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What 5G is and why you'll want it this year

What once seemed like a luxury now looks more like a key upgrade from 4G.

5G is the next generation of wireless networks and it does a lot of things better than 4G. It will arrive in fits and spurts as the networks and devices debut and mature, but the recent pandemic and disruptions it has caused may stoke an appetite for the best connectivity everywhere, as our lives have moved more online. 

A 5G connection brings you much more than a simple bandwidth or "speed" improvement: 5G's low latency is something to get excited about, as is its intelligent power management to extend battery life, its ability to support a lot more connected devices in given area, and its promise of becoming the next big thing in home internet. If any of these seem irrelevant or vague, watch our explainer video above.

You've probably seen infographics like this that make 5G look like a huge bore. We can do better.

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.

Nokia

The keys to 5G

The first three attributes in the above graphic 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.
  • Low latency. The unsung hero of 5G is its ability to respond quickly when asked to transfer data. back and forth.
  • High density. 4G can't "connect everything" as we intend to do with homes, cars and wearables, not to mention industrial devices.

Yes, 5G will dramatically improve the responsiveness of everything you do on your phone, and it'll deliver internet to your home without a cable or phone line with more speed and responsiveness. Those traits have moved from elective to essential during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns. Later, 5G will make possible new experiences that are still fringe, like augmented reality that works well anywhere, a truly connected car and smart cities that are safer, cleaner and more efficient.

Now playing: Watch this: How cars may let 5G shine the most
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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's 5G's true opportunity.

5G's biggest problem: 4G

To get there you'll need to replace everything you currently own that accesses a cellular network