How To Sound Smart About 5G Around The Thanksgiving Table

Published on November 25, 2019

With Black Friday looming, odds are that someone you know will want a new phone. Here’s what you need to know about 5G to sound just smart enough to weigh in.

TL;DR: 5G mobile networks offer ultra-fast data speeds and are slowly being rolled out in the USA by all four major carriers. To take advantage of 5G you need to be on a network that has installed 5G cells, in an area where it’s installed, and you also need a 5G compatible phone. (Sorry iPhone users.)

That said… let’s get to it.

Technology has certainly come a long way since Martin Cooper, a Motorola researcher and executive at Motorola, made the first mobile telephone call on April 3, 1973. Today, incremental changes add additional utility to the user experience as flagship phones evolve (e.g.; improving the cameras, adding fingerprint sensors and biometric sensors, etc…), but more significant form factor changes are also on the horizon. (Check out this stretchable and rollable phone from LG that consumers will soon have access to, as an example.)

Nevertheless, across all mobile devices (notwithstanding wifi calling), the constant which must function to make a mobile phone a mobile phone is the network technology. And that takes us to 5G… the next evolution of cell phone technology.

Here’s what you need to know…

What is 5G technology?

5G is the fifth generation of cellular network technology that offers high speed and low latency. Put differently, it means you can transfer significantly more information in a shorter amount of time without data loss.

How fast is 5G?

A 5G network promises speeds up to 100 times faster than 4G, with latency so low that you can respond in real life — for example, catch a ball when someone throws it to you or perform a remote surgery… if you’re a doctor — when you don a virtual-reality headset.

What Does This Have to Do With the Fourth Industrial Revolution?

5G networks will enable things like real-time firefighter safety metrics, remote surgeries, intelligent autonomous vehicle crash avoidance, and much more. It’s a foundational technology that will enable other technologies to be created and improved. (Not sure what the Fourth Industrial Revolution is? Head here.)

What makes 5G special?

5G’s speed and latency will allow for faster transition of data — which will allow networks to communicate in near real time — as well as the capability to add a near infinite number of devices to the network. Head over to the Internet of Things Consortium to get a taste of what these new edge use cases will enable. 5G deployments will help nearly all industries, and it’ll even make your check out times at stores and restaurants faster.

Will 5G run on existing infrastructure?

Yes and no. 5G requires a new physical infrastructure, but it can connect back to the same fiber back haul that’s already in place for 4G and 3G networks. 5G “cells” aren’t very large, just about the size of a pizza box.  

What “is” the 5G spectrum and what are the related auctions?

Per the GSMA, “5G needs spectrum within three key frequency ranges to deliver widespread coverage and support all use cases. The three ranges are: Sub-1 GHz, 1-6 GHz and above 6 GHz. – Sub-1 GHz supports widespread coverage across urban, suburban and rural areas and help support Internet of Things (IoT) services.”

What you really need to know about the spectrum is fairly simple… companies need to have a legal right to transmit data at specific parts of the spectrum (aka: frequencies), and in the case of 5G (in many nations) the government owns the exclusive right to the part of the spectrum 5G requires. As a result, many countries are considering auctioning off this spectrum for billions of dollars, though, there’s a lot of debate on whether this is a good idea, who should run the auction, and how much money it will bring in. Here’s a great ArsTechnica article about the DOD weighing in.

What’s bad about 5G?

It’s expensive to roll out (because let’s face it, infrastructure isn’t cheap), the signal doesn’t travel far (or through most walls or structures) so you need to have many cells to blanket an area in coverage, and there is a lot of local politics which come in to play about where and when 5G cells can be installed. Some people are also claiming there are health risks but the vast majority of experts are not concerned at the moment. (You can Google this on your own, but caveat emptor… there’s a lot of misinformation out there and many believe this line of thinking is rooted in a Russian disinformation campaign). It’s also possible that it will impair the ability of certain satellites to gather data utilized for weather forecasts.

Who has 5G technology?

19 countries have tested at least one 5G deployment. In an apparent flex of 5G dominance over the USA and the rest of the world, China recently announced that it has launched the service in 50 cities. However, it’s the extent of the coverage is not clear. The list of cities include Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua. CNN reports that nearly 12,000 5G base stations have been activated in Shanghai to support 5G coverage across the city’s key outdoor areas.

In the US, all four major carriers have announced plans to deploy 5G in 2019, beginning with major metropolitan areas.

What is 5GE?

5GE is AT&T’s 5G Evolution service, which was a an upgraded version of its 4G network that offered faster data transmission speeds. While the 5GE network was faster than 4G, it’s not quite 5G and Sprint took notice. After Sprint filed a lawsuit, AT&T and avoided a drawn out trial and opted to settle instead.

How do I take advantage of 5G?

You need to have access to a network that offers 5G capability, be in the spot where the service is located, and you need to have a 5G capable phone. The roll outs in the US are spotty at best. Take a look at Verizon’s plans (which are expanding) and you’ll see that while it’s available in many cities, the locations where it’s available is relatively sparse.

Are all phones 5G capable?

No. There are just over 15 phones on the market that are 5G capable right now, (such as the Samsung Galaxy S10, the Moto Z4, and the OnePlus7), but most phones are not (come on Google… step it up with the Pixel 4!). Apple is rumored to have 5G on its product roadmap for late 2020.

At bottom, check the specs of your phone before you buy it if you’re in an area that will end up with top coverage as you won’t be able to upgrade your phone for compatibility.

To Ponder

Uber wasn’t a disruptive technology because it allowed people to use their phones to call taxi cabs. After all, people have been using phones to call taxis for decades. Instead, Uber was disruptive to the market because it allowed people to use their phones visually to call their rides. Put differently, the touch-capable smartphone screen, along with the ability of mobile network technology to provide enough data to the phone to display where the taxi was in real-time, was what made Uber’s first iteration possible.

Adam Zuckerman is a Columnist at Grit Daily. He is the founder of Fosterly, an Eisenhower Fellow, an advisor to numerous startups, an angel investor, and former intrapranuer and VC at Discovery. He now consults for organizations, universities, and governments -- often with a sustainability and future facing technology impact focus -- around the world.

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