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What Is a 5G Wireless Network and What Makes It Better Than 4G?

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A depiction regarding how wireless networks' capabilities have evolved from 1G to 5G.

A depiction regarding how wireless networks' capabilities have evolved from 1G to 5G.

The Evolution From 1G to 5G Wireless Networks

5G is the fifth generation of wireless phone networks that was rolled out in many countries around the world in 2019. There are some significant differences between fourth-generation (4G) and fifth-generation (5G) wireless networks. Not only does 5G deliver data much faster than its predecessor, but it also includes technical network features that allow the network to be more dynamic and customizable than wireless networks have been in the past.

However, a whole new wireless infrastructure had to be built to deliver 5G wireless phone and data service, which is costly and time-consuming. This is not simply an upgrade of the existing 4G network—the rollout of 5G is going to take some time and may face some public opposition due to aesthetic and health concerns.

The Significant Improvements 5G Wireless Networks Provide

Data Transfer Rates

The key difference in this evolution to 5G wireless technology is much faster data transfer rates for 5G versus 4G—10–100 times faster—which accommodates the increasing demand for data-intensive wireless services, including video. Another significant difference is the use of tiny millimeter wavelength bands by 5G to transmit and receive data versus much longer wavelength bands that are used by 4G and earlier versions of wireless networks.

More Data Delivery

5G networks utilize a high-frequency millimeter-wavelength wireless communications band between 30 gigahertz (GHz) and 300 GHz. It is the use of millimeter-wavelength bands that is the key to delivering more data to connected devices. More data delivery means video can be streamed faster to connected devices, and web pages and apps will load and operate faster.

Faster Upload Times

5G also provides much faster upload times than its predecessors, which means responses from connected users are recognized faster and therefore responded to more quickly by servers that they are interacting with.

Network Splicing

Another significant improvement is the ability to splice a 5G network into many virtual networks, which is known as “network slicing.” This allows wireless service providers to customize networks to meet user needs. For example, corporate clients that need extremely fast wireless connections to operate their businesses can be part of a splice that delivers data extremely fast for a premium cost. Conversely, connected electronic devices or people who are willing to trade speed for a lower monthly access fee can be segmented into a slice that delivers adequate but slower data transfer speeds at a lower rate.

5G Offers Much Faster Data Transmission

5G is a big step up in data transmission speeds versus 4G.

5G is a big step up in data transmission speeds versus 4G.

How 5G Achieves Extremely Fast Speeds

It is the millimeter wavelength bands that allow 5G to transfer data at a much faster rate than prior wireless technologies since significantly more data can be carried by the extremely small wavelengths. However, utilizing millimeter wavelengths requires an expensive build-out of entirely new transmission equipment. It also requires a much denser network of cell phone towers since millimeter wavelengths have much less reach than longer wavelengths that have been used in prior wireless schemes.

A new generation of smartphones that are capable of interfacing with the tiny wavelengths will be needed. This will kick off a new smartphone upgrade cycle, as consumers rush to buy phones capable of interfacing with 5G networks. To increase their data reception and transmission capabilities, the next generation of 5G-capable smartphones will have more than one antenna.

5G Enhances the Internet of Things (IoT)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a term that describes the myriad of internet-connected electronic devices, such as smart self-driving cars, smart appliances, security systems, indoor climate control systems, etc. Essentially, anything that connects to the Internet to enhance its capabilities benefits from 5G. This includes heating and cooling systems that adjust their output based on real-time temperature data or traffic lights that adjust to real-time traffic conditions provided to them via a wireless network.

5G Cell Tower Hidden in a Cactus

If 5G is going to have any chance of being installed in the density needed (every neighborhood), wireless companies will need to blend them into the scenery like this cactus wireless tower.

If 5G is going to have any chance of being installed in the density needed (every neighborhood), wireless companies will need to blend them into the scenery like this cactus wireless tower.

5G Drawbacks and Health Concerns

5G Requires More Towers

There is one significant drawback and some health concerns associated with 5G that may delay its development. The major drawback is the extremely small millimeter wavelengths it uses to transmit and receive data so quickly require a much denser network of wireless towers. In fact, as it is currently envisioned, the 5G network will require at least five times more towers than 4G requires. Instead of having one 4G tower to serve a community, 5G will require many towers within a community. This will almost certainly cause a public backlash, as newly proposed cellular towers have often been met with local opposition due to aesthetic concerns.

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The way 5G is envisioned, a cell tower will service an area a few blocks in diameter (a neighborhood), rather than an entire community. There will obviously be issues with gaining approval for so many new cell towers, especially ones that are conspicuously placed within neighborhoods. However, 5G towers will be smaller than traditional wireless towers and will be easy to camouflage to match the area they are placed in, so they may not be such an eyesore with some creative design efforts.

Concern That EMFs May Be Harmful to Humans

The opposition to new locally based 5G towers will be enhanced by health concerns associated with the millimeter-wavelength radio waves. There are legitimate reasons to be concerned about an onslaught of 5G millimeter-wavelength radio waves since they generate an electromagnetic field (EMF) that may be harmful to humans and nature, although there is no strong scientific evidence that suggests EMFs cause cancer or other adverse effects.

It is EMF concerns that have caused many people to avoid living near high-voltage electric transmission lines, due to concerns that long-term exposure to EMFs may increase the risk of serious diseases, such as cancer. These same concerns will likely cause significant opposition to placing 5G towers in close proximity to places where people spend a lot working or living.

Unlike 4G towers that reach users many miles away and are placed in high and often remote locations, 5G towers need to be placed closer to users to provide fast and reliable service. The wireless communications industry is likely to face significant opposition to placing 5G towers close to high-occupancy areas.

5G Wireless Tower On a Light Pole

A 5G wireless tower will fit on a light pole to serve a local neighborhood, instead of a massive tower that serves a large area.

A 5G wireless tower will fit on a light pole to serve a local neighborhood, instead of a massive tower that serves a large area.

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This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.

© 2018 John Coviello


John Coviello (author) from New Jersey on December 23, 2019:

The more I've looked into 5G wireless technology, the more concerned I have become about the health impacts that it may have on people exposed to it. There are reasons to go slow with 5G and perform additional health studies before it is rolled out, as I have written about in subsequent articles.

MR Black from UK, Europe on May 12, 2018:

This is I can tell you, I know nothing about technology. Just great information, and education. What would the world be like without people like you and your level of knowledge? I am so glad there are folks like you around who exist to educate the uninformed like me. Shed light in our dark world. Thanks

Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on May 12, 2018:

The race for fast will keep on even at the expense of health and nature. We have enough speed now but I know it will make the IoT work better. Progress has its price and we seem to be willing to pay for it.

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