What is 5G? The New Version of Mobile Connectivity Explained

5G is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communication that succeeds the now industry standard 4G and 3G systems. It is expected that the flagship smartphones launching in late 2019 will come equipped with 5G technology to enhance our voice as well as data usage experience to a completely new level.

It promises to provide high speed, blazing fast data rate, reduced latency, higher system capacity and connectivity features for mobile devices, self-driving cars and IoT devices. It is estimated that using 5G, you can download a movie of 1GB size in less than 10 seconds!

But have you ever wondered how 5G was developed by the brilliant engineers working on it?  What exactly is the underlying technology behind 5G to revolutionize the way we communicate on the Internet?

Let’s take a deeper look at 5G in this article.

Origin of 5G

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), a specialized agency under the United Nations is the organizing body that set standards for telecommunications and radio spectrum usage.

In 2012, the ITU created a program called “IMT for 2020 and beyond (IMT-2020)” to research and establish minimum requirements for 5G. After years of work, the agency created a draft report with 13 minimum requirements for 5G in 2017.

The following 6 parameters are the key capabilities for 5G in IMT-2020:

Capability Description 5G Target
Peak data rate Maximum achievable data rate 20 Gbit/s
User experienced data rate Achievable data rate across the coverage area 1 Gbit/s
Latency Radio network contribution to packet travel time 1 ms
Connection Density Total number of devices per unit area 1,000,000/km2
Energy efficiency Data sent/received per unit energy consumption (by device or network) Equal to 4G
Spectrum efficiency Throughput per unit wireless bandwidth and per network cell 3–4x 4G

ITU has developed 3 usage scenarios for 5G which are;

  1. Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)

Enhanced Mobile Broadband or eMBB is the feature of 5G that improves the data rate considerably for a normal mobile Internet user. The data transmission rate of eMBB is guaranteed to be at least 100 Mbps even when the signal is weak.

It provides a reliable and blazing fast internet connectivity for HD video streaming, live online gaming and for using cutting edge technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality.

  1. Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC)

URLLC is the next usage scenario for 5G. This was created to provide faster communication for real-time services that require extremely low latency. URLLC provides a highly reliable data coverage with a theoretical latency of less than 1 millisecond.

This technology will be highly useful in critical tasks like remote surgery, self-driving cars, robotics and industry automation where a delay in data connectivity can have an adverse impact on its users.

  1. Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC)

mMTC is the third scenario in which 5G will be useful. mMTC facilitates a fully automatic data generation, data exchange, data processing and actuation among intelligent machines, without or with the low intervention of humans.

For example, an intelligent network of humanoid robots can make use of mMTC to generate, exchange and process data between them. The opportunities and use case scenario of 5G are endless and may go well beyond what we have initially thought of.

3GPP and the Standardisation of 5G

Once the ITU set the minimum requirements for 5G, the 3rd Generation Partnership Group (3GPP), a collaboration of telecommunications standards organizations, began work on creating standards for 5G.

The 3GPP soon prepared a new standard called 5G NR (New Radio) which closely correspond with IMT-2020 requirements. The cellular network providers in US, UK and China are currently in the process of deploying the infrastructure based on this standard.

5G Infographic

Working of 5G

Cellular technology transmits data over radio waves in a particular frequency. 4G LTE uses a radio wave spectrum between 600 MHz and 6 GHz.

5G uses a new radio frequency spectrum in the range of 24 GHz to 90 GHz called millimetre waves and the existing 4G LTE frequency range.

The five key technologies that make 5G work and they are :

i) Millimetre Waves

ii) Small Cell Networks

iii) Massive MIMO

iv) Beam Forming

v) Full Duplex

backbone of 5G connectivity

The 5 technologies that form the backbone of 5G connectivity Source: IEEE Spectrum


  1. Millimetre Waves (mmWaves)

The air interface defined by 3GPP for 5G is known as New Radio (NR), and the specification is subdivided into two frequency bands, FR1 (<6 GHz) and FR2 (24-90 GHz) each with different capabilities.

The 5G implementation based on FR1 works similar to 4G LTE and offers slightly better speed than the previous version but it offers wider coverage. The key difference in 5G comes in FR2 or mmWaves.

Millimetre waves are a new broadcast spectrum of radio waves which has never been used before. The mmWaves comes in the higher frequency spectrum of 24-90 GHz.

