Upon the launch of 4G, the eventual arrival of 5G was more or less assumed to be inevitable. With that came other assumptions. Obviously, we expect 5G to be “faster.” But how much faster is 5G going to be? What is that going to mean for users? How will it change technology? How does 5G work?
Users can reasonably expect a minimum of around 50 mbps upon establishing a connection with a 5G node. That seems like a fairly small difference over your best 4G signal, which can be as fast as 40mbps or maybe a bit higher. But keep in mind that 4G fluctuates as low as the 20’s, and 50 mbps is the worst you’ll get with 5G. Users can expect it to be much higher than that in most situations.
The upside of 5G is massive, with the alleged possibility of as much as 10gbps. That’s 100x as fast or more. The problem is actually utilizing that upside, because 5G has limited range compared to 4G. That means you need nodes everywhere. As of now, even the cities that offer 5G don’t necessarily have complete coverage.
How 5G and 4G work
The mobile network uses radio waves to transmit encoded data. What really makes 5G superior is that it uses radio hardware that transmits and receives radio waves of much higher frequencies, or much shorter wave length. The frequency means there is more fluctuation in the signal, and more fluctuation means more differentiation, which means more data can be encoded and transferred in each transmission. Think of it as “denser” signal.
There are a couple other advancements with 5G worth noting: the 5G radio signal can be concentrated into a beam aimed directly at a device, rather than a steady emission in every direction. This beam can also be aimed at objects to deflect off them and around obstructions. This offers a way to mitigate some of 5G’s limitations.
Limitations of 5G
The shorter wavelengths can’t penetrate solid matter as well as the longer wavelengths of previous generations like 4G. They also don’t have the range that 4G offers. What 4G lacks in density, it makes up for in range and penetration. So 5G equipped devices are still relying on 4G connectivity much of the time.
5G service exists only in some cities, and only by certain providers within those cities. Even within those cities, the connectivity can be spotty, because connectivity points have to be literally everywhere.
As one YouTube user has demonstrated (among many others), the connection standing within a few feet of a node is fast enough to download a movie, or even an entire season of a show, in less than 60 seconds. A few yards away and around a corner, the connectivity is seriously cut down. And it doesn't take much more distance to lose 5G connectivity completely.
This is hardly a tragedy, though. Your device just switches back to 4G at this point. So having a 5G device in a 5G area does offer a tremendous amount of upside. How much of that upside you will actually utilize depends on how many nodes there are in your area.
When can we expect it?
Expect to see 5G gradually phased in. Installing the infrastructure for 5G is a massive project compared to 4G. Many more parts will have to be manufactured, distributed and installed, and this is newer, more expensive technology. Metropolitan areas will get it first, as there are more potential users to help providers recoup the costs of installation. 5G will take more time to takeover suburbs, and much longer to offer reliable coverage in rural areas like Monroe. Its arrival seems to be both a foregone conclusion and an implied promise by the developers, but the installation is a task left entirely up to privatized interests. That means its profit driven, and will be dependent on a timely and worthwhile return.
Some sources, like this one, claim that its a task that simply won’t happen without government subsidies. The alternative, presumably, is that it either takes decades or it doesn’t happen. To some, this might be a good thing. There are a plethora of health concerns about sending smaller and denser microwaves through our bodies. There is research that suggests 5G is harmless, but that research only focuses on what the expected observable effects are.
The only real test of the long term effects on human subjects is currently underway, and we’re all participants --- but if its any reassurance, the developers of 5G and the people who study its effects are, too.