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Getting Familiar with 5G: What Is It Exactly and How Does It Work?

June 20, 2019 by Lianne Frith

The anticipation of the arrival of 5G is growing by the day, with the first 5G-enabled smartphone expected to reach consumers this year.

The so-called enabler of the fourth industrial revolution, 5G promises to connect billions of devices with ultra-low communication link latency and gigabit speeds. When it hits the mainstream, 5G will change the way we use technology for good—from smartphones to self-driving cars.


What Does 5G Connectivity Mean?

Of course, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile internet connectivity. The world is consuming more mobile data every year, with growing popularity for video and music streaming. The existing spectrum bands are becoming gridlocked, and service levels are slipping. This is even more prominent in areas with large concentrations of mobile users trying to connect simultaneously. 5G pledges to deliver the following:

● More stable connections;

● Faster download and upload speeds;

● Wider coverage; and

● More devices connected at any one time.

5G promises to be much better at managing demand, and not just for mobile phone users. Everything from equipment sensors to video cameras and smart street lights will be connected.


How Does 5G Work?

Like its predecessors, 5G will use a system of cell sites to divide its territory and send encoded data through radio waves. The difference is that, similar to 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution), 5G will use orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) encoding. As well as this, the air interface will allow for lower latency and greater flexibility.

In contrast to 4G, the next generation network will operate on much larger channels. The majority of 4G channels are 20MHz, whereas 5G channels will reach up to 100MHz.


Just How Fast Will 5G Be?

While we used to be concerned with bandwidth, today, latency is the measurement that matters. 5G connections will reduce latencies from around 50ms (milliseconds) on 4G to just 1ms. By achieving these latencies, new uses such as real-time VR connections become a possibility.

Moreover, 5G aims to hit high speeds of 1Gbps. For reference, the fastest current 4G networks deliver around 45Mbps. This means that browsing speeds on 5G could be 10 to 20 times faster. Initial 5G networks will be built alongside 4G LTE networks to deliver these speeds. In the future, standalone 5G networks with high frequencies should be able to provide gigabit-plus browsing speeds as standard.

If 5G reaches its target of high speeds, low power, and low latency, it has the potential to revolutionise massive IoT, tactile internet, and robotics.


What to Expect From 5G Networks

Smartphones are the first devices where 5G will 'launch' because of the huge role that mobiles play in our lives.

5G will stop network data blockages, facilitate ultra-high-speed transmission, lower latency, and deliver higher bandwidth—regardless of density. This is due to the new radio spectrum-like millimetre wave (mmWave) bands that will be opened over 20GHz. In the beginning, mmWave will be used by wireless carriers to provide Gbit wireless access to mobile users.

Smartphones are, however, just the beginning in terms of what 5G implementation means for the future. The higher speeds and lower latency of 5G have the potential to create new experiences. These experiences will be made possible by allowing machines to constantly communicate with each other without any delays. Consider everything from AR and VR to connected cars and smartphones.

What’s more, the adoption of 5G, once it begins, is expected to be faster than that seen in 4G: 5G will quickly become the new networking standard, and suitable components need to be in place to enable it to be just that. High-performance electronics, including the latest passive component technologies, will be vital to enable the hardware for successful 5G implementation.


A cell tower, which facilitates the signal reception of mobile phones. Image courtesy of Pixabay.


The Challenges of 5G Implementation

The imminent move to 5G brings with it many challenges for electrical engineers.

Wireless technologies need to become new standards altogether, supporting ultra-fast, low-latency services to consumers and businesses across the globe. The primary technological challenges include:


Frequency Bands

Existing wireless communication standards use low-frequency ranges below 3.6 GHz. The new 5G standard is set at frequency bands at sub-6 GHz and millimetre waves of the RF spectrum. Hardware is much more difficult to design due to the complexity of millimetre waves compared to low-frequency ranges. The number of different frequency bands used across different countries and regions will add further complexity.


Data Volumes

Every network has to support more and more data each year as technology advances. Video content, multimedia gaming, and VR simulations put a further strain on these networks and require high-speed performance to deliver the optimum user experience. On top of this, the challenge is to increase the data capacity of networks without significantly increasing operating costs.


MIMO Technology

Multi-input multi-output (MIMO) antenna rays will be used to deliver the high-speed data connections needed and maximise data transfers. This technology requires complex algorithms and the capability to be in place at base stations and on end-user equipment.



Beamforming technology is needed to locate users’ devices precisely and transmit signals using antenna array systems. (Beamforming can, however, significantly reduce the operation power of base stations as it requires high-level processing.)


Network Reliability

Many monitoring services will require immediate triggers by self-activation or user input. An ultra-reliable network that offers ultra-low latency is vital for all medical remote monitoring applications.


Security and Privacy

End-to-end encryption techniques need to be developed to ensure secure communications between devices and cloud applications. This is ever more important with the rising number of devices connected to every network.


Device-to-Device Communications

While, to date, not the domain of cellular networks, device-to-device communications will need to be more robust. 5G needs to be designed and optimised to handle these types of communications.

As well as the above technical challenges, there are also significant infrastructure requirements. Huge investments are needed in small cell transmission across large geographical areas. The exponential growth that comes with growing IoT creates substantial challenges, too. High-end encryption algorithms are needed to incorporate the vast number of additional devices that will be developed.


A table that summarises the frequency and data bandwidth needed for each mobile generation network. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


How the Major Carriers Are Supporting 5G

One of the most important pieces of the puzzle is what the major carriers are doing to support 5G’s implementation and to enable next-generation networks. Here are just two of the big players currently stand:

● AT&T is planning to use mmWave to deliver mobile 5G first, followed by additional spectrum bands in the future. It has a planned rollout to dozens of markets;

● Sprint is targeting the 2.5GHz band of the spectrum. Sprint has already built massive MIMO antennas. It’s the company that is promising the most hardware, too, alongside a potential merger with T-Mobile, something that could dramatically speed up 5G’s progress.

Following the announcement of 3GPP standards, carriers are announcing their 5G deployments. To support these advancements, initial steps will include evolving the architecture with more MIMO.

The solutions currently in place won’t unlock the full potential of the active antenna array, but by using less complex hardware and fewer transceiver paths, they will keep costs down. As is often the case, therefore, that implementation will be a step-by-step evolution.


How Does the Future Look for 5G?

At the very least, with the imminent arrival of 5G, our phones are about to get a lot faster. The future for 5G looks set to be much bigger than that, though. It is the missing piece in the puzzle for digital transformation, with many new pieces of technology waiting in the wings for its arrival. Some of the advancements that we can expect include:


● Smart Factories—The manufacturing industry is making some substantial investments in IoT and 5G will accelerate their potential. The entire production chain development will be connected, from design to distribution. What’s more, they’ll use robots powered by AI and machine learning to make real-time decisions.

● Mixed Reality—5G will enable virtual reality and augmented reality to work at the pace of reality itself. Such immersive technologies will grow rapidly in numbers and applications as a result. Real-world applications will cover everything from maps to business apps.

● Autonomous Vehicles—Again, the speed of 5G could enable machines to mimic human responses in real-time. This ability will mean that autonomous vehicles can be relied upon, and we can safely put our lives in their hands.

● Smart Cities—While many cities already have the likes of smart street lighting and parking, they aren’t fully connected. With 5G cities, the infrastructure will be set to connect via the IoT. Devices will be able to predict and prevent power outages and improve traffic conditions, all at lightning speed.


As well as what we can anticipate, there are new services that will no doubt be built on the back of 5G that we can’t even envisage as yet. The fifth generation network is going to be the enabler of some amazing advances in technology, connecting us, entertaining us and empowering us to do more. Altogether, 5G could well be the ‘next big thing’.


For more information on 5G, read our follow-up instalment on the topic: 'Are Electronics Manufacturers Ready for 5G Implementation?'.

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