5G Is Here, But What Is It Anyway? Bloomberg Opinion

By June 17, 2021News

What even is 5G?

In essence, it’s real estate that you can’t see. Wireless networks operate on finite swaths of radio waves, and what makes 5G novel is that it lives in the higher-frequency neighborhoods of this real estate. That allows 5G to be faster — in some cases, wildly faster — than current 4G LTE connections that power much of today’s smartphones. But these higher frequencies can also handle more devices without overwhelming networks such as those operated in the U.S. by AT&T Inc., T-Mobile US Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. And they shorten the amount of time it takes for data to make the round-trip journey between a device and its destination, helping to enable innovations that require near-instant response, such as self-driving cars.

What else makes 5G exciting?

The most enticing case for 5G is hard to define: It’s all the apps and gadgets that haven’t been invented yet because 5G’s unique properties may be what makes them possible. With 2G came text messaging, 3G ushered in the iPhone and 4G has enabled services such as Uber and Facetime. As for the business sector, 5G’s security features, speeds and capacity for more devices may be beneficial in settings such as smart factories.

Faster speeds may be more compelling for advertisements and commercials, but the ability to reduce network congestion and accommodate a much greater number of users is the main reason the industry is excited. That’s especially true for dense metropolitan areas such as New York, where I stood on a rooftop (photo above) on a recent sweltering day with AT&T’s Carl Busseno to see 5G in action. Busseno is an engineer who has served as the wireless carrier’s radio access network director for the New York and New Jersey markets since 2009. “The fundamental reason for each G that’s come out” — 2G all the way to 5G — “is more capacity,” he said. “In New York City, you can never have enough capacity, so you want to have as much as possible.” Some of the New York mobile-phone bustle took a breather during the Covid-19 lockdowns, but it’s coming back as office workers and tourists return: Wireless-network traffic doubles during weekdays in Manhattan, he said.

Is 5G really that fast? Do buildings and trees cause a problem?

The answer to both is: It depends. Some 5G travels on frequencies below 6 gigahertz, referred to as low- and mid-band spectrum. These connections are pretty similar to 4G and are the version of 5G most people are likely to interact with. Carriers consider mid-band the goldilocks choice because it provides a good balance of coverage and speeds, but it may not wow consumers as much. The super-duper-fast millimeter-wave spectrum — frequencies approaching 30 gigahertz and higher — that most people probably envision when they hear “5G” will be less common. These signals can’t travel long distances or pass through obstructions well, so they’ll be mostly limited to densely populated cities and packed locales such as concert spaces and sports arenas.

AT&T performed several speed tests for me that day: With the sub-6-gigahertz spectrum, download speeds ranged from about 110 to 130 megabits per second. Sure enough, once positioned in front of the millimeter-wave antennas, download speeds surged to 1 gigabit per second (insert lightning-bolt emoji).

Courtesy: Bloomberg Opinion