Definition

5G

Contributor(s): Kate Gerwig and Matthew Haughn

Fifth-generation wireless, or 5G, is the latest iteration of cellular technology, engineered to greatly increase the speed and responsiveness of wireless networks. With 5G, data transmitted over wireless broadband connections could travel at rates as high as 20 Gbps by some estimates -- exceeding wireline network speeds -- as well as offer latency of 1 ms or lower for uses that require real-time feedback. 5G will also enable a sharp increase in the amount of data transmitted over wireless systems due to more available bandwidth and advanced antenna technology.

In addition to improvements in speed, capacity and latency, 5G offers network management features, among them network slicing, which allows mobile operators to create multiple virtual networks within a single physical 5G network. This capability will enable wireless network connections to support specific uses or business cases and could be sold on an as-a-service basis. A self-driving car, for example, would require a network slice that offers extremely fast, low-latency connections so a vehicle could navigate in real time. A home appliance, however, could be connected via a lower-power, slower connection because high performance isn't crucial. The internet of things (IoT) could use secure, data-only connections.

5G networks and services will be deployed in stages over the next several years to accommodate the increasing reliance on mobile and internet-enabled devices. Overall, 5G is expected to generate a variety of new applications, uses and business cases as the technology is rolled out.

How 5G works

Wireless networks are composed of cell sites divided into sectors that send data through radio waves. Fourth-generation (4G) Long-Term Evolution (LTE) wireless technology provides the foundation for 5G. Unlike 4G, which requires large, high-power cell towers to radiate signals over longer distances, 5G wireless signals will be transmitted via large numbers of small cell stations located in places like light poles or building roofs. The use of multiple small cells is necessary because the millimeter wave spectrum -- the band of spectrum between 30 GHz and 300 GHz that 5G relies on to generate high speeds -- can only travel over short distances and is subject to interference from weather and physical obstacles, like buildings.

Previous generations of wireless technology have used lower-frequency bands of spectrum. To offset millimeter wave challenges relating to distance and interference, the wireless industry is also considering the use of lower-frequency spectrum for 5G networks so network operators could use spectrum they already own to build out their new networks. Lower-frequency spectrum reaches greater distances but has lower speed and capacity than millimeter wave, however.

5G features
5G wireless features

What is the status of 5G deployment?

Wireless network operators in four countries -- the United States, Japan, South Korea and China -- are largely driving the first 5G buildouts. Network operators are expected to spend billions of dollars on 5G capital expenses through 2030, according to Technology Business Research Inc., although it is not clear how 5G services will generate a return on that investment. Evolving use cases and business models that take advantage of 5G's benefits could address operators' revenue concerns.

TBR's 5G telecom market landscape
5G market landscape

Simultaneously, standards bodies are working on universal 5G equipment standards. The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) approved 5G New Radio (NR) standards in December 2017 and is expected to complete the 5G mobile core standard required for 5G cellular services in late 2018. The 5G radio system isn't compatible with 4G radios, but network operators that have purchased wireless radios recently may be able to upgrade to the new 5G system via software rather than buying new equipment.

With 5G wireless equipment standards almost complete and the first 5G-compliant smartphones and associated wireless devices commercially available in 2019, 5G use cases will begin to emerge between 2020 and 2025, according to Technology Business Research projections. By 2030, 5G services will become mainstream and are expected to range from the delivery of virtual reality (VR) content to autonomous vehicle navigation enabled by real-time communications (RTC) capabilities.

What types of 5G wireless services will be available?

Network operators are developing two types of 5G services.

5G fixed wireless broadband services deliver internet access to homes and businesses without a wired connection to the premises. To do that, network operators deploy NRs in small cell sites near buildings to beam a signal to a receiver on a rooftop or a windowsill that is amplified within the premises. Fixed broadband services are expected to make it less expensive for operators to deliver broadband services to homes and businesses because this approach eliminates the need to roll out fiber optic lines to every residence. Instead, operators need only install fiber optics to cell sites, and customers receive broadband services through wireless modems located in their residences or businesses.

5G cellular services will provide user access to operators' 5G cellular networks. These services will begin to be rolled out in 2019, when the first 5G-enabled (or -compliant) devices are expected to become commercially available. Cellular service delivery is also dependent upon the completion of mobile core standards by 3GPP in late 2018.

This was last updated in April 2018

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