5G explained in less than 5 minutes

Here's a non-technical guide to how 5G will (and won't) affect you.


5G is buzzy. If it's not falsely being blamed for causing COVID-19, its being touted by telecoms as the next great leap in performance for mobile devices everywhere.

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As is this case with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle and in the spirit of helping you find that happy medium, here's non-technical your guide to understanding the impact of 5G.

5th Generation

For starters, 5G stands for 5th generation, which as you may have noticed is one step above 4G (and 4G LTE) which the vast majority of mobile devices use for connecting to the internet and receiving texts and calls. It's being billed by service providers like Verizon and AT&T as the future of mobile devices everywhere.

What is being promised?

- Multi-gigabit per second speeds (at peak)

- Extremely low latency

- Greater network capacity (servicing more people simultaneously)

- Greater connectivity (easier and broader access to high speed data)

What's different?

5G uses a couple of technologies that are designed to deliver more data to users, faster. One, called Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) decreases the level of interference when transmitting a signal, making the transfer of data more efficient. 5G will utilize technology like mmWave which delivers greater amounts of data in every band that's transmitted to a device.


Types of 5G

Not all 5G is created equal. Because of some complications with the signals used to transmit ultra-fast 5G (which we'll discuss in a second), there are tiers of 5G service. The slowest tier is a low-band frequency which offers range but much slower speeds, then there's mid-band which is a mix of speed and range, and lastly there's ultra wideband or mmWave which has a short distance but lots of speed.

How fast are we talking?

Companies like Qualcomm, which is helping to build out 5G networks in the US, say that at its peak, mmWave 5g can put out 20 Gbps. To put in perspective, 4G LTE networks can handle anywhere between 5 to 12 Mbps, making the top 5G speeds about 500 percent faster. Just how fast your 5G is depends on which tier you're able to utilize and which carrier you're using. More likely than not, the level of 5G you'll get on average will be significantly slower than the wideband variety.

Where is 5G available?

Verizon now offers 5G in about 1,800 cities across the US, though only several dozen are equipped with ultrafast service. Likewise AT&T and T-Mobile cover 200 million and 250 million people respectively with lower speed 5G while each has about several dozen cities in its highte tier coverage area.

The reality

While the promises are enticing both from a consumer perspective and a commercial/infrastructural one, the reality of 5G isn't the simple. For one, in order to receive the truly next-gen speeds, conditions have to be pretty ideal.

Short range

While 5G is technically much, much faster than 4G service, that speed comes with a tradeoff. While 4G wavelengths can travel for about 10 miles, 5G wavelengths have a range of about 1,000 feet. That means in order to utilize the mmWave that makes 5G so fast, you'll need to be pretty damn close to the source of the signal.


Additionally, 5G signals have a hard time penetrating objects around them, meaning they can be blocked by a building, a wall, or even a tree. In order to have truly comprehensive 5G coverage, there would need to be 5G cell towers and antennas on every corner.


More hurdles

As you might imagine, the level of infrastructure needed to adequately deliver 5G on a reliable basis will be expensive, but laborious. In order to build out nodes and towers, companies will have to navigate state and local governments, including some communities who may be worried about the health risks or aesthetic impact on the neighborhoods.

$1 Trillion

Some analysts estimate the costs of building a 5G network will reach upwards of $1 Trillion



The bottom line

5G promises a lot. In an ideal situation, the technology offers truly next-generation speeds and capabilities with applications that extend to consumers and businesses everywhere. In reality, however, 5G coverage varies widely and ultra-fast networks aren't currently available to most people. Even in cities where mmWave is available, coverage is spotty and easily interrupted.

In the meantime...

It's best to approach 5G with a healthy skepticism and maybe lower your expectations when it comes to the purported "blazing fast speeds" that are being proffered by service providers.


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