recognition technologies will have much clearer images to store, analyze, and recognize as a result. Public surveillance will be able to more easily recognize and create profiles of individuals, and even track and predict their movements on- and offline. One company, Clearview AI, has already begun to amass a database of photos pulled from social media and various other internet sources to create personal profiles. In January 2020, Twitter, Youtube, Google, and other tech giants sent the company’s founder, Hoan Ton-That, a cease-and-desist demanding that Clearview AI stop pulling photos from its platforms. Ton-That defended his actions on First Amendment grounds, according to the Free Speech Project. With the expansion of 5G in the near future, facial recognition entrepreneurs like Ton-That are likely to take advantage of new opportunities made possible by 5G networks; but, they may also be met with greater scrutiny and increased regulation.
Ultimately, with lower latency rates and thus greater capacity for massive data transfers, 5G is likely to improve upon existing technology while simultaneously opening doors for an unpredictable number of new technologies. With that said, it is essential that we continue to prioritize individual privacy and security in this new landscape. With greater capacity for security comes greater capacity for attacks on individual and group privacy. Companies who store large amounts of personal data, such as cell carriers and social media platforms, will have to lead the charge in preemptive security improvements before those with malicious intents can use expanded 5G networks to do greater damage on much larger scales.
To see if/when 5G will be available to you, see Digital Trends’ 5G availability map.