This feature first appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of Certification Magazine. Click here to get your own print or digital copy.
During a recent conversation with a non-techie friend, I was asked about the impending rollout of 5G cellular networks. Specifically, my friend wanted to know what the big difference was compared to the established 4G standard. I answered their question in a serious tone: "Well, it's one G better, isn't it?"
While this answer was not particularly helpful to my friend, it does reflect the current level of confusion, misinformation, and downright kookiness surrounding the upcoming 5G revolution. Let's take a closer look at what this new wireless technology is, what it isn't, and how it will likely impact the wireless world.
What is 5G?
As its name suggests, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking technology. After existing wholly in the research and development stage over much of the last decade, 5G has finally begun trickling down to the consumer level.
5G cellular networks will offer faster data speeds than current 4G networks — up to 10 times faster, according to most expert opinions based on real-world testing. 5G will also have higher bandwidth capacity, allowing many more devices to be simultaneously connected to a network without bringing it to its knees.
5G also offers lower latency rates than 4G (down to one millisecond in some cases, comparable to many wired broadband connections), which further speeds up the communication between 5G-enabled devices. This feature will become rather important in the near future, for reasons that we'll get to a little bit later on.
The trade-off for this greater speed is that the operating range of a 5G network (which uses higher frequencies than previous cellular standards) is shorter than the range of existing 4G networks. You may be familiar with this phenomenon if you own a dual-band wireless router.
While the higher frequency 5 GHz band offered by such a router typically provides faster data transfers, the lower-frequency 2.4 GHz band offers greater connectivity range than the 5 GHz band. The dual-band functionality offers flexibility, but each band also comes with limitations.
The reduced range of 5G will complicate the rollout of new cell networks. 5G networks will need more cell towers, spaced closer together, than existing 4G networks. From an infrastructure perspective, the material and labor costs required for 5G installations will likely be reflected in the pricing of new contracts.
No matter how fast 5G is, consumer adoption will likely be slow until the available inventory of 5G-enabled devices grows to a decent size. As of this writing, there isn't a wide selection of devices capable of taking advantage of 5G networks, and the devices which can handle 5G are fairly expensive.
The Samsung Galaxy S20 Plus is arguably the current flagship 5G network phone. The OnePlus 8 and Motorola Edge Plus phones are also well-reviewed 5G candidates. Apple's next iPhone release, likely to be called iPhone 12, won't take place until later this year.
While a handful of 5G-enabled business laptops were on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, it's still early days for consumers looking for a laptop with 5G capability. The good news is that industry stalwarts like HP, Lenovo, and Dell have all announced that they have 5G models in the works.
So far, this has been a fairly simple high-level overview of 5G technology. It isn't a particularly unique IT story, in most respects. Almost any new technology is likely to be better than previous iterations; adding feature or improving functionality is the key point of most IT research and development.
There are a number of rumors swirling around the global 5G rollout, however, that make it unique. Some of these stories are reasonable, some of them are geopolitical in magnitude, and at least one of them is being told by the tinfoil-hat-wearing folks who live on the dark edge of town where the buses don't run anymore.
5G concerns — and conspiracy theories
Let's start with a couple of the more grounded concerns which have been raised during these early stages of 5G network implementations.
Environmental groups and indigenous peoples were quick to point out that 5G's requirement for greater numbers of cell towers, spaced closer together, would almost certainly have an impact on wildlife areas and natural ecosystems. This issue has been a concern since the earliest days of building cellular network infrastructures, and the standard corporate response hasn't changed much since then either.
The companies directly involved with 5G rollouts have given assurances that any environmental impact and historic preservation issues will be carefully considered in their expansion plans. These assurances were likely prompted by an August 2019 U.S. Court of Appeals ruling that chastised the FCC for attempting to make 5G cell sites exempt from all environmental or historic value reviews.
Another issue from the dawn of cellular transmission has made a concerted resurgence with the release of 5G: the potential health risks of the electromagnetic radiation emitted by 5G network equipment. "Cell phones cause brain tumors," was a blanket statement that gained traction during the cellular revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The theory has lost some of its potency in the last decade, but even a casual web search of the above statement still conjures up several days' worth of reading material falling on both sides of the argument. The advent of each new generation of cellular networking has simultaneously awakened interest and ignited debate on the possible harmful effects of cellular radiation.
The scientific community has typically fallen back on the safe but not encouraging statement, "More research is needed." There is no doubt that modern humans are surrounded by more electromagnetic energy than any previous generation, but the evidence as such does not indicate that 5G poses a health risk.
A stranger and potentially more serious 5G issue relates to cybersecurity. Chinese company Huawei, the largest manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in the world, has been accused by the United States and other countries of hiding security backdoors in its cellular networking equipment to enable illegal surveillance by the Chinese government.
These allegations have cast doubt on the security of 5G technology, and the unease surrounding this issue has spiked due to the recent arrest and imprisonment of individuals in both North America and China. In December 2018, Canadian officials arrested Huawei's CFO, Meng Wanzhou, at the behest of U.S. authorities who accused her of corporate espionage and noncompliance with U.S.-Iran economic sanctions.
Shortly after her arrest, China responded by imprisoning two Canadian men and charging them with endangering national security. These two men have been denied access to lawyers, and recently had all contact with the Canadian consul terminated.
In a less sinister vein, a group of European university researchers cowrote a 2018 paper stating that 5G technology will be more vulnerable to security attacks due to its larger data bandwidth. Other IT experts have suggested that 5G could potentially be a more accessible target for massive DDoS attacks.
So 5G might not be safe. Or it might not be "safe," if you're willing to give credence to any of the really deranged, not-playing-with-a-full-bagof-marbles, Looney Tunes conspiracy theories pertaining to 5G cellular networks. One in particular: In case you were wondering, 5G did not — does not, will not ever — cause COVID-19.
Given the number of legitimate news stories headlined some variation of "Does 5G Cause COVID-19?" which have aired on TV or appeared online in recent months, you may have had some concerns about upgrading your phone.
The proliferation of the 5G-COVID conspiracy theory has become so terribly widespread that government officials in the United Kingdom had to actually warn broadcasters that they could be fined for blaming 5G networks for the global pandemic.
Despite such active attempts to combat misinformation, conspiracy theorist arsonists across the United Kingdom have managed to set fire to more than 60 5G cell towers. Sadly, this phenomenon has repeated itself in several other countries around the world.
What will 5G actually do?
Earlier, we said that 5G is essentially just the next generation of cellular networking. The changeover to 5G provides a large enough jump in capability, however, that it will impact some existing implementations.
Interestingly, 5G's impressive bandwidth and faster download speeds could make it an alternative to traditional wired broadband internet service. Home customers could potentially get rid of several cables — and the need to own and manage their own wireless networking gear — by having their TV, internet, and telephone services all provided via a single 5G cellular subscription.
That 5G subscription could also be extended to the customer's vehicle. A 5G-enabled vehicle will have the digital horsepower to potentially do more than just GPS and media streaming. New features powered by cloud-based AI hosts will dramatically increase data capacity and processing, fueling the charge toward self-driving cars. The high bandwidth and low latency of 5G, actually, is ideal for vehicle-to-vehicle exchanges of information, which should enable smarter and faster decisions by future autonomous vehicles.
Slightly less sexy but perhaps more important is what 5G will bring to the Internet of Things. IoT in is essence a single idea: everything is connected. The number of network-connected devices worldwide continues to grow at a staggering rate.
Juniper Research recently released a study saying there are more than 38 billion IoT connected devices in 2020, up 285 percent from 2015. Again, 5G's improved bandwidth and latency will enable much faster interaction between future 5G-enabled IoT devices, keeping our smart homes and industry centers from getting bogged down.
Author William Gibson once said in an interview, "The future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed." Such is the case with 5G. While some nations have achieved impressive 5G rollout numbers, the majority of the world won't see widescale adoption of 5G networks for quite some time.
This should not, by any means, dampen anyone's enthusiasm for 5G. It is a significant leap forward in the future of cellular networking, and it will make our connected world even more accessible than it already is.