It might feel like we’ve been using 4G on our smartphones since forever, but in reality, it’s been less than five years. And yet, 5G is just around the corner – some places in the world have seen limited roll-outs of the 5G service, the list of devices (still small) is growing, and India’s also getting ready to carry out trials of this latest generation of cellular communications. But what is 5G? How is 5G different from 4G / LTE? Will 5G make a difference in the way we work? If you’re seeking answers to these questions, you’ve come to the right place. Here’s our quick (and easy) primer to 5G:

First, a word on telecom standards

Image: Samsung

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) lays out the various technical standards for the telecom industry. Other organisations, such as the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), are also involved in this process.

GSM, Edge, 3G, 3G HSPA, LTE, LTE-Advanced… these standards help ensure interoperability between equipment. Which is why your 4G LTE phone can work in India as well as on your backpacking trip to Europe. Before we talk about 5G, you need to know that not all devices support the same tech everywhere – many phones lack support for the 4G bands (or frequencies) used by some US networks. Many big telecom companies also tinker with the standards, making changes in their implementation.

4G vs LTE

Image: Qualcomm

We’ll get to 5G in a bit, but first a bit about 4G and LTE. While many of us think of these as the same, that hasn’t always been the case. LTE, or Long Term Evolution, was an enhancement to 3G networks designed to be a roadmap to True 4G. However, with improvements, it became possible for LTE networks to offer speeds close to that of ‘True 4G’. This led to the ITU allowing for LTE to be classified as a 4G technology.

LTE initially had a max speed of 150Mbps, but the latest versions – such as LTE-A and LTE-A Pro – use tech such as MIMO and Carrier Aggregation for a theoretical maximum speed of 3Gbps (download).

Do note that this is the theoretical maximum speed – networks are unlikely to support speeds close to these. Even the best 4G devices (such as Samsung Galaxy S10) top out at 2Gbps (the OnePlus 7 Pro has a maximum download speed of 1.2Gbps). What about real world speeds? Well, they’re a completely different matter, as any smartphone user will attest to – it depends on your network, and it’s rare you’ll ever come close to the maximum speeds.

What is 5G?

Image: Samsung

5G, the fifth generation of cellular communication technology, promises not just faster download speeds but also other enhancements – such as lower latency – which will be required for the coming wave of tech (IoT devices, self-driving cars, etc). 5G networks will use radio technology known as 5G NR (New Radio). This allocates chunks of radio bands, some below 6GHz, and others above 24GHz (also known as mmWave). In contrast, 4G LTE frequencies are much lower (Band 5 is around the 800MHz mark while Band 40 is around the 2300Mhz mark).

5G is faster, can support more devices, and opens the doors for new applications.

It’s faster: It’s the use of higher frequencies that allows 5G to have (theoretically, at least) much faster speeds (and lower latencies) than previous generations – up to 20 Gbps, with latencies as low as 1ms (gamers, you should be happy!). The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G has a max speed of 5Gbps thanks to its Qualcomm X50 modem. Future devices will be even faster – the new X55 modem supports speeds up to 7Gbps.

Lower latency will open up new applications: Apart from speed, the other advantage is latency. It’s not just the gaming world who’ll be happy with the lightning-fast response (less than a millisecond). Other fields of tech that could see a tremendous boost thanks to low latencies of 5G include: autonomous vehicles (which need to collect and process information as fast as possible to cope with changing road conditions), smart devices, and IoT (home and industrial automation systems, and sensors will be able to transmit data much faster).

Better coverage in stadiums, airports, and shopping centres: Finally, there’s one more advantage of 5G over previous generations. It can cope with a heavier workload (in terms of simultaneous connections) without subjecting users to network drop-outs and poor speeds. If you’ve found yourself unable to use WhatsApp when at a cricket match or at a concert, you’ll know what we’re talking about. Once 5G is everywhere, this is one issue that you won’t have to cope with.

5G limitations

You can’t beat the laws of physics. The higher frequencies used in 5G networks may be great for carrying large amounts of data at once, but they’re terrible at penetrating obstacles. In fact, mmWave 5G can be stopped by your hands! This means that you’re unlikely to get 5G coverage inside a building unless the network has placed indoor signal boosters. Even in open spaces, 5G signals drop off rapidly. This is why the 5G rollouts that have taken place so far have been restricted to dense urban areas, with networks placing cell transmitters at short distances.

Where is 5G available today?

Image: T-Mobile 5G website

You can use 5G today, but availability is very limited – large-scale deployment is unlikely before 2020. In the US, AT&T has 5G service in San Francisco, New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, amongst others. T-Mobile serves 5G to San Francisco, Cleveland, Dallas, and other places, while Sprint 5G is available in Houston, Atlanta, and a few other cities. Other cities across the world you can get 5G include Seoul, Sydney, Melbourne, London, Birmingham, Manchester, Milan, Turin, Basel, Zurich, Shanghai, and several more. As you can see, 5G so far seems restricted to dense urban areas, and even then, 5G coverage is usually restricted to business districts.

5G in India

India is also in the midst of preparing for 5G networks. TRAI has chosen the 3.3Ghz to 3.6Ghz band as the main band for 5G (spectrum availability is limited as much of it is earmarked for defence and government purposes), while many telcos have expressed concern that the asking price could be too high to make services financially viable in a price-sensitive market like ours. According to current plans, the TRAI envisages spectrum auction to be completed this year, with commercial roll-out sometime in 2020.

The state of 5G devices

Samsung Galaxy S10 5G

There aren’t that many 5G devices on the market yet. Part of the reason is that 5G modems are few and far between – Qualcomm’s X50 and X55, Samsung’s Exynos Modem 5100, and Huawei’s Balong 5000 5G are what you’ll find in a 5G smartphone. Over time, as the tech matures, these will just get built right into the SoC, and of course, bring along benefits such as lower power consumption. But for now, we’d advise Indian users to hold off on buying a 5G device (you can’t buy one through official channels as of now).

5G phones available today

Despite the limited availability of 5G phones, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G are already out. Motorola also makes a 5G Moto Mod for the Z3, while LG has its dual-screen V50 ThinQ 5G, and Xiaomi makes the Mi MIX 3 5G. And waiting in the wings are the Huawei Mate X (yes, the foldable phone), along with devices from pretty much every smartphone brand. As for Apple, it might release at least one 5G variant of the iPhone this year, with next year’s crop hopefully offering even more choice (Apple has bought Intel’s modem business).