What is 5G?

The Next Generation of Wireless Communications

May 21, 2020 | by: Ryan Duffy

A city with building and 5g signals coming out of he

1. Setting the scene

5G stands for fifth-generation cellular network technology, the next major development in wireless communications. While companies preach about the 5G “revolution” and governments scramble to win a “race,” we’re often left scratching our heads.

In this guide, we’ll get you up to speed on what matters about 5G.

Over the next decade, 5G will support 4K video streaming on your phone, 10x faster internet browsing, lightweight augmented reality (AR) sunglasses, and self-driving cars. For better or worse, next-gen networks will enable us to put the internet in every thermostat, toaster, and truck.

5G will also have significant enterprise applications, supporting digitalization and connection across industries. New services, such as remote surgery or vehicle-to-vehicle communications, can be built on the back of 5G networks. For businesses, the 2020s will truly bring the internet of (so many) things.

5G will boost bandwidth, speed, capacity, and efficiency, while significantly reducing latency. Let’s break each part down.

Signal tower

Getty Images/Antonio Luis Martinez Cano

  • Bandwidth
  • Capacity
  • Efficiency
  • Latency


The rate that data moves through a network. 5G widens the “pipe” and brings superfast speeds—up to 20 Gigabits-per-second—a 100x improvement over today’s network. At peak 5G speeds, you can download an Ultra HD movie in 10 seconds.

These numbers are the theoretical peaks for bandwidth, capacity, efficiency, and latency, but you’re unlikely to see that level of performance soon (or possibly ever). Wireless generational changes don’t happen overnight.

2. The G Grows Up: A Brief History

Wireless communication has evolved in stages. First, there were no Gs, aka the telephone networks used for most of the 20th century. Things started to pick up around 40 years ago.

Like any proud parent, the wireless industry has breathlessly oversold the capabilities of its 5G baby. Let’s dial back the hype machine and walk through the technical deets.

3. The 5G Alchemy

Fifth-generation networks are built on a dizzying array of new technologies and technical standards. What you need to know is that 5G New Radio tech lets network operators efficiently leverage existing airwaves while also tapping into new ones.

Some key examples:

  • Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) — Network operators can deploy 4G and 5G in the same spectrum band and dynamically reapportion service between each G as needed.
  • Beamforming — Today’s towers broadcast cell signals in every direction. With beamforming, base stations can triangulate devices and send them targeted streams of data.
  • Network slicing — Similar to DSS, operators can carve out separate virtual networks on shared physical infrastructure.

But to really understand these concepts, you need to understand spectrum, which refers to the invisible radio wave frequencies that carry communication signals. Spectrum bands are grouped by wavelength.

You could think of spectrum as an invisible highway with three lanes. The left lane is high-band (24–100GHz), the center is mid-band (1–6GHz), and the right is low-band (below 1GHz).

Illustration of bandwidth and 5g

Life in the fast lane

High-band 5G (also known as millimeter Wave/mmWave) is the fast lane you ideally want to be in—you can’t access these signals on the 4G highway. This lane is where 5G really shines, bringing the fastest speeds and lowest latency.

But even though mmWave is the best lane, it’s just starting to get built and coverage is hard to find. Since these signals quickly drop off and can’t penetrate walls, mmWave coverage requires cities to build block-by-block, backpack-sized radio nodes called “small cells.”

  • An FCC commissioner projects U.S. small cell figures will be in the neighborhood of 800,000 by 2026. Analysts expect over 1 million by the end of the decade.
  • The U.S. had 349,000 active cell sites in 2018.
  • Chinese carriers aim to deploy 500,000 5G base stations in 2020 alone.

The more familiar lanes

Mid-band 5G can reach more people. When you’re here, you’re cruising with fast speeds and low latency. And the mid-band lane can be built on top of existing infrastructure from the 4G highway. But large swaths of the mid-band spectrum are already being used for other applications, meaning some bands need to be defragmented and repurposed.

Low-band is the least powerful 5G lane but also the most reliable. These signals can travel the farthest, serve the widest area, and, for the time being, connect the greatest number of proverbial motorists to 5G. It beats driving on the 4G highway, but only brings modest boosts of bandwidth and speed. It’s also very congested, since many frequency ranges have already been allocated for non-5G purposes.

