What is 5G? Here's what you need to know about the latest cellular network generation

What is 5G? Here's what you need to know about the latest cellular network generation
Implementation of 5G cellular networks will bring faster download and upload speeds.xijian/Getty Images
  • 5G is the latest iteration of mobile broadband ("G" standing for generation).
  • Most US-based mobile carriers have introduced 5G to their networks in major cities.
  • Broadband providers have promised that 5G will bring faster downloading and uploading, and speedier response time speeds; however, widespread rollout will take several years.

There's been a lot of talk about 5G in recent years - what it is, when it's coming, and what networks have it.

So what is 5G exactly?

In short, 5G is the fifth iteration of wireless broadband, the "G" standing for generation. With each generation, wireless service gets faster, more reliable, and more accessible.
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5G promises faster download and upload speeds, as well as quicker response times and broader connectivity. The delay or lag you see when trying to load your social media app will be basically nonexistent with 5G.

How does 5G work?

5G operates using a spectrum of radio frequencies and bigger channels (fiber optic cable technology) in order to process more amounts of data in smaller amounts of time. If 5G were a freeway, it would have ample lanes, providing little to no congestion.

Data is encoded and then sent through radio waves between a system of "cell sites" (cellular towers) that are all connected to the same network within a specified territory. If you've ever wondered why your friend has better cellular service than you do, chances are their mobile carrier's cell sites may be closer in range than yours.
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With 5G, radio frequencies are targeted instead of widespread - this means 5G is only available in certain area hotspots and typically concentrated in cities where there are already a lot of consumers. Since 5G operates on a much higher radio frequency than 4G LTE and uses newer technology, it has the capability to reach below ground levels and penetrate through thick walls, like parking garages or basement offices. Although since 5G uses millimeter radio waves, which are a lot shorter than the waves 4G currently uses, 5G's range is a lot smaller.

What is the frequency of 5G?

Like the generation before it, 5G also uses a frequency called a Sub-6 network, which can process up to 6GHz worth of data. Unlike the generations before it, 5G can operate on three distinct radio spectrums: Low-band, mid-band, and high-band. High frequency bands are referred to as mmWave 5G networks and are the most powerful, processing up to 40GHz of frequency, but they also have the shortest range, making suburban use less than ideal. Read about the differences between 5G airwave frequencies here.

What is the difference between 4G and 5G?

The main differences between 4G and 5G are speed and reliability. With each new generation of wireless technology, processing times get faster and the chance of your connection crashing becomes smaller, although not all 5G networks operate at the same speed. Read more about what makes 5G distinct from 4G here.
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Is 5G available now?

Yes. 5G is available nationwide. However, not everywhere nationwide. It all depends on your service provider.

Most mobile carriers have 5G capability, but your experience with 5G will vary depending on your location AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile all have 5G coverage maps that show where in the country it is available. The frequency your carrier is using to provide 5G - remember low-band, mid-band, and high-band? - will decide how good your 5G service will be.

Widespread rollout of 5G will take several years. First, because 5G requires high tech equipment and infrastructure, service providers need to update their existing gear - and that's expensive. And second, that equipment needs to be everywhere, which will take time, and ultimately face pushback.
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Do I need a new phone to use 5G?

Probably. If you are someone who likes to always have the latest smartphone, your phone will already have 5G capability. For example, Apple's iPhone 12 models (mini, Pro, and Pro Max) all have 5G capability. For Android users, 5G phones are more accessible and include popular devices like the Samsung Galaxy S20 and OnePlus 8 Pro.

Why does 5G matter?

If you only use your cellphone for the internet and chatting with friends, you may not care about 5G. But 5G is years in the making and offers more than just a streamlined Netflix experience to consumers.

Manufacturers of autonomous cars require a constant, uninterrupted network connection in order to properly function. With 5G, data can be delivered much quicker to the vehicles, providing a safer experience.
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The growing popularity of smart homes and smart devices will also benefit from 5G. With 5G, more devices will be able to connect to a single network without overwhelming it, creating a much higher capacity to process data, expand bandwidth, and improve latency (the amount of time it takes for a device to understand and execute a command).

Is 5G safe?

There's little credible evidence that either 4G or 5G technology poses a health risk to humans. A substantial number of studies of cellular technology over a span of decades has led to a consensus in the scientific and medical communities that cellular radiation is not dangerous.

While there isn't yet a large body of data on any potential health risks of 5G in particular, the scientific community considers 5G to be safe. Scientific American published an article in 2019 warning readers not to fall prey to 5G scaremongering, and scientists point out that 5G, like 4G, is non-ionizing radiation, which is not known to damage living DNA. Future research may yield additional insights, but for now there is no reason to believe 5G is any more dangerous than other cellular network generations. For more information, refer to the FDA's article on scientific evidence for cell phone safety.
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