5G: what it is, and what we’ll use it for

Unless you’ve been living under a rock in the middle of nowhere for a long while, you’ve probably heard about this thing called 5G. And chances are, all you know about it is that it’s supposed to be better than 4G.


Firstly, what’s 4G?

Both 4G and 5G and all the preceding “G’s” are generations of mobile networks (hence the G).

The first generation was 1G- the first generation. It only allowed the very basic function of transmitting voice calls. It was technically a mobile network in that you didn’t have to plug in a wire to your phone to speak, however you couldn’t move outside of your area as the phone wouldn’t transfer between different cell towers. It was also unencrypted, meaning that anyone could pick up your conversations with minimal difficulty if they tuned into the correct frequency. Read more about mobile phone history here.

Secondly we gained 2G. Its main plus point was that it would encrypt information, making mobile phones practical for use in private and important conversations. It also allowed for text messaging and sending of images.

3G was a big change in that it gave us mobile data. This was an essential step in the development of smartphones in order to be accessible to the internet. However, at the time when it was released (first pre-release was in 2001) its main application was in allowing video calls and it didn’t take off particularly quickly.

However, when smartphones entered the market they quickly took off and countries raced to roll out 4G networks by 2010. The main difference between 3G and 4G is that 4G is faster- often up to 10 times faster than similar 3G networks. It is the driving force allowing us to use our phones ubiquitously, for the most part yielding reasonable download times


And now we come to 5G. It offers faster-again data speeds than 4G and reduced latency, further decreasing response and lag times. The main need for this is that current 4G networks are becoming overloaded as more and more users draw on such services more and more frequently. In some ways this sounds boring and hardly like a “new generation”, 4G is faster than 3G and so 5G will be faster than 4G.

But not quite. The speed of 5G is essential for the futuristic sci-fi style world with self-driving cars, commonplace automation, virtual reality, augmentation and more.

While experts are predicting you’ll be able to download high-definition movies in seconds, you may also be able to use augmented reality glasses as you walk around every day- the data speeds and lack of lag means that they’d be able to keep up in what you perceive as real-time.

For self-driving cars and widespread automation, drone fleets and more, 5G will be key. These innovations necessitate rapid and delay-free wireless communication to be safe and hence available for widespread use.



How will 5G achieve this?

One of the main reasons that 4G is slower and has greater latency is because it runs on radio waves (as do all the previous generations). Our ever-increasing dependancy of cellular data has meant that we’re running out of different frequencies to actually use.

5G has worked around this issue by running on higher frequency wavelengths, often called “millimetre waves”. This gives access to an entire range of untapped space to run on. The higher frequency also means that there is a far greater bandwidth (allowing for the amazing download speeds) and allows for the reduced latency.

But there’s always a catch. Here it’s that while higher frequencies provide greater speeds and reductions in latency, they can’t travel nearly as far. Instead of just a few big cell towers, the 5G network will use smaller equipment (aptly named “small cells”) that have a range of only about 250m with minimal ability to transfer through solid objects (like trees, walls, etc…). This means 5G will work a lot better in ‘line-of-sight’ usage, however it will be able to be propagated further to get to you.


And after all that infrastructure is rolled out in a widespread way, we’ll finally be able to tap into this new generation. Some areas are claiming to be transferring over to 5G already, though most of these are still using the 4G infrastructure rather than a complete change. These are also mostly assisting home wifi networks rather than cellular data at this point. That’s also because you’ll need a new phone to tap into the 5G benefits, as current-gen phones are not designed for it.


So get excited, even if it’s only to be able to download an entire season of your favourite show in less than a minute!

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