5G Wireless Technology

5G means more devices at ultrafast speeds and really low delays

Illustration of people using smartphones on top of "5G"

5G is the next generation of mobile networking technology following 4G. Much like every generation before it, 5G aims to make mobile communication faster and more reliable as more and more devices go online.

Unlike years before when mobile networks only needed to support cell phones that were just for browsing the web and text messaging, we now have all sorts of bandwidth-demanding devices like our HD-streaming smartphones, watches with data plans, always-on security cameras, self-driving and internet-connected cars, and other promising devices like health sensors and untethered AR and VR hardware.

As billions more devices connect to the web, the entire infrastructure needs to accommodate the traffic to not only support faster connections but also better handle simultaneous connections and provide broader coverage for these devices. This is what 5G is all about.

How Is 5G Different Than the Other “Gs”?

5G is simply the next numbered generation following 4G, which replaced all of the older technologies.

  • 1G introduced analog voice
  • 2G introduced digital voice
  • 3G ushered in mobile data
  • 4G paved the way for widespread mobile internet usage

What Will 5G Be Used For?

This might seem obvious given how ubiquitous smartphones are, but while phones are definitely a major player in mobile communication, they might not be the primary focus in a 5G network.

As you’ll see below, the key components with 5G are ultrafast connections and minimal delays. While this is definitely great for anyone streaming videos from their phone, it’s more important in scenarios where minimizing delays is really important, like with the future of interconnected devices.

One application might be augmented reality devices or virtual reality headsets. These devices require a tremendous amount of bandwidth and need to communicate over the internet as quickly as possible to provide their intended effects. Any latency at all can drastically impact how real things feel in those environments.

The same applies to any other devices that need to act quickly, like autonomous cars to avoid sudden collisions and understand proper turn-by-turn directions, remotely operated hardware, and robotic systems that learn or abide by remote controllers.

With that being said, 5G will still pave the way for smoother connectivity from our everyday devices, too, like when gaming, making video calls, streaming movies, downloading files, sharing HD and 4K media, receiving real-time traffic updates, vlogging, etc.

5G is so fast that it won't just be available for mobile devices. It has the potential to even replace your cable through fixed wireless access! See our 5G Internet: The High-Speed Replacement for Cable article for more on this.

How Does 5G Work?

The non-standalone (NSA) version of the 5G NR (New Radio) standard was finished in December, 2017, and the standalone (SA) version was completed in June of 2018.

However, service providers won't necessarily use the exact same technology to implement 5G, so it's hard to say exactly how it will work for every company in every country.

For example, in some cases, 5G will broadcast data at a totally different range of frequencies than existing networks. This higher range of waves is called millimeter waves, which operate at the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range (current networks use bands below 6 GHZ).

5G Spectrum and Frequencies: Everything You Need to Know

What makes this significant is that instead of a multitude of devices sharing a small space on that spectrum, they will be able to "spread out" on that line and use more bandwidth, which means faster speeds and less dropped connections.

However, while these higher frequency waves can carry more data, they can't broadcast as far as the lower ones, which is why some providers, particularly T-Mobile, will deliver 5G on the 600 MHz spectrum to start, and then likely other bands as time goes on.

Providers that do use higher frequencies might need to position small wireless stations between 5G towers to repeat the data in order to provide 5G speeds while at the same time covering more distance. Instead of broadcasting signals all over the place to reach nearby devices, these stations will probably use what's called beamforming to direct signals to specific targets.

This type of setup should allow for faster transmissions not only because there will be a number of stations to help relay the data at top speed, but because signals won't need to physically move as far to reach other devices. This device-to-device communication is what will allow for such low latency.

Once 5G is widely available, it's possible that it will be the last major advancement in mobile networking. Instead of a 6G or 7G later on, we might simply stick with 5G but get incremental improvements over time.

When Will 5G Come Out?

The timeframe for 5G service availability depends not only on where you live but also which service providers are available in your area.

See When Is 5G Coming to the US? for more information, or 5G Availability Around the World if you're not in the US.

5G Specs: Data Rate, Latency, & More

5G seeks to improve several areas of mobile communication, from how fast you can download and upload data to the number of devices that can connect to the internet at the same time.

Data Rate

These are the minimum requirements for 5G peak data rates. In other words, it’s the bare minimum download and upload speed that each 5G cell must support, but it could fluctuate in some conditions.

  • Download: 20 Gb/s (2.5 GB/s)
  • Upload: 10 Gb/s (1.25 GB/s)
5G Speed: How to Understand the Numbers

The numbers above are what each mobile station must support but that doesn’t mean that’s what your device will be capable of. That speed is split between all of the users connected to the same base station, making these rates a bit more realistic for each user:

  • Download: 100 Mb/s (12.5 MB/s)
  • Upload: 50 Mb/s (6.25 MB/s)

With 5G speeds, you could download a 3 GB movie to your phone in four minutes, or upload a 1 GB video to YouTube in just under three minutes.

For comparison, the average mobile download speed reported by Speedtest.net in the first half of 2018, for users in the United States, was around 27 Mbps — over 3.5 times slower than what's proposed by 5G.

Connection Density

At a minimum, 5G will support 1 million devices for every square kilometer (0.386 mile). This means that within that amount of space, 5G will be able to connect a whopping 1 million or more devices to the internet at the same time.

This type of scenario might seem hard to fathom considering cities with the highest population density (like Manila, Philippines, and Mumbai, India) only hold anywhere from 70,000 to 110,000 people for every square mile.

However, 5G doesn’t need to support a mere one or two devices per person but also everyone’s smartwatch, all the vehicles in the area that might be connected to the internet, smart door knobs in nearby houses, and any other current or to-be-released device that needs to be on the network.


Latency refers to the time lapse between when the cell tower sends data and when the destination device (like your phone) receives the data.

5G requires a minimum latency of just 4 ms assuming that ideal conditions are met, but could drop as low as 1 ms for some forms of communication, particularly ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC).

For comparison, the latency on a 4G network might be around 50-100 ms, which is actually more than twice as fast as the older 3G network!


Mobility refers to the maximum speed at which a user can be traveling and still receive 5G service. 

The 5G spec has defined four classes it will support, anywhere from a stationary person who isn’t moving to someone in a high-speed vehicle like a train, who’s traveling up to 500 kmh (310 mph).

It’s possible that different areas will require a different mobile base station to accommodate for varying speeds. For example, a small city that only has users traveling by car and foot might not have the same base station included in a larger city with a high-speed public transport system.

Power Consumption

Energy efficiency is another component called out in the 5G spec. Interfaces will be built to quickly adjust power usage based on their current load.

When a radio is not in use, it will drop down into a lower power state in less than 10 ms, and then re-adjust just as fast when more power is needed.

More Information on 5G

5G and other mobile broadband standards are set by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP). 3GPP Release 16 is the latest release for the 5G project, and will be finalized by the end of 2019.

For a much more technical reading of the 5G specs, see this Microsoft Word document from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU).

See How Are 4G and 5G Different? for a look at why they're different and what that means for you and your devices.