What is… 5G?

A monthly tech explainer series about the technology shaping our world today, from the Garage.

By Jeff Wise — August 9, 2022

Back in 2009, fourth generation or “4G” mobile data technology introduced consumers to fast internet connection over mobile networks and paved the way to a slew of transformative technologies, including mobile video, live streaming, mobile shopping, and ridesharing apps. No 4G, no Netflix, no TikTok.

But even as 4G was rolling out, engineers were already laying the groundwork for its successor: 5G, the fifth-generation technology standard for broadband cellular networks. The bet was that customers would eventually demand dramatically faster and more reliable data connection — and it paid off. Today, four years after its 2018 debut, 5G is a $58.8 billion market. It accounts for a fifth of all North American mobile subscriptions and by 2027 that number should hit 90% and nearly 50% worldwide.

Illustration by Eric Chow

How it works

5G is all about speed: putting more data through the air in less time. To do that, it uses additional chunks of the radio-frequency spectrum, effectively adding new pipelines alongside those currently in use. Like waterfront real estate, radio frequency bands are something they’re not making any more of, and in an age when everybody wants more bandwidth, cell service providers spent billions to snatch up frequency bands they could use for 5G.

It will also repurpose existing 4G bandwidth more efficiently through hardware and software improvements. For instance, rather than broadcasting equally in every direction, 5G towers can concentrate signals and beam them to the parts of their coverage area with the highest need.


RELATED: What is ... quantum computing?


What it means for everyday life

As 5G coverage expands, consumers with compatible phones (including Apple iPhone 12, 13 and SE; Samsung Galaxy S22, A13 and S21 SE; and Google Pixel 6, among others) will increasingly experience a dramatic improvement in their service. Downloads are up to 100 times faster; a movie that takes 50 minutes to download on a 4G network takes 49 seconds on 5G. Streaming performance is similarly improved. While 4G networks can support streaming at HD video resolution, 5G can livestream to a VR headset in 8K resolution. And network latency will be much less, meaning that gamers will experience virtually no lag when playing with multiple opponents online. The benefits of 5G’s technology will be especially impactful when user density is high, as in city centers or in concert venues. While 4G can accommodate no more than 4000 devices per square kilometer, 5G can support one million.

How it might change the world

Down the road, 5G data will help speed the introduction of real-time virtual reality apps, augmented reality, even holographic video calls. The British telecommunications company Vodafone has already carried out public demonstrations of technology that projects life-sized, 3D images of callers in real time.

Not all of 5G’s impact will be directly visible to consumers, however. The so-called ‘internet of things,” or IOT, which links everything from fridges and lightbulbs to factories and drones, will allow for safer, more efficient operation in all kinds of situations. 5G will make it possible, for instance, for fleets of autonomous cars to safely move in tight formation at high speed by forming spontaneous, ever-changing networks as they move. It’s estimated that by 2027 more than half of 5G traffic will come from the IoT.

But the most exciting thing about 5G is the use cases people haven’t even thought of yet. When 4G first rolled out, no one imagined that it would enable ridesharing apps that would upend the taxi industry or turn a repository of seconds-long video clips into a social media juggernaut. It’s having a technology available, and already in consumer’s hands, that makes innovation possible. So when it comes to 5G’s long-term impact, expect the unexpected.

LEARN MORE: XR technology and how it's changing our world