5G refers to the fifth generation of cellular network technology. Operating at higher frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum, 5G is expected to increase connectivity not only for mobile phone users, but also for machines, objects, and devices.
5G arrives on the heels of the current standard, 4G LTE, which doesn’t quite reach the speeds formally defined as 4G, but nonetheless is substantially improved over 3G technology.
4G LTE kickstarted the era of mobile video, making widespread such technology as video chatting, video-driven social media, and mobile streaming of TV and films. The ability to transmit more data, faster, is expected to accelerate the development of such technologies as augmented reality, driverless cars, and more. It will take some time for all the necessary infrastructure to be built, but it is expected to be a gamechanger across multiple industries.
This article dives into the attributes of 5G technology and its expected effects on consumers, businesses, and aspects of the global economy.
What does 5G mean?
It refers to the fifth generation of mobile networks. It follows previous generations of cellular networks:
- 1G was the first inception of wireless cellular technology and supported voice-only calls
- 2G introduced digital cellular technologies such as text messaging
- 3G enabled mobile internet access and video calling
- 4G increased network speeds to support video conferencing, gaming services, and other technology requiring high speeds.
Investments in 5G are in part a response to current upticks in video traffic, which is expected to quadruple from 56 exabytes globally in 2017 to 240 exabytes in 2022, corresponding with the rise of video technologies such as conferencing, streaming and virtual reality. 5G also has implications for the Internet of Things, due to its ability to function as a network that can support a greater number of devices with longer battery life.
The networks will also alleviate overcrowded networks. Earlier generations of mobile phones have operated via networks on radio-frequency bands of the electromagnetic spectrum, but traffic over the years has increased on these sections of the spectrum. Wireless networks used in homes and schools will operate on lower frequencies, whereas 5G will operate near the highest frequencies to avoid overcrowding on these sections of the spectrum
How fast is 5G?
5G is expected to reach maximum speeds of one to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps), compared to a true 4G mobile network’s 100 Mbps. (The more common 4G LTE networks provide real-world download speeds between 25 and 50 Mbps.) Latency, which refers to the delay that precedes data transfers, will decrease to roughly one millisecond. Downloading a feature-length movie over 4G would take eight minutes, but it could take a mere five seconds via 5G — without buffering, no less.
The early inceptions of it is that are already rolling out do not necessarily meet industry specifications that define true 5G. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) and its partners have begun to establish the International Mobile Communications (IMT)-2020 standard, which will be finalized by 2020.
The most recent draft report details the following minimum specifications:
- Bandwidth must be 100 MHz at minimum
- For frequencies above 6 GHz, bandwidths up to 1GHz are required
- Downlink peak data rate: 20 Gbps
- Uplink peak data rate: 10 Gbps
The Effects of 5G
In terms of holistic economic impact, 5G will produce trillions of dollars in goods and services across the world. 5G will be important across three broad constituencies:
- Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), which improves wireless internet access to support consumer trends surrounding streaming and video content at large. Consumers will benefit most directly from eMBB, but 5G’s additional use cases extend beyond consumers and will shape the future of whole industries.
- 5G’s requirements for the latency and reliability of networks will launch ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC), which will be crucial for technology such as self-driving vehicles and remote surgery.
- In the realm of massive machine-type communications (mMTC), 5G will also let IoT technologies leverage data and digitization to increasingly optimize operations across today’s industries.
How will 5G affect business?
In terms of business impact, Qualcomm’s 5G Economy study estimates that the network will produce up to $12 trillion in goods and services by 2035. The study also found that the mobile value chain of 5G could single-handedly support 22 million jobs and generate $3.5 trillion in revenue by 2035.
No discussion of 5G would be complete without an exploration of its far-reaching consequences for IoT. Whereas existing sensors can communicate among themselves, such connectivity utilizes a significant portion of LTE data capacity. Current infrastructure cannot support huge volumes of devices and the exchange of significant quantities of information without lags. Because 5G improves speed and reduces latency, fewer resources will be needed to connect an increasing number of devices.
Gartner has predicted that we’ll have as many as 20.4 billion connected devices by 2020, which means 5G’s rise is opportune. Connecting many devices can sap the batteries of the devices and consume significant amounts of energy, but on 5G networks, network energy usage will decrease by 90%, and battery life for low-power devices will extend to 10 years maximum. The new networks will also support 100 times more connected devices per unit area, compared to 4G LTE. Connecting even more devices to gather data in real time will revolutionize many aspects of society.
How will 5G affect healthcare? As mentioned previously, 5G’s implications for healthcare include increased use of massive machine-type communications (mMTC). Healthcare services will improve for rural and more remote areas, where the lack of adequate healthcare facilities can be solved by IoT connectivity. 5G’s enablement of ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) makes possible technologies such as telemedicine, remote recovery, AR physical therapy and even remote surgery. Launching 5G also means mMTC can be increasingly utilized in healthcare, including to monitor patients via massive sensor networks and track compliance by prescribing smart pills that can record drug ingestion.
How will 5G affect retail? The retail industry will be able to leverage mobile experiences to enhance customer engagement. Digital signage, augmented reality and virtual reality can spawn innovative methods to make customers’ experiences more informative and appealing. Customers can use VR technology to visualize different home improvements and kinds of furniture before making a purchase, for example.
How will 5G affect smart cities? Municipal initiatives encompassing everything from waste management to traffic monitoring can benefit from 5G. As more sensors incorporate themselves into city networks, more systems can integrate and communicate with one another. Cities and municipalities can increase the efficiency of operations for everything from utility usage to street light maintenance to traffic control.
How will 5G affect manufacturing? In manufacturing environments, the low latency that comes with 5G enables remote control of heavy machinery, which reduces risks in manufacturing environments.
How will 5G affect developing economies and rural areas?
Developing economies and rural areas are less likely to benefit from the technology than more developed areas, at least in the short term. Rural areas will probably get a version of 5G that has less capacity but still increases speed and capacity by roughly 35%, along with significant reductions in latency.
Even the increases in speed in rural areas won’t be as significant as those experienced in more metropolitan areas. 5G networks operate on two frequencies: sub-6 GHz and millimeter-wave (mMWave) which operates on 20-60 GHz. However, mMWave’s high-frequency nature means its waves cannot travel long distances or penetrate buildings or windows. So for devices to get signal, they have to operate extremely closely to 5G nodes, which may be widely available in metropolitan areas, but less so in rural areas with fewer buildings and cell towers.
To resolve this issue, Sprint is using an existing mid-band spectrum at 2.5 GHz, which means signals can travel farther, but not as quickly as they would with mMWave. So there will be some sort of tradeoff between the reliability of the signal and its speed.
From an international perspective, it will not have a substantial effect on developing economies in the short term. Almost half of the world’s population is still not online, and many middle- and lower-income countries are still on 3G networks. Of course, those who already have connectivity and easy network access will profit the most as the first to receive 5G networks, but digital inequality will worsen until the rest of the world is able to catch up and build the needed infrastructure.