There’s a lot of hype about the new 5G mobile networks being deployed across the globe. Marketers are telling us that the internet will become blazingly fast on our mobile devices, but whatever. They tell us that every time and while it’s true, our mobile devices are generally fast enough these days, so there’s a lot of eye-rolling from consumers around this “next big thing”. I understand that, and to some extent, 5G is just the next 4G. But there are some significant things about 5G that actually do make it a lot more interesting than just more speed. Let’s take a high-level view of it so you can decide for yourself if you want to take the leap when 5G networks come to your region.
The Letter G
Freemasons aren’t the only people obsessed with the letter G. Before we can go too deep into this topic, we need to clear up this “G” thing. Many of us see WiFi networks with the name “5G” in them. Our home WiFi routers usually have a “5G” network, most public WiFi access points do by now, and ISPs are now supplying WiFi modems with their service which usually have a “5G” option as well. But that, dear reader, is not the same 5G as the mobile 5G everyone is excited about.
The WiFi “G” stands for Gigahertz which is a measure of radio frequency. The mobile network “G” stands for Generation, meaning 5G is the fifth significant change to mobile networks since their inception in the early 1970s. Yes. Mobile phones have been around since 1970. Mind. Blown.
I won’t take you too deeply into this rabbit hole, but here’s the quick tour. The 1G networks were analog only which means only voice phone calls were possible. The 2G networks were digital and ushered in the era of mobile data, albeit in a very limited and slow way. The 2G networks introduced text messaging, for example, which became a mainstay of human expression and unfortunately also gave Jack Dorsey the idea to create Twitter. The 3G networks increased the speed of 2G networks and they also supported the concept of roaming, so mobile phone users could theoretically use other company’s networks while traveling. In reality, that roaming “feature” became a cash cow for mobile phone companies so most consumers shied away from the extravagant roaming fees and just shut their phones off when they were not in their home area. Roaming fees are mostly gone now, but people of a certain age still cringe when they hear the word “roaming”. 4G was a significant change in mobile networks. It has a variety of different flavors, but most of the world is standardized on 4G LTE these days, which is completely digital and handles all of our data and voice activities over the internet using the IP protocol instead of analog noise.
Unlike the older 1G and 2G networks, 3G networks still exist. Rural folks like me will occasionally see our phone change from “LTE” to “3G” in the status bar. As you’ve figured out by now, the lower the “G”eneration number, the older the technology. The older the technology, the lower the frequency it operates at. The rules of thumb for frequency and data are:
lower frequency means slower data
lower frequency travels better so fewer towers are needed for coverage
higher frequency means faster data
higher frequency travels shorter and has trouble penetrating things like walls, so more towers are needed for coverage
These rules are true of all radio, not just the frequencies used for mobile networks. When I was in the Canadian Navy, we had a saying in the communications room: “HF (high frequency) radio travels the world”. Our primary source of information from the west coast of Canada to the Gulf of Oman was over HF radio running between 3 and 30 Megahertz (MHz), which is not “high” frequency at all in the scope of the Gigahertz (GHz) frequencies we use today, but changing its name would cause far too much confusion so that’s what we’re stuck with.
How fast is 5G?
The answer is like most things in life: it depends. 5G has three bands within it, up to a whopping 52GHz frequency. For comparison, 4G tops out at 6GHz and if we refer back to our rules of thumb, we can see that the higher the frequency, the faster the data. 5G definitely has the frequency bands to deliver exponentially faster data. But, because of the rule of thumb about coverage, mobile carriers would have to deploy hundreds of thousands of 5G transceivers in order to provide 5G coverage of those speeds coast to coast. As I look at the decade-old “3G” in my phone’s status bar, I sadly realize that there’s no way mobile carriers are going to shell out that kind of cash for those kinds of speeds coast to coast.
5G is broken down into two ranges named FR1 (450 MHz - 6 GHz) and FR2 (24 GHz - 52 GHz). F1 operates under 6GHz which is the same bands as 4G. However, even 5G F1 will be faster than the existing 4G but only by a bit, and that speed increase is mostly attributed to more efficient antennas than more bandwidth. F2, on the other hand, will be much faster but more expensive to deploy. Technically, 5G gets speeds up to 20 Gigabits per second whereas 4G averages around 20-30 Megabits per second, or 0.20 - 0.30 Gigabits. That’s a massive difference, but we’re only going to see those types of speeds where 5G F2 is rolled out completely.
When do we get 5G?
These days, 5G is available in a lot of markets. It is rolling out in Toronto, Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton, and Vancouver and those are markets where it makes sense to implement top-speed F2 stuff. The rest of us will end up with mid-range 5G in the lower F2 bands which will still be faster than 4G but may not be worth rushing to upgrade. Technology like this leapfrogs itself - meaning the devices and the infrastructure pass each other cyclically in increasingly larger scales to combat the “chicken and the egg” problem.
