...5G? Maybe nothing!

But before we know for sure we have to start looking through the smoke and past the mirrors - there's a lot of marketing but most people don't understand the reality behind the advertisements. T-Mobile recently enlisted the help of Bill Nye to explain 5G. I don’t know whether to congratulate them or be disappointed in Bill (Sorry Bill! We still love you, and do want you to save the world!). So let's dig into the details a bit.

Here’s the thing – the video (watch at https://youtu.be/aCPztdqFDzQ) isn’t balanced, it’s an advertisement. But it's a good start - and there's no need to panic – we’re going to explain the reason the roll out process is not going to be as instantaneous as the advertisements and announcements of deployments will make it seem, and learn about what it might mean to us when it all works.

Universally, 5G is being sold to consumers as the solution to all our problems. Is your phone 5G? Well if you want to avoid trouble your next one will need to be – upgrade now!

It’s really just another reason to sell you a new phone at this point. No need to panic or rush your change. But would you like to learn a little more about it?


What is 5G?

Quite literally, it’s the 5th “generation” of a cell phone network standard. So it’s a very complicated thing – it’s international. Cell phones, and base stations all need to be compliant with some form of standard so they can be made by different companies and still work together. 5G is the latest standard and it's starting to be deployed.


So it’s universal right?

Even that’s complicated… Each country or region has some organization for distributing spectrum. Spectrum is the frequency that radios operate on to communicate. Cell carriers need to work with that agency to license a particular range of frequencies to build their network. This process is intended to ensure that two companies are not using the same frequencies – because just like with walkie talkies, two people can’t use the same frequency if they are within range of each other. These agencies levy fees for the access to the frequencies. The cost associated ensures that companies are unlikely to buy and occupy spectrum if they aren’t actively using it to provide services. It helps allow for the possibility of new carriers and networks. But it takes time to organize. 

In 5G there are actually 3 broad types of 5G grouped based on their frequency range used to communicate. They are called “Low”, “Medium”, and “High” or “Millimeter Wave”. Each of those broad ranges may or may not be built in, enabled, licensed, and so on in the network equipment. Frequency is the critical differentiator and it’s not a simple thing. Lower frequencies can travel further, in general require less power to operate, but they are capable of transmitting less information within a channel, there are fewer channels available, and more congestion from older technology. Higher frequencies service a shorter distance. As frequency increases, signals can be blocked by solid objects easier. At the highest frequencies in 5G, the usable distance will be measured in 10’s of meters – not kilometers – which will require base stations every few hundred meters.


So it’s faster right?

Maybe. It depends on a lot of things… much like 4G, carriers can select from one or more bands of spectrum and ranges within those bands. The lower band is actually very similar in performance to 4G.

For what it’s worth, 4G is rated at 23.6Mb/s, but some carriers offer faster speeds by combining channels, utilizing “LTE” (which is not part of the 4G standard). LTE has a theoretical maximum speed of 299.6 Mbit/s download and upload rates up to 75.4 Mbit/s – variations in performance and theoretical speed account for things like stationary vs. moving phones etc.

5G of course is more complicated – each band has a different theoretical speed. Low band Low band is faster than true 4G, but slower than LTE! On the lower end, 5G may start at just 50Mb/s – which is definitely slower. Mid band is expected to be between 100 and 400Mb/s, and High band or Millimeter Wave which could eventually have speeds which are expected to reach 100Gb.

But little of this is available today. And as the technology is new, extensions to 5G (like LTE to 4G) will take time to arrive. At the time of this writing, T-Mobile claims the widest deployment in the USA, but it’s all based on low band (so could be slower than existing performance!)


It's all about trade offs.

Existing 4G networks are aging. They can become congested. You might have noticed you missed a call while at an event like a concert or sporting contest? There might have been more people using their phones than the 4G network had capacity for. The different speeds and ranges within the 5G standard will eventually allow low band mixed with mid or high band in combination. Deploying low band might work through out the stadium (through concrete) while the mid band might cover the entire seating area, and the high band could enable high speed for all users but would require a base in each seating section.

As the carriers race to boast about their top lab speeds (even here in Canada) the reality is it will take years for the change over to be complete. There’s no reason to panic. Your “old” phone will work for the remainder of it’s useable life.


But I have to have it for IoT right?

Not really. That all depends on what you are connecting and to what your options are. There are many low frequency radio solutions for IoT (LoRa, Bluetooth LE, etc.), with long range, and low power requirements (essential for battery operations). Those aren’t 5G. You probably don’t want a cell plan for your new Nest mini or your dishwasher anyways right?

As the networks evolve, there may be a case for it in the future, but there will be time for change.


So is it a good thing?

Of course it is! As the standards groups have worked through issues over the history of older standards they have learned. As technology has improved,  better ways to do things have been discovered. Those improvements can not be squeezed back into the old standards. Moving forward will allow these features and performance to be deployed over time. You just have to expect marketers to market. It’s all better, newer, faster, shinier, and sparkly! And it will be. We just need some patience.



You can see the Bill Nye / T-Mobile video here: https://youtu.be/aCPztdqFDzQ

And here, you can see a bit about what 5G really is: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5G

And a few other references:


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