About that highway budget... life in the fast lane is also the priciest. After all, it’s expensive to build and deploy all of those small cells.

By this point, you’re fully capable of cocktail party 5G smalltalk. Now let’s imagine how various industries will put 5G to use.

4. Putting 5G to work

International standard-setting bodies and industry players have defined three core business use cases for 5G New Radio tech. They’re jargon-y, but important, so bear with us.


1. Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB):

Good for speed, capacity, and mobility across wide coverage areas. It’s currently difficult to support 5x more smartphones in the same geographical area without bogging down network performance. eMBB fixes that: It’s a direct extension of current 4G systems and the first real commercial 5G use case. Ericsson expects average smartphone data traffic to climb 400% to 24GB/month by the end of 2025. eMBB can support this increased traffic across a growing number of devices.

2. Massive machine-type communications (M2M):

Best used for high-density environments with low-power, always-on applications. M2M will support massively dense networks of battery-efficient machines intermittently sending small data payloads without human intervention. M2M also makes two-way communication between machines more feasible.

3. Ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC):

A must-have for low-latency devices or systems where time is of the essence. URLLC is designed for mission-critical situations when you need reliability requirements on par with a wired connection. 5G promises up to 99.9999% (six nines) reliability rate, which translates to an expected downtime of just 32 seconds a year for a connected factory.

Now, let’s look at how 5G could impact 14 industries.

  • Manufacturing
  • Logistics
  • Automotive
  • Healthcare
  • Retail
  • Agriculture
  • Energy
  • Urban Planning
  • Cloud Computing
  • Consumer Tech
  • Gaming
  • Surveillance
  • Government
  • Insurance
  • Manufacturing

    5G will give factory operators more visibility, efficiency, flexibility, and safety, along with more precise control and digitized infrastructure. Wiring up an entire factory with cables is expensive and cumbersome. 5G is a cost-efficient alternative that complements the AI, collaborative robots (cobots), and industrial AR eyewear already being deployed in “smart” factories. 5G can also minimize downtime (when a machine or system isn’t working) and maximize predictive maintenance. Expect the manufacturing industry to invest heavily in private 5G networks, which offer greater configurability and control. Example: Qualcomm and Siemens built a 5G standalone industrial network in Germany in 2019.

    Big picture: Factory operators will invest in private 5G networks to accelerate automation.

    5. Politicos, the public, and other key players

    On the global stage, pundits often describe 5G as a “race” between the U.S. and China. That’s misleading due to 5G’s complexity, but the technology has become the ultimate geopolitical football between the world’s two largest economies. 

    Whichever country leads the 5G rollout could pull in billions of revenue, as domestic companies roll out new technical standards and license technology abroad. The U.S. led with 4G and reaped the first-mover advantages. China has lagged since 3G, but is now well-positioned to be a 5G technology leader and exporter. 

    5G technology is a central plank of China’s strategic industrial plans, with Beijing earmarking hundreds of billions for 5G infrastructure buildouts. In 2018, Deloitte estimated that China had outspent the U.S. on 5G by $24 billion since 2015. 

    • The U.S. is handily beating China in one aspect—the semiconductor industry. China imports 90% of the chips that power mobile phones, connected cars, and more. Beijing is trying to cut this dependence by building a domestic base, but it’s a multiyear process. 

    Part of China’s industrial strategy is the backing of “national champions.” One champion is key to 5G’s future—Huawei.

    Huawei dominates the global communication networking gear market, producing back-end infrastructure (radio antennas and base stations) that makes networks happen. And the company doesn't intend to lose its edge: In 2018, execs said Huawei would scale annual R&D to somewhere between $15 billion and $20 billion. The company claims 45% of its workforce does R&D. 

    As for the rest: Ericsson and Nokia are Nos. 2 and 3 in telco equipment. The U.S. ceded the mantle of telco gear manufacturing a long time ago, and depends on these Nordic suppliers in allied countries.

    Shots fired: Huawei is persona non grata in the U.S. and most closely allied countries. The U.S. has barred the Chinese firm from doing business with U.S. companies (you might’ve heard about the so-called “blacklist”). 

    • Chinese equipment in U.S. 5G networks would “open the door to censorship, surveillance, espionage, and other harms,” according to FCC Chair Ajit Pai.

    Across the bow: China and Huawei execs say Washington’s pressure campaign is a ruse for the U.S.’ real motivations—stifling competition from overseas. But Huawei has a pretty big head start: It has a commercial presence in 170+ countries. 

    • European telco trade groups have said blocking Huawei would delay 5G rollouts for years and significantly increase their bill (Huawei’s gear is the most affordable). Meanwhile, European governments have OK’d Huawei gear in “non-core” parts of their 5G networks. 

    Though Washington has aggressively lobbied allies to ditch Huawei, the EU considers it a high-risk but tolerated vendor.

    Global attitudes toward 5G

    So what does the public think about 5G technology? The technology is generally trusted across key markets, according to the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer. Worth noting: In recent months, baseless conspiracy theories have cropped up linking 5G to the coronavirus pandemic. Others have questioned if mmWave frequencies are safe, but public health authorities have not found any evidence that 5G has negative health effects. 

    • It’s yet to be seen whether these rumors have any impact on general public attitudes toward 5G.

    But back to the Edelman survey for a moment. Here’s a snapshot of the findings:

    2020 public trust barometer


    2020 public trust barometer (Source: Edelman)

    Now that we have a baseline understanding of the geopolitics and public attitudes toward 5G, let’s look at the topic at a national level. Spectrum is a finite resource, so governments must divvy it up to different players. With key prime bands of 5G spectrum currently in use, the U.S. is reallocating and auctioning them to U.S. carriers. That process can create winners and losers.

    • Example: In November, the FCC announced it would publicly auction a swath of C-Band, yanking some spectrum from satellite operators who use the range to beam video programming to cable providers. The agency’s move helped U.S. telecoms, but hurt the satellite operators who were licensing the C-Band. 

    5G deployment challenges are also forming at the municipal level. Remember small cells? They require regulatory approval, permitting, and maintenance, in addition to upfront costs of construction and deployment. And because 5G networks require so many small cells, that means more headaches.

    6. 5G is in build phase

    Next-gen network deployments are happening more rapidly than 4G. It took network operators two and a half years to reach 18 million 4G connections; it took 5G just one year.

    But U.S. rollouts are piecemeal, from new deployments in the mmWave band to redeployments on existing bands. On the end user’s side, every gadget that taps cellular connections—smartphones, field sensors, and industrial devices—needs to be replaced.

    From the consumer POV, global smartphone shipments have plateaued due to high mobile penetration and people holding on to phones for longer. Vendors and manufacturers had hoped 5G would be the jolt consumers needed to upgrade devices in 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic has scuttled that.

    Manufacturers are still plowing ahead:

    • Qualcomm is developing chipsets with reduced power consumption and support for more frequencies.
    • Most smartphone vendors have 5G flagships on the market; Apple is planning to release one later this year.
    • 5G phones that harness mmWave are here but they’re expensive. Within a couple years, all mid-range phones should support all 5G bands and technical standards. 

    As for all the breathless 5G ads you’ve been seeing on TV...U.S. carriers are taking different approaches to the 5G highway. mmWave coverage is fairly limited, but it’s steadily expanding into hotspots like stadiums, campuses, and dense downtown areas. As for the more dependendable lanes, low- to mid-band 5G could cover 80% of the world’s population by 2029 for the price of $400 billion to $500 billion, McKinsey estimates.

    And don’t say last rites for 4G networks just yet. Non-standalone (NSA) 5G networks are being built on top of current infrastructure, piggybacking off existing 4G and LTE. Standalone (SA) 5G is being built in some areas, especially China. Expect NSA to lead off in most markets, followed by more SA.

    • And remember, 5G isn’t the be all and end all for communications. Fiber will continue to play a crucial supporting role for new wireless networks. And low Earth orbit satellites could supplement coverage or provide connections where 5G isn’t feasible.

    One final note: The coronavirus has cut tech adoption timelines from years to months. Network operators in the U.S. and especially in China are still moving forward with planned 5G deployments, as progress in the EU slows. Businesses can tap 5G for new services—telemedicine, virtual communication, driverless delivery, drone inspections, remote education—that have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic. While it’s less likely consumers will have the appetite to pony up for 5G devices in 2020, you can expect businesses to keep upgrading. 

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