Millimetre wave technology promises higher data capacity than we currently have now. A simplified rule of thumb to go by is the higher the frequency, the more data it can transmit.

The High-band mmWaves can offer peak speeds up to 10 Gbps and has very low latency. The major drawback of it is that it has a smaller wavelength, lesser penetration and can’t travel through obstructions like buildings, rain and even your hand.

  1. Small Cells

Small cells are low-power base stations or cell towers that cover small geographic areas. They can be installed on dedicated masts, electricity posts, traffic signals and light poles for seamless connectivity.

With small cells, carriers using mmWave for 5G can improve overall coverage area. Combined with another new technology called Beamforming, small cells can deliver very extremely fast coverage with low latency.

In a 5G network using mmWaves, as the wavelength of radio waves are short, the number of small cell base stations will be way higher than what we have seen till now.

  1. Beamforming

Beamforming is a technique used by antennas to send a single focused signal to each and every user in the cell. The systems using it monitor each user to make sure that they have a consistent signal.

Instead of broadcasting the signals in every direction, a base station will transmit a stream of data to a specific user. This precision prevents interference and its way more efficient.

This also means that the base stations can handle more incoming and outgoing signals at once decreasing the latency.

  1. Massive MIMO

MIMO stands for Multiple Input Multiple Output and this applies to the 5G base stations. Massive MIMO uses multiple antennas, 10 to 20 times more than 4G LTE for transmitting signals.

Massive MIMO groups multiple antennas onto a single box, and at a single cell tower, they create multiple simultaneous beams to different users. This increases capacity density and sector throughput of the base stations.

  1. Full Duplex

Radio waves are inherently prone to interference or noise when they are traveling in the opposite direction in the same channel. This result in signal loss.

To avoid this problem, 5G communication has brought in new methods to transmit and receive signals simultaneously on the same channel.

There are two main technologies involved in 5G full duplex

i) Electrical balance isolation

ii) Self-interference cancellation (SIC)

Using a combination of both the electrical balance isolation and the SIC it is possible to operate a single channel full duplex system for 5G.

Advantages of 5G

Once successfully rolled out, 5G will revolutionize mobile communication and the way we interact with mobile devices. Some of the key benefits of 5G are :

  1. Faster mobile data

Theoretically, 5G can be 100 times faster than 4G. Anyway, I am not buying into that claim yet. But you can expect 5G to be at least 10 times faster than 4G.

The earlier rollout 5G will not be much faster than 4G LTE as the research and development are still ongoing in this technology. But expect the later iterations to be faster especially when the infrastructure for millimetre waves are implemented.

  1. Autonomous Vehicle

Self-driving cars can take advantage of the improved data speed in 5G. As latency should be minimum for such cars to make faster decisions, the arrival of 5G will be a blessing for the wider adoption of autonomous cars.

  1. IoT

IoT or Internet of Things will largely benefit from 5G. As cities are turning smarter with smart signals, smart lighting etc. they need wireless connectivity. 5G enables faster data connectivity for IoT devices.

  1. Remote device control

Remote control of heavy machinery will become a reality once 5G is implemented. Since 5G has low latency (URLLC), experienced technicians with specialized skill can control heavy machines from anywhere in the world. This will reduce risk in hazardous environments.

  1. Healthcare

The Ultra reliable low latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G can revolutionize health care. A world of new possibilities can open up here since URLLC reduces 5G latency considerably.

Expect to see unimaginable use cases like remote surgery by an expert from a faraway place, physical therapy via augmented reality, precision surgery via robots, and many more in the coming years.

Bottom Line

5G wireless connectivity is now far from a buzzword and has actually become a reality. But there is certainly a concern from some corners of the general public about the health hazards of 5G technology.

As 5G uses high-frequency radio waves and many small cell base stations, the chance of radiation is high and public outcry is justifiable.

The concerned International bodies in telecommunication and the World Health Organization should research further on these matters. Let’s hope they will do their job to address the concerns of the skeptics.

Anyway, 5G is a brilliant invention in the wireless connectivity sector and It promises to be the future of mobile connectivity in the next decade. Sooner or later it will have massive implications on the way we communicate.

  1. Great article! well drafted, as 5G just entered the Indian Telecommunication market. Consumers need to get aware regarding 5G Technology and its uses and benefits. To accept digitalization faster which in turn is a positive for our economy.