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All about 5G: What it is and why you'll want it

5G will be good for your phone, but it'll be more of a revolution for other devices.

5G  is the next generation -- the fifth generation -- of wireless networks. It's also a technology you'll probably want, or eventually have to adopt, depending on your appetite for innovation versus your tolerance for wireless bugs and growing pains. 5G networks will bring us much more than a simple bandwidth or "speed" improvement on phones: Critical improvements such as low latency, intelligent power consumption, high device density and network slicing make it a breakthrough -- and a technical, confusing bore for many consumers who just want to know what it will do for them. In our explainer video above, we lay out 5G from promise to perceived perils.

You've probably seen infographics like this that make 5G look terribly technical. 

5G infographic

5G is composed of many technical attributes, but it will succeed when vendors portray what it makes possible, not how it does so.


How 5G is better

But the first three attributes in the above are the most important to bear in mind:

  • Huge bandwidth. 5G will offer a wireless "pipe" large enough to easily transfer any weight of data.
  • High density. 4G can't "connect everything" as we intend to do with homes, cars and wearables, not to mention industrial devices.
  • Low latency. The unsung hero of 5G is its ability to respond quickly in when asked to transfer data. back and forth.

Put another way, 5G will dramatically improve the responsiveness of all the current technologies on your phone, as well as make it possible for your home internet to come over the air with the high speed, responsive connection you really want when you work from home during the spread of new coronavirus. Later it will make possible new experiences that are still fringe, like augmented reality that works well anywhere, smart cities that are safer, cleaner and more efficient, and a truly connected car.

Now playing: Watch this: How cars may let 5G shine the most

Forget about archaic examples like "downloading a full-length movie in seconds" and move your expectations to a world that's more responsive, transparent and anticipatory. That may sound nebulous, but it is 5G's true opportunity.

5G vs. 4G

To get there you will need to replace everything you currently own that accesses a cellular network, as the 5G wireless gear is distinct from today's 4G technology. That means billions of new devices over the next few years, making it clear why carriers and device makers are pretty excited about 5G. But you should be, too, as this will be the first cellular data technology that can revolutionize not just your phone, but your life.

Which brings us to 5G's biggest enemy: 4G, which fares well in most consumer opinion polls. We don't seem to have the same burning interest in the moving to the next "G" that we did before 4G. As a result, 5G's benefits will need to be shown, not just described in technical terms.

Is it safe?

Along the way, carriers and regulators will have to win over, or at least mollify, a fair number of people who believe 5G is a toxic technology due to its microwave spectrum radiation. But concerns about cellular radiation aren't new: There is still no clear consensus that cellular technology in general is safe, let alone the 5G variant of it.

5g speed over 4G

Yes, 5G offers a big "speed" or bandwidth boost over 4G, but that's so boring: Keep an eye on features such as low latency and ultra-high density of connections.

Brian Cooley/CNET

5G does emit "microwave" radiation, but so does anything using 4G, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. The point of contention is whether 5G's number of antennas, proximity of antennas and the power levels coming from them make it hazardous. Conventional scientific wisdom has long held that radio waves don't become dangerous to our bodies' cells, or "ionizing," until they reach frequencies found in X-rays, gamma rays and light from the sun. Even the highest 5G frequencies sit far below those types of radiation and are therefore considered safe or "nonionizing."

That doesn't prevent doubters in a number of US towns and cities from worrying about what we don't know about 5G, but the FCC has final say on cellular towers and waves in the US and "preempts local decisions premised directly or indirectly on the environmental effects of radio frequency emissions, assuming that the provider is in compliance with the Commission's RF rules."

The bottom line on 5G safety is that the safety of cellular networks in general has been in dispute since at least the early '90s, as well as that of radiation from power lines, which are of extremely low frequency. Anything with the word "radiation" attached to it is going to come in for fearsome speculation.

The long and winding 5G road

What the next five years of 5G adoption will look like remains a point of some dispute. Juniper Research estimates that by 2025 there will be 1.45 billion active 5G connections worldwide but the question remains how many of those will be connecting homes or IoT devices rather than the commonly thought of phone? Juniper says "to be successful, 5G fixed wireless broadband would need to meet expectations in real-world scenarios" as an alternative to other forms of broadband to premises. That may point to an early surge of 5G for IoT users, not necessarily a majority of the world's 3 billion phone users.

Loup Ventures thinks Apple will be an outsized beneficiary of 5G adoption, though at a pace more leisurely than one might expect from a substantially new iPhone. Assuming the first 5G iPhone goes on sale in September 2020, Loup then expects a bit of an air pocket for the product immediately after that with "potential disappointment related to soft initial uptake of iPhone 5G, given the lack of carrier coverage in the US and globally." Loup thinks the biggest swell of iPhone 5G adoption won't occur until Apple's fiscal 2023 that ends in September of that year.

During Samsung's January 2020 earnings call, the company's head of investor relations, Ben Suh, said "we expect our 5G business in the domestic market to shrink somewhat compared to last year" a surprising prediction about the world's 5G trial balloon and a market with a history of being eager adopters of mobile technology.