The 5G mobile networks are now active in many countries, and as you expect with any new technology, a lot has already been written on the topic. But when I, as an internet user, read some of the articles, I find many unsubstantiated claims about the meaning of 5G, the average 5G speeds and even the relationship between 5G and WiFi networks. The purpose of this post is to answer some of the most fundamental questions about 5G networks that must be clearly answered on the internet. The important thing to remember is that the ultimate source of all 5G information is 3GPP (Third Generation Partnership Project), a standards organisation that specifies exactly what 5G means and what it should do.
What does 5G stand for?
The G in 5G stands for Generation, so 5G means the fifth generation of digital mobile networks. 5G is enabled by a technology called New Radio or NR, so you are likely to see the term 5G NR very often, which means 5G New Radio. The predecessor of 5G NR is 4G LTE, the fourth generation of mobile networks enabled by the LTE technology, which stands for Long Term Evolution. Before 4G LTE, we relied mostly on third-generation – 3G networks where UMTS (Universal Mobile Telecommunications System) and CDMA2000 (Code Division Multiple Access – The year 2000) were key enabling technologies. The second-generation mobile network, 2G, started the digital era of mobile networks. The key technologies behind 2G were GSM (Global System for Mobile communication), D-AMPS (Digital Advanced Mobile Phone System) and IS-95 (Interim Standard 95). You can read all about these technologies in this dedicated post.
What 5G really means?
The 5G mobile networks are the next evolutionary step after the fourth-generation – 4G LTE mobile networks. The 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) technology is still evolving and will continue to evolve alongside 5G. It means that 5G and 4G will coexist for a long time to cater to various use cases for both consumers and businesses. 5G is a very versatile technology in that it can support various data rates, different latencies and provide different reliability and service quality levels based on the requirements of consumer and business segments. The 5G cellular technology has three key pillars that categorise the network requirements into three use-case classes. These use case classes are eMBB – Enhanced or Extreme Mobile Broadband, Massive Machine Type Communication – mMTC and Ultra-Reliable Low Latency Communication – uRLLC. eMBB is the evolution and extension of the existing 4G mobile broadband services, which is great for high-definition video streaming, downloads and other services that require high-speed internet. The other two classes, mMTC and uRLLC, provide capabilities suitable for IoT, smart home, smart city, augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR), and industrial automation. We have a dedicated post about eMBB, mMTC and uRLLC, which you can check out here.
Why do we need 5G?
You might wonder why we need 5G and what is so special about it that other technologies can’t offer? It is a valid question because evolving two different technologies, 5G NR and 4G LTE, does seem like a lot of work, so why don’t they just pick 5G and focus on evolving it rather than mixing it up with 4G? There are multiple aspects to this question, the first one being the coverage. Unlike other technologies, cellular technologies are only beneficial when they are available everywhere, and even the slightest coverage gap can be a real showstopper. Therefore, whenever a new cellular technology is introduced, the previous one co-exists for a long time until the new one has fully taken over as the primary technology. It was the same when 3G and 4G technologies were introduced, and it is the case with 5G also. But the key aspect of 5G NR is that it is like a one-stop-shop type technology that can cater to an extensive range of use cases. Because of the three pillars eMBB, mMTC and uRLLC that we talked about earlier, 5G is capable of providing extremely high data rates in the range of Gbps (Gigabits per second), but it is equally capable of offer very low data rates in the range of a few Kbps (kilobits per second). It can offer very targeted coverage through a small cell architecture using higher frequencies (e.g. 6 GHz), but at the same time, it can also use lower frequencies, e.g. 600 and 700 MHz, to offer wide-area coverage. These capabilities give 5G a lot of flexibility to offer high-speed broadband services, low-latency connectivity for mission-critical applications, and the ability to connect billions of low-powered devices, e.g. sensors for IoT devices.
How is 5G different from 4G?
Given that we have used 4G LTE services for high-speed data services for many years and even relied on it during the lock-down period, the only real comparison we may have ever done is probably between 4G and the WiFi at home. But that’s not really how we should compare 4G and 5G. Even though many mobile operators and technology blogs talk about 5G in terms of how quickly you can download a movie or how amazing it is for watching 8k videos, that is only the tip of the iceberg and more of a marketing tactic to relate 5G to what you can easily perceive today. The 5G NR technology is a capability of the future, and a vast majority of 5G use cases may not even exist today. But the good news is that we already have an established way of looking at the use case categories through the triangle picture above (eMBB/mMTC/uRLLC). In short, 5G can do everything 4G LTE can do and more, but until the 5G coverage is more mature, both 4G and 5G will work together to provide connectivity for high-speed internet and IoT services. For the high-speed internet part, which is more interesting to consumers, 5G can utilise some part of the existing 4G LTE network architecture to create bigger data pipes and offer average download speeds of around 150 Mbps which are not possible (on average) with LTE alone. This deployment model that uses 4G and 5G networks to offer 5G services is called non-standalone 5G (NSA). Standalone 5G (SA) is the other deployment model that is an end-to-end 5G network. Standalone 5G brings to life the futuristic use cases of 5G, that require ultra-high reliability and latency, which isn’t possible through 4G LTE networks. That is the real difference between 4G and 5G because futuristic use cases like smart cities and self-driving cars will change the way we live our lives today, and that is the real promise of 5G.