Take electric cars as an example. That is a classic “chicken and egg” problem. These technologies are created by private industry which has a need to continue to make money in order to survive. Therefore, a company can’t just build a bunch of electric cars in isolation and then put them in a lot and expect people to buy them. Nobody is going to buy an electric car if there is no way to charge it on the highway to go on longer trips. And other companies aren’t going to spend billions adding electric charging stations to their gas stations if nobody is driving electric cars in order to pay for them. So, we get the incremental leapfrog where a small number of cars come out and are sent to high-density markets to sell, such as large cities. At the same time, large national companies like Petro-Canada put charging stations in some of their gas stations, again on high-density roads such as the Trans Canada Highway where they will get the most use (AKA, make the most money on their investment). Those first steps are enough to get electric cars on the roads, get normal citizens driving and talking about them and wanting to buy them. And that’s how you create a market from nothing at all.
This multi-pronged approach is an effective way to jump-start a nascent industry and moving to 5G cellular is no different. Because 4G phones cannot be used on 5G networks, everyone will eventually have to buy a new cell phone and handset manufacturers are putting 5G phones on the market now. But until the towers are all upgraded, the 5G phones can’t be used to their full potential, as they will just fall back to 4G when 5G is not available. What we’re seeing now is the “tower and phone” incremental leapfrog that I just described using electric cars. We’ll get there, but it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition overnight.
The fastest 5G deployments will be best served in areas of super high density which is why we’re seeing it being rolled out in busy areas of major urban centers. Even denser areas such as arenas, shopping malls, and airports are prime candidates for 5G because a super-fast F2 5G tower has a range of less than a kilometer. This means we’re not going to see those speeds any time soon in rural areas where there can be kilometers between individual humans that can be billed for the service.
Why do we need 5G?
I know that most of you reading this are still thinking about your cell phone. “Why do I need my cell phone to be faster? My games and movies and video calls work just fine.” You’re right, but you’re thinking too small. I agree that my cell phone is fast enough, but 5G isn’t about cell phones.
We draw a line in our heads between “internet” and “mobile internet”. We chat and email and look up some things on our phones, but for “real work” we wait until we’re at home with our laptop or desktop. 5G will shatter that line because it is the technology that will enable our laptops and iPads and whatever else we have to just work connected to the internet wherever we are and we’ll stop thinking about being on the internet as a separate activity. 5G isn’t just about speed, it’s about capacity in the sense that many, many more devices can be connected to any given tower than 4G. We will no longer have to tether our laptops to our cell phones to get data, the laptop will be 5G enabled and just use the cellular network directly.
Even that example is thinking too small. The number of devices using the internet far outstrips the number of humans using the internet. When we hear “internet,” we think of email and Facebook, but we’re just hitchhikers on the internet. Our frail human internet activities are drowned out and lost among the robots using the internet. Medical devices, HVAC systems, militaries, space ships, trucks, fridges, cars, and buildings are the real users of the internet. They’re the real beneficiary of 5G.
The types of speeds 5G brings to the table means that devices can do less processing themselves. Going back to the cell phone as an example, when I play a game on it, my phone has to do all that computational stuff to keep the screen and sound going. That means my phone needs a beefy CPU, a big battery, and good heat dissipation. Contrast that with a 5G network. The same game won’t actually be played on my phone - it will be played on some behemoth gaming computer on the internet and my phone will just tell it what to do. The behemoth will send constantly updating screens showing me the results of my actions as fast as if my phone were doing the processing itself, but my phone is not being dragged down with the heat and battery issues. This shift in processing will change how all devices are made, not just cell phones. They’ll be able to be smaller if that’s desirable, and they’ll be able to operate in more places where current generation devices can’t go because of these limitations.
What’s with the 5G conspiracy nuts?
There’s no medical evidence that 5G causes humans problems any more than wifi does, or 2G, or popsicles. It’s also pretty obvious that 5G doesn’t cause COVID. All that stuff is lies from people with ludicrous agendas or from people with genuine mental health issues, and you don’t need to spend any time thinking about it. A quick read on radio waves, and the visible and invisible spectrum, will serve as a good foundation as to why these people are wrong if you’re interested.
Personally, my next phone will likely be 5G. But, that won’t be the point of the new phone. I won’t upgrade just for the sake of upgrading, but eventually, the only phones I will be able to buy will be 5G capable. While the internet of things will benefit greatly from 5G, I am only a slow meat sack staring blankly at my phone and it’s fast enough for my primitive brain. That’s not to say I won’t enjoy the 5G speeds when I finally get them, it’s just not worth the money for us humans yet.