5G wireless networks are taking shape across the U.S. and the globe.
Consumers may not notice much difference at first, but eventually 5G will replace 4G LTE (Long-Term Evolution) technology and the contrast should be striking.
While there’s much discussion about all of 5G’s benefits (in the future), there has been little in the way of explanation regarding how the 5G wireless network differs from 4G.
Basically, the 5G network is a more complicated and flexible infrastructure than 4G. While 4G operates in one band spectrum (low), the 5G network uses three different band spectrums (low, middle and high).
4G broadband was generally confined to the use of radio frequencies (RF) in the 2 to 6 GHz range – radio wavelengths that have good penetration and cover large distances but are slow, which limits data transfer. Still, 4G was definitely an improvement over 3G and 2G. But it was such an improvement that cellphone users piled on to such an extent that the 4G frequency band became over crowded.
The Three Bands of 5G
Low-Band 5G –This is the sub 1GHz spectrum – the same band used by carriers in the U.S. for LTE. While this band spectrum produces the slowest 5G speeds (with peak data speeds topping out around 100Mbps), it’s also the most stable infrastructure offering great coverage area and penetration.
Mid-Band 5G – Radio frequency waves in the mid-band spectrum are faster and produce faster peak data speeds. On the downside, mid-band waves have moderate issues with penetrating buildings and other structures. Subsequently they require a boost. This boost comes in the form of Massive MIMO (multiple input, multiple output) antenna technology to improve penetration and coverage area. MIMO groups multiple antennas onto a single box, and at a single cell tower, they create multiple simultaneous beams to different users.
Beamforming is also deployed to improve 5G service on the mid-band. Beamforming sends a single focused signal to each and every user in the cell, and systems using it monitor each user to make sure they have a consistent signal.
High-Band 5G — High-band spectrum is what most people associate with 5G. That’s because the millimeter waves (mmW) of the high-band frequency spectrum offer peak speeds of 10 Gbps and very low latency that is most talked about with 5G.
Also, this band is relatively usage free unlike the crowded situation in low-band spectrum where television, radio and 4G LTE all compete for bandwidth.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that the high-band spectrum has a major drawback: Millimeter waves are fast but provide lousy coverage and even poorer building penetration than mid-band waves.
The carriers rolling out high-band spectrum 5G are AT&T and Verizon. 5G coverage for both carriers needs to piggyback off 4G’s LTE technology at least for a while until nationwide 5G-specific networks can be built out.
Since high-band spectrum trades off penetration and user area for high speed and coverage area, the carriers rely on small cells — low-power base stations that cover small geographic areas. With small cells, carriers using mmWave for 5G can improve overall coverage area. Combined with beamforming, small cells deliver very extremely fast coverage with low latency.
Standards for 5G Wireless Networks
5G also comes with an impressive list of standards developed by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a coalition of telecommunications organizations that create technical standards for wireless technology. These standards, referred to as 5G NR (New Radio) are intended to support the growth of wireless communication by enhancing electromagnetic radiation spectrum efficiency. Included in the standards for 5G broadband:
- It must implement a lean signaling design. This means signals are only switched on when needed, lowering overall processing power.
- It must provide connectivity for the internet of things (IoT), a concept that includes all of the various devices and wired or wireless connections that make up a user’s digital experience.
- Enforces strict data transmission requirements. By forcing all users and connections to respect specific rules, the entire network is faster and more efficient.
- Improved beamforming that allows signals to be propagated to a larger set of end points.
- Must use adaptive bandwidth, which allows devices to switch to a low-bandwidth and lower power whenever possible, saving energy for when higher bandwidths are necessary.
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