How is 5G transmitted?
Like other cellular technologies, the network architecture for 5G comprises a radio network and a core network that connects to the external networks. The cellular towers represent the radio network and connect with SIM-enabled customer devices like smartphones, tablets and routers through radio waves. 5G networks employ various frequency bands, as shown in the table below, to establish communication between cellular towers and customer devices through radio waves.
|Frequency Band||Frequency in MHz/GHz|
|Low band||e.g. 600 MHz and 700 MHz|
|Mid band||1 to 6 GHz. In the UK, all key mobile operators use the 3.4-3.6 GHz band for 5G.|
|High or Millimetre band||Over 6GHz, especially 24-30 GHz band|
The 5G core network is connected to the radio network through wired or wireless links (transport network). The radio communication between the mobile phone and the cellular tower (gNB – base station) makes use of the OFDMA (Orthogonal FDMA) technology which is also used in 4G LTE and WiFi6. Below is a simplified depiction of what a full 5G network, standalone 5G, looks like—more about OFDMA in this post and more about NSA and SA in this dedicated post.
Is 5G worse than WIFI?
As 5G enables very fast broadband speeds, it is natural to draw comparisons between 5G and WiFi networks. However, it is important to make sure that we only do a like for like comparison. Typically a normal WiFi connection requires a DSL or Fibre connection as a backhaul, e.g. a fibre cable coming to the cabinet of your internet service provider (ISP) and then from there another cable, possibly a twisted-pair cable, runs from the cabinet to your home where it terminates into a telephone socket. Then you connect your WiFi router to the socket to get wireless internet as WiFi coverage inside your home. In more ideal scenarios, your home broadband service provider may offer a full-fibre connection, e.g. FTTH (Fibre To The Home), where you get fibre all the way into your home and through a few additional connections (e.g. termination unit etc.) your router creates WiFi coverage inside your home. So if you want to compare your normal broadband internet with 5G home internet, the real comparison is between 5G and this fibre backhaul. With a 5G router, all the cable and fibre connections go away, and all you need is a router that wirelessly connects to the 5G internet and then creates WiFi coverage inside your home, just like any fixed broadband router. Have a look at the picture below to visualise that.
Finally, the more interesting question is if 5G can provide the same speed as a regular fixed broadband router or not. In the UK, at the time of writing (May 2021), as 5G networks are still expanding, 5G home internet can offer average download speeds of around 150 Mbps and average upload speeds of between 30 Mbps and 50 Mbps. Look at this post to check out the average speeds 5G home internet can provide in Reading, UK today.
To summarise, 5G is the fifth generation of mobile cellular networks where G stands for Generation and 5 represents the generation number. 5G is based on NR-New Radio technology, just like 4G is based on LTE – Long Term Evolution technology. 5G can offer enhanced mobile broadband services with average download speeds of around 150 Mbps (in Reading UK), which is already higher than the UK fixed broadband average speed. Still, the real promise of 5G is not limited to broadband. It will play an instrumental role in bringing to life futuristic use cases like self-driving cars, smart cities, smart homes and industrial automation. 5G NR and 4G LTE will continue to co-exist for a very long time and will cater to our current and future use cases together.
Here are some helpful downloads
Thank you for reading this post, I hope it helped you in developing a better understanding of cellular networks. But sometimes, we need some extra support especially when preparing for a new job, or studying a new topic, or maybe just buying a new phone. Whatever you are trying to do, here are some downloads that can help you:
Students & fresh graduates: If you are just starting, the complexity of the cellular industry can be a bit overwhelming. But don’t worry, I have created this FREE ebook so you can familiarise yourself with the basics like 3G, 4G etc. As a next step, check out the latest edition of the same ebook with more details on 4G & 5G networks with diagrams. You can then read Mobile Networks Made Easy which explains the network nodes e.g. BTS, MSC, GGSN etc.
Professionals: If you are an experienced professional but new to mobile communications, it may seem hard to compete with someone who has a decade of experience in the cellular industry. But not everyone who works in this industry is always up to date on the bigger picture and challenges given how quickly the industry evolves. The bigger picture comes from experience which is why I’ve carefully put together a few slides to get you started in no time. So if work in sales, marketing, product, project or any other area of business where you need a high-level view, Introduction to Mobile Communications can give you a quick start. Also, here are some templates to help you prepare your own slides on product overview and product roadmap.