What is 5G technology and how different is it from 4G?


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President Trump pushed 5G into the news last week when he tweeted the United States is “lagging behind” in developing the technology. But what exactly is 5G, and how different is it from 4G LTE?

First, let’s explore what a ‘G’ is. There are certain standards developed for mobile communication, which are largely influenced by an organization called Next Generation Mobile Networks (NGMN). Each leap in technology, cell phone service moves up a generation, which is what ‘G’ stands for. The first cells phones were 1G, allowing us to talk. Technology improved to allow texting, which was considered 2G. Next, 3G gave us the internet on our phones. We are currently at 4G, which is similar to 3G, but much faster. Now, 5G is over the horizon.

Five G consists of five major technologies focused largely on decreasing latency. Latency is the delay between data being sent and when it reaches its destination. The latency standard developed for 5G is one millisecond, which is about 50 times faster than 4G — data will be transmitted and received almost instantaneously. The technologies that make up 5G consists of millimeter waves, small cell networks, Massive MIMO, beamforming, and full duplex.

Most cell phones and wireless technology carry data along the same radio frequencies, which are overcrowded and becoming slower and less reliant. A great metaphor to describe the overcrowding of radio waves is the overused metaphor of vehicle traffic during rush hour — the road represents the radio waves and the vehicles represent the traveling data. The majority of data is carried on radio waves between 3 KHz and 6 GHz. As we move up in frequency, the waves become closer together. Millimeter waves will be used in 5G technology. Returning to the traffic metaphor, millimeter waves will allow us to open more lanes, therefore speeding up the transmission of data. Because millimeter waves are higher in frequency, it creates an obstacle, both literally and figuratively. Millimeter waves cannot travel through structures like buildings, and they are absorbed by rain and plants. The technology created to solve this problem is called small cell networks.

Small cell network stations will relay the millimeter waves around objects. To make 5G work, there will need to be thousands of these stations throughout cities.

Current 4G tower ports have approximately 12 antennas that transmit all cellular data. Massive MIMO (Multiple input and output) allows for about 100 ports, which increases the number of antennas to 1,200 — allowing for more data to be moved faster — further decreasing latency. With current technology, data is sent from the tower in all directions. With the magnitude of data being sent with massive MIMO, interference will occur due to the data overlapping, which is solved with beamforming technology. Beamforming uses computer algorithms to help the data travel the most efficient path to its destination. Beamforming also prevents data signals from overlapping.

Because of the physics of electromagnetic waves, data can only travel along a radio wave in one direction at a time. Today the problem is solved by transmitting data traveling in different directions to separate wavelengths. Full duplex technology works more efficiently by allowing data traveling in different directions to briefly be rerouted, and then return to its previous route, similar to a railroad switch.

The combinations of all the technologies that create 5G will allow us to send information 50 times faster. This will have huge implications on national security, the economy, future technologies, and in ways we cannot imagine. Five G technology is expected to be available to some this year, and to the masses in about 2025 — soon we will see the direction it takes us.

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