5G Technology, Explained

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What is 5G technology?

5G technology is the fifth generation of wireless cellular communications, allowing for information to be shared and transferred faster than ever before. 5G also opens up a new wave of possibilities for connectivity and connected devices, including the internet of things (IoT) and virtual reality.

Similarly to previous generations of wireless technologies, 5G technology is a way of connecting people over the internet and cellular networks from any distance—from very close range to many miles away.

What are advantages of 5G over a 4G network? Is 5G better than 4G?

5G is safe and is based on the cellular principles that were used in 4G, 3G, 2G, and 1G, but 5G is better than 4G because there are many enhancements to it, including high data rates, connectivity between cars, and connectivity between devices. There are different scales of connectivity with 5G as well—everything can be connected—from a car to a house to a coffee shop, to part of a city. 

Is 5G faster than 4G?

5G is the natural evolutionary step from 4G and 3G and differs from previous generations. 5G has increased data rates and more ways of connecting devices. To put it simply, 5G is faster than 4G and other previous networks.

How does 5G technology work?

There are multiple ways that 5G works to connect us all.

A cell phone and a 5G bay station make a wireless connection, and that wireless connection happens across a frequency band—something most people are familiar with from an FM or AM radio. However, 5G has the added benefit that several new frequency bands have been opened up for 5G access.

 The FCC started holding “frequency auctions” in 2011 to allow companies to gain access to those frequency bands across the United States. The frequency bands that have been allocated are referred to as “mid-band frequencies.”

“Those frequency bands are game changers for 5G because 4G and 3G never had access to those frequency bands. In those bands, there’s enough frequency to support the higher data rates that people have come to expect—whether they’re streaming video, doing virtual reality on their phones. Now they can do all that, but with clear, seamless connectivity. It takes 4G technology to another level, and that’s what makes 5G evolutionary and a game changer at the same time,” said Alex Wyglinski, WPI Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering.

5G also works through another technology called millimeter wave, which uses a separate set of frequency bands. 4G and 3G did not use these bands, and the bands have extremely high data rates—gigabits per second—which is the equivalent of a CD or DVD’s worth of data being transmitted in seconds. However, millimeter wave’s capabilities are short-range.

What is 5G supposed to do?

You may be wondering what is 5G supposed to do and why do we need 5G; among other technological advances, 5G will be the key driver for the concept called “smart cities.” Smart cities are communities with nearly total 5G connectivity, where nearly everything in the city will be on a 5G network, including homes, office buildings, and roads.

5G also opens up the possibility of eliminating the need for traffic lights, potentially decreasing traffic jams. If all autonomous vehicles are connected by 5G, then one person’s car could be told to speed up, cars in the opposite direction of traffic that are crossing the intersection would be told to slow down, and traffic could be interweaving, without ever having to stop.

5G could also make your home more comfortable and more efficient without you ever touching the thermostat by turning it into a smart building.

What is 5G good for? What problems will 5G solve?

5G is good for processing data, sensor information, and the physical world around us, and connecting them to the computing technology that then processes that information and sends out actions to devices.

5G solves the problem of creating seamless connectivity with higher data rates that can support activities such as streaming video, virtual reality, and augmented reality on your smartphone. 5G can take sensor information and the physical reality around us, and connect that to the computing technology that processes the information and sends it out to all types of devices. 5G technology will allow for the seamless sharing of information and performing coordinated tasks, services, and applications designed to enhance quality of life across many different sectors, such as education, commerce, transportation, national defense and security, healthcare, and entertainment.

What are the disadvantages of 5G?

One disadvantage of 5G involves having multiple wireless systems on the same frequency band. Experts refer to this issue as spectrum coexistence. The airline industry has been concerned about 5G towers being built near airports and how that spectrum coexistence might interfere with the radio altimeters that are used in navigation. However, air travel may not be the only industry affected; as more of these frequency bands are made available, similar situations could come up with other wireless and radio applications.

There is also the risk of disappointment with 5G; because cellular companies have spent so much money on 5G, there is a need for return on investment.

Where is 5G available and currently being used?

5G will be available everywhere 4G is available. 5G is being used in hundreds of cities across the country. Cities with high population density received the earliest access, while coverage may be spotty in rural areas. People who live outside highly populated cities may have to pay high subscription fees if they wish to use 5G technology.

What are the differences between 4G and 5G?

The difference between 4G and 5G is that 4G is more limited—it doesn’t have the capability for IoT or millimeter wave. The data rates are not as high with 4G, and 4G is not supported in the new frequency bands that were allocated in the FCC auctions.

Simply put, 5G makes significant improvements over 4G because it has more capabilities and covers more applications than 4G does. You will also need a new phone to get 5G. However, if you keep your 4G phone, it will still work on a 5G network, you just won’t get the 5G speed or complete connectivity it offers.

5G creates opportunities for technological advancement

5G creates several future opportunities for technological advancement, including the internet of things (IoT). The internet of things is a collection of devices that receive, process, and transmit data through the internet and can be controlled remotely, without the need for a cell tower. Whether you’re on a computer, laptop, smart phone, tablet, smart TV, game console, or anything that is connected to the Internet, you are already using this technology.

 5G allows IoT to reach its full potential of connectivity by enabling low-cost sensors to be put nearly anywhere, and then have them connect to a network. For instance, IoT will enable your refrigerator, toaster, thermostat, car, laptop, cell phone, and home security camera to all be connected through a 5G network.

“Now, instead of just us humans having connectivity, everything has connectivity, and that information is going to be very powerful,” said Wyglinski.

What opportunities does 5G create for consumers?

In addition to the internet of things, 5G creates many opportunities for consumers, including improved location services, particularly for autonomous vehicles and cell phone applications, as well as virtual reality. 5G also creates a new form of sensor information. For example, an autonomous vehicle can now be given 5G information about the position of every other vehicle on the road—both autonomous and human-operated. All the vehicle will need is a human being with a cell phone in their pocket to gather data on the car’s position.

The everyday consumer will notice differences in the way they access the 5G network due to its larger data processing power, including faster mobile internet and increased internet connectivity.

Concerns with 5G

5G concerns include potential invasions of privacy and concerns related to cyber security.

5G makes connectivity and the ability to be tracked much more ubiquitous. 5G’s innovations could also make it more open to cyber attacks. Since 5G is cheaper, more connected, and more capable, if a hacker finds a vulnerability in 5G, there could be as many as billions of devices to which they could gain access. However, the issues with those vulnerabilities can be solved. “The best way to protect your devices on 5G is the same way we protect our computers now, with security software and updates,” said Wyglinski.

Governments also need to be aware of 5G concerns. A motivated and technologically savvy adversary could exploit the connectivity on the 5G network and take malicious actions against government officials, or on both the virtual and physical battlefields.

The federal government is already taking steps to protect the country during the switch to 5G  by working to set up semiconductor manufacturing plants in the U.S. and creating private 5G networks for key offices such as the Department of Defense.

Another 5G concern is that infrastructure will need to be updated for 5G to reach its true power of connectivity.

Why is 5G important?

5G is important because of the power it brings with its increased connectivity—bringing smart phones, smart appliances, vehicles, and internet of things devices all on to the 5G network.

The future of 5G and how it will impact our lives

Right now, most of us have Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and cell phone access, but in the future, our ovens, refrigerators, heating systems, home lighting systems, and garage doors are all going to be connected by 5G. To access the 5G network on your smartphone, you will have to upgrade to a 5G phone.

This vision of the future of 5G may sound like science fiction, but it’s a reality that’s right around the corner and brings us into a hyper-connected world.

“I think younger generations are going to expect even more connectivity,” said Wyglinski. “Gen Z is very interested in using multimedia and sharing their lives on social media. Now, if you turn those acts of sharing into a constant experience, that requires a great deal of bandwidth and data that needs to be communicated, and 5G is necessary to do it.”

What You Can Do

So, what can you do to stay in the know and up to date on everything you need to know about 5G and the latest advances in wireless technology? Get in touch with WPI’s 5G experts to learn more and tap into their cutting-edge research.

About the Expert

WPI Electrical & Computer Engineering Professor Alex Wyglinski is an internationally recognized expert on 5G technology and has been conducting impactful research on wireless communications, including connected vehicles, satellite communications, cognitive radio, and spectrum coexistence, among other topics. Professor Wyglinski is also the Director of the Wireless Innovation Laboratory and is a leading member of the Center for Wireless Information Network Studies.

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