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What is 5G, really?

5G succeeds 4G as the world's high-bandwidth cellular network communication standard. 5G matters because it’s the first cellular standard to deliver wired internet performance without the actual wires. Fixed and mobile devices will theoretically experience identical cellular performance, but the truth is situation-dependent.

How does 5G fit in?

5G does not replace 4G LTE directly. Instead, 5G is part of a family of wireless technologies that will connect electronic devices in the 2020s based on use case:

  • 5G and 4G LTE serve high bandwidth, low latency requirements and highly-dense areas
  • 4G family cellular serves less-dense areas with existing infrastructure
  • LTE-M and NB-IoT serve low power, wide area (LPWAN), low bandwidth cellular needs
  • LoRa, LoRaWAN, SigFox, Zigbee, and others enable low power, wide area, low bandwidth non-cellular wireless communication
  • Satellite internet like StarLink services very remote areas, underinvested areas with poor cellular, and long-distance mobile assets like ships and aircraft
  • WiFi and Bluetooth will continue to enable short-range wireless communication

On top of this, 5G itself can be broken into pieces and configured differently by each carrier at each tower. Dig into 5G further, and you'll find references to the various ways 5G can use frequency bands (spectrum sharing, C-band, Sub-6 mid-band and low-band, UWB/mmWave, CBRS), radio types (5G NR, 5GE), and standalone capability (SA vs. NSA) to shape performance.

This modularity combined with the variance and timeframe of a multinational, multi-provider rollout means that not all 5G deployments will be equal.

How does 5G benefit users?

5G benefits end users with:

  • Increased bandwidth (10–100x theoretical boost over 4G LTE, 2–3x practical boost in 2021)
  • Reduced communication latency (from ~50 milliseconds to 1–10 ms with 5G, as fast as it takes your brain to respond to an image from your eyes)
  • Lower error rates

On paper, 5G provides near- or better-than-wired performance through a cellular connection. In theory, this performance unlocks a world of ubiquitous, ultra-fast connectivity, enabling self-driving cars, appliances instantly connected to ever-updating recipe clouds, self-reporting drone-powered supply chains, etc. In practice, there’s a lot more to it. There always is!

What are 5G’s drawbacks?

So far, 5G has the following end user drawbacks:

  • Carrier-determined performance sacrifices—high-bandwidth configurations limit coverage, range, and barrier penetration while high coverage configurations limit performance
  • Use case confusion—5G can serve in many roles, but where does it make the most sense?
  • Slow, varied capital investment and infrastructure rollout
  • Confusing messaging and marketing rollouts
  • Limited adoption from device makers
  • Indeterminate costs and performance standards, especially for Internet of Things (IoT) applications

These issues will surely change as time progresses.

Do carriers benefit from 5G?

Definitely—every player in a given value chain must benefit from a technology or that technology will flop. 5G benefits cellular operators with:

  • Lower operating costs, particularly network energy usage
  • Higher density of connected devices per area (up to 100x)
  • Configurable band/spectrum usage to optimize coverage vs. performance vs. interference
  • Improved availability where deployed

To the extent they’re able to decommission legacy infrastructure, 5G should be a net gain for carriers.

Is 5G for me?

For your phone? Yes, if it’s reliably available in your area. Don’t upgrade phones because of 5G, though. Upgrade because you want to.

For other devices, 5G is the right solution when your device requires:

  • Either mobility or a cellular bypass around existing infrastructure
  • Urban usage or the expected usage context is known to have 5G available
  • High bandwidth, either up or down
  • Low latency for near-instantaneous transmission or reception
  • Performance in density (must-have cellular performance when surrounded by other cellular devices)
  • A business case that supports moderate to high cellular costs

Notice that very few proven IoT device use cases fully fit the 5G profile. While mobile phones are the most ubiquitous connected device, they represent the most extreme cellular communication use case, and they underpin the 5G standard.

Most often, we find that IoT solution architecture requires us to stitch different types of networks together. Cellular can feel like the proverbial Easy Button, but it’s not all-powerful, and the cost of high-performance cellular can easily exceed the value of the data hauled across it.

When you're judicious about what your device sends and how often it sends it, few devices truly require 5G. Conscientious communication architectures also compound savings by limiting the key driver in IoT OpEx: platform API calls.

Where can I learn more about 5G?

Most 5G intelligence is wrapped in corporate hype marketing. Thales does a decent job of explaining 5G’s motivating objectives. Tom’s Hardware and others have done many practical speed comparisons. If you want to go all in, read the 3GPP 5G standards. Although they don’t focus on 5G, check out Link Labs’ blog for the most digestible yet highly technical wireless content we’ve read.

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