Talking About 5G

How Fast Is It? Doesn't It Require New Cell Towers?

You may have heard about 5G from the marketing campaigns of wireless carriers. They are claiming 5G is the most powerful and ultra-fast connection that will transform the future. But there is a lot of complicated information out there regarding 5G that we asked our new Technology Advisory Committee (TAC) to try to demystify. This will be the first in a series of informational pieces about this issue which we hope will provide you with information on why the technology is being placed in communities, how FCC regulation impacts what the Town can do and the impacts of the technology as we understand it now.

First, just a bit of background for you regarding the TAC. The Committee was established during 2019 and will work with the Council and Staff to advise on technological issues that the community may face, look for ways to bring new technologies to the Town and to provide assistance with updates and upgrades to current technology being used by the Town.

The 5G that wireless carriers such as AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are installing is the fifth generation of communication networks (the "G" stands for "Generation"). Every decade or so, a new generation of wireless technology is developed to further enhance the capabilities of the network. AT&T, for example, already is rebranding their current network as "5G E" (Evolution), which is really still 4G and may cause some confusion. The new true standard of fifth generation is called 5G NR ("New Radio"), which encodes data more efficiently, has lower latency and can connect more devices at one time than 4G. What does that all mean? It's true you may be able to stream Netflix quicker than ever before, but there is a lot more to it than just faster streaming and downloads.

First, we have to explain a little more about the new generation. 5G is not one specific speed or frequency, but a compilation of new technology. 5G does not require new towers on every pole throughout the town. In fact, 5G does not even require new cell towers. Carriers can begin using 5G technology on existing cellular towers and bands to connect more devices and increase data speeds. These low-frequency 5G networks operate more efficiently than current 4G networks, generate faster speeds, and allow devices to connect over a great distance from the tower just like your current smartphone.

What about those ultra-fast speeds you've heard about? This requires a little further clarification. In order to achieve those multi-gigabit speeds, a higher frequency called millimeter-wave is required. These signals allow for very high-speed connections, but the signal significantly drops off faster with distance than the low-frequency 5G signals. The millimeter-waves also do not easily pass through walls of buildings, decreasing the distance they can travel. Because of these constraints, carriers would need to use many smaller, lower-power base stations rather than the fewer, more powerful cell towers currently in place. These smaller stations are already installed in some major cities in order to increase the coverage of 4G so the switch to millimeter-wave 5G would be relatively easy. Areas away from the city would rely on the low-frequency 5G from cell towers. There is also a third range of frequencies referred to as mid-band, which do not require as many base stations as millimeter-wave, but more sites than low frequency.

5G is not just about speed, either. There are a lot of other benefits to using Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (URLCC) to provide real-time communications. This has the potential for immediate critical control functions. For example, the next evolution of self-driving vehicles would be safer by allowing vehicles to communicate with other vehicles, pedestrians and smart roadways. 5G could also provide your home internet. Instead of cable or fiber optic lines run to every home, the provider could place a base station for every few houses along the street and customers would connect with wireless modems. With the number of smart home devices increasing, referred to as IoT (Internet of Things), 5G would provide the need for higher speeds with lower latency direct to your devices.

Of course, 5G is still in the early rollout phase with coverage coming to urban areas first. The 5G standard still is evolving, as well, with a new version arriving in 2020. Initially, most carriers will be touting their high-speed broadband to consumers with coverage and performance not completely consistent. Power consumption by 5G on devices will also need to improve in the years ahead to allow your smart device to remain charged at least as long as current 4G devices. Over the next few years, 5G will continue to be developed further and improve with each version, but it is going to take several more years to reach its full potential.

If you have questions on this technology, please feel free to email the Technology Advisory Committee.

- Technology Advisory Committee