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What is 5G? A Guide to The Future of Mobile Connectivity
June 30, 2020
5G networks are coming and they’ll change your life in lots of ways. But there are burning questions. What is 5G internet? When will it be here and on what devices? What’s the difference between 5G phones and 5G WiFi, and how will they impact your world?
There are lots of ins and outs to the exciting 5G wireless story. Thankfully, it’s not hard to grasp the basics. We’re about to get you up to snuff on 5G speeds and uses, how it works, and how to make the most of it - now and in the years to come.
What is 5G?
5G is the 5th generation of wireless cellular technology. It’s blazingly fast - about 70 times faster than the existing 4th-gen (4G) networks most of us use now. It has already arrived in more than 20 U.S. cities and will expand its footprint in 2020 and beyond.
What does 5G mean? And what’s the difference between 4G and 5G? Well, we’ve compiled a list of the first five generations of wireless technology, including 5G internet, that can help clarify the progression of each generation.
Note that these are the top-speed figures, because the rates for each generation aren’t exact. Also, we’ve added broadband to the list to show that once 5G technology arrives, it’ll replace cable internet for good.
- 2.4 Kbps
- Made for voice-only cell phones and can send two paragraphs of text per second
- 50 Kbps (20x faster than 1G)
- Made for voice-and-text cell phones and can send four pages of text per second
- 2 Mbps (40x faster than 2G)
- For smartphones with voice, text, web, and GPS and can download a two-hour HD movie in 2.5 hours
- 100 Mbps (50x faster than 3G)
- Made for video and can download a two-hour HD movie in just three minutes
- 100 Mbps
- Made for home internet and WiFi, and can download a two-hour HD movie in three minutes
- 10 Gbps (70x faster than 4G)
- Made for broadband speeds anywhere, any time. It can download a two-hour HD movie in three seconds
Downloading a two-hour movie in a couple seconds sounds lightning-fast, but how long will it be until we can do that in our homes? The average home WiFi connection speed is about 100 Mbps. At that rate, it takes around three minutes to download that same two-hour movie.
Communications company Qualcomm® will release the first consumer-level 5G modem sometime in 2019. If you’re lucky enough to live in an area already served by 5G wireless, you can kiss your cable internet goodbye. You’ll just plug in your 5G modem and it’ll tap into the carrier wave that’s rippling through the air.
A whole slate of 5G phones has already hit the market. Of course they come with better cameras, longer battery life, and expanded storage space. But these phones pack something else to whet your buying appetite, and it’s the ability to download or stream movies super fast without WiFi.
The phones require a 5G network to unlock all their super powers. With that network in place, movie viewing, gaming, virtual reality, and work enter a whole new world of eyeblink-like speeds. Here’s a short list of some of the most popular 5G phones already on store shelves:
How fast is 5G internet? Will we really see the 10 Gbps speeds as advertised? Turns out the answer is a little complicated. The hard truth is, no generation of wireless technology has had a set-in-stone connection speed since 1G at 2.4 Mbps. True speeds vary by provider and location. That said, 5G speeds are defined as topping out at 10 Gbps.
That’s fast enough to download Ghostbusters in a few seconds, but we probably won’t see those exact speeds. Early tests of the existing 5G network in Chicago scored a slower 1.4 Gbps, so maybe queueing up Dr. Venkman and his pals would take a slightly longer 20 seconds. That’s still ten times faster than existing broadband. Whatever speed we ultimately see, it’ll be a whole lot faster than what we get today.
What will 5G do for me?
Even if you’re not plugged in to broadband or in range of WiFi, 5G networks will deliver real-time data and file transmission regardless of location or device. Imagine any movie, connection, or gaming experience at your instant beck and call.
Aside from speeds ten times faster than your home WiFi or the 4G on your phone right now, 5G internet will make lots of new features possible. The way we watch, talk, and interact with our connected world will see some drastic changes.
What does 5G mean for streaming? You may be thinking, hey, my video streaming is plenty fast already, so who needs 5G internet? Even though the days of buffering are largely in the past, 5G networks will enable viewing quality that’s orders-of-magnitude crisper than what we’re getting now.
Most U.S. households had HDTVs by early 2015 . By mid-2019, many of those will be replaced with Ultra High Definition 4K TVs . Those pack in 4 times as many pixels, with sharper images and more vivid colors. So, do you want to binge-watch “Game of Thrones” or stream Avengers: Endgame without cable? 5G networks will deliver cinema-quality home theater to your living room.
Better voice and video
FaceTime with kids or grandparents is fun, but it’s about to get a whole lot better. New 5G phones like the latest Samsung Galaxy boast crystal-clear displays that jam four million pixels into a 6.7-inch screen. That means video chatting with relatives will feel miles closer to being there.
The voice quality won’t improve on 5G phones, but here’s what will: reliability . 5G networks will be far less prone to dropped calls than younger versions of wireless tech . The networks have more built-in redundancy to keep your calls from falling off a cliff.
Better HP Chromebook experience
The HP Chromebook is a vastly more affordable choice compared to more robust Windows laptops, with prices starting at a couple hundred bucks. The one complaint about these inexpensive workhorses is their speed.
HP Chromebooks have experienced bouts with lag because the applications that make them tick live largely in the cloud. With 5G WiFi and mobile connections, that will likely change. As HP Chromebooks get speedier, their allure as a wallet-friendly choice will go up, too.
Better internet of things
Who cares about the Internet of Things (IoT)? We will, very soon. Plugging smart devices into 5G networks will connect our world to deeper, broader information in real time. Imagine an irrigation system on a farm connected to moisture sensors in the soil. The system can water the crops when they need it, and it can even hold off if rain is in the forecast .
Now imagine delivery drones, healthcare devices, cars, factory machines, traffic lights, busses, and nearly a trillion other connected devices that can chatter at each other in real time. The IoT has emerged slowly and 5G speed will bring it blazing into the forefront of our lives.
If you love gaming, 5G networks are about to rock your world. Gaming analyst Michael Pachter predicts “console software is going to move off console” in the next year or so . With instant communication between devices, games, and multiple players will react to one another in real time no matter where they are.
Imagine you and 20 of your closest friends all fighting a fast-paced augmented-reality troll from Lord of the Rings in your local park. The new networks may also unshackle games from devices, letting you play titles old or new on any device you choose, even on outdated computers.
Welcome to our brave new world. Beyond making old technologies work better, 5G networks will introduce some new tricks, too. The promise of self-driving cars, fixed wireless internet, and real-time remote device control will transform everything from public transportation to healthcare.
Self-driving cars and busses
Until now, self-driving cars have needed massive onboard computer systems to let them “think” their way along our roadways. But what does 5G mean for driverless cars?
Soon, 5G speed will provide the massive, instant data-processing needed to let cars make the kinds of split-second adjustments humans do when driving every day . That’ll likely impact public transportation as well, with city busses piloting themselves and even reacting to emerging traffic patterns.
Picture this: you’re trapped inside a burning building. Elsewhere in the structure, five firefighters search for you. Outside, the fire chief sees a live feed from their helmet cams on a split screen on his laptop. On a live map, he views the building’s floor plan, noting which parts of the building have been “cleared.”
Sound like science fiction? Not with the real-time connectivity of coming 5G networks . The rest of us will get an instant, video-capable link to emergency response teams, anywhere, any time. First responders will have a vastly clearer picture of the sites they serve before they go. In emergencies, drones will gain the power to air-drop supplies to victims trapped by floodwaters or other dangers.
Fixed wireless is faster-than-broadband internet access delivered by radio waves, without the need for cable or phone wires. In the past, fixed wireless required a satellite dish or large antenna. Soon, 5G networks will broadcast it to homes and offices from nearby 5G internet “nodes.”
We’ll receive our fixed wireless connection with an ordinary-looking modem that relays it to all the devices in our home. No more cables. Instead of paying the cable company or local ISP, wireless companies will become our internet providers .
Remote device control
Robotic surgery already lets doctors operate with more precision than a human hand . Now imagine a top surgeon in New York operating on a child in Alabama without leaving her home office. 5G WiFi is set to make that possible. In March 2019, a brain surgeon in China performed surgery on a patient nearly 2,000 miles away, using 5G internet .
The same technology will elevate our factories and construction sites, allowing operators to control heavy machinery safely from a distance. High-risk workplaces like mines will increasingly become the domain of machines piloted safely by operators from above the surface . This wasn’t possible with slower 4G networks.
When will 5G get here?
Can’t wait for access to 5G networks? Neither can we. The good news is, it arrived for some customers in 23 U.S. cities in mid-2019 . Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and other carriers are in a race to expand 5G technology in a wider footprint throughout the year.
T-Mobile has promised nationwide coverage by the end of 2020. That means its competitors are fighting to get there first. All major cities and most rural areas can expect the tech to reach their doors in less than 2 years .
How 5G works
5G networks slice a territory into “cells,” sending data in them as encoded airwaves. 5G WiFi and mobile use shorter wavelengths than other networks, giving them more bandwidth. Since their smaller waves are blocked more easily by trees or buildings, they need additional small antennas.
The smaller cells let more users send more data faster than with 4G tech. It’s harder to overload a system served by lots of mini-networks than by fewer, larger ones. You should expect to see small, neighborhood 5G wireless boxes in your area as 5G speed arrives.
- Don’t believe the hype, they say. Experts and non-experts alike have lots of opinions about how great 5G technology won’t be.
- They claim 5G WiFi and mobile won’t deliver the promised 10 Gbps speeds. It won’t, but it will be a lot faster than what we’ve got now.
- They say it won’t get here any time soon. With at least five major carriers in a race to dominate the market, it won’t take years to get here either.
- Other critics say the smaller waves 5G internet uses will get blocked by walls and trees. They will to an extent, which is why 5G wireless uses more small antennas instead of a few big ones. That in turn means more cells, which means a stronger, faster network.
- Finally, the critics say 5G technology isn’t safe. Will the smaller frequencies microwave us in our homes? This criticism has more basis. 5G networks use the same microwave bands as military heat weapons used for crowd control.
Hundreds of scientists and medical professionals petitioned the United Nations in 2017, warning that 5G internet will sharply raise our risk of cancer . Yet other experts and the World Health Organization point out that the higher frequencies 5G uses are too small to penetrate human skin .
5G technology promises to change our connected world. It’ll bring us almost any video, gaming, or video chat experience in an instant, anytime and anyplace, without the need for cables. 5G phones are here now, though the 5G networks that will give them superpowers will expand throughout 2020 and into 2021.
 Benton.org; HDTV Sets Now in Over 80 Percent of US Households
 Statista; 4K UHD TV unit sales worldwide 2014-2019
 Medium; What Is 5G Voice and Why Is It So Important?
 EDN Network; Will 5G be reliable?
 IoT for All; What Is IoT? – A Simple Explanation of the Internet of Things
 Forbes; Autonomous Cars Won't Work - Until We Have 5G
 EMS World; The Promise of 5G for Public Safety
 Digital Trends; What is fixed wireless 5G? Here’s everything you need to know
 Mayo Clinic; Robotic surgery
 Ericsson; Industrial remote operation: 5G rises to the challenge
 Cellular Maps; 5G Wireless Coverage
 Lifewire; When Is 5G Coming to the US? (Updated for 2019)
 FCC.gov; International Appeal: Scientists call for Protection from Non-ionizing Electromagnetic Field Exposure
 The New York Times; Your 5G Phone Won’t Hurt You. But Russia Wants You to Think Otherwise.
About the Author: Tom Gerencer is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Tom is an ASJA journalist, career expert at Zety.com, and a regular contributor to Boys' Life and Scouting magazines. His work is featured in Costco Connection, FastCompany, and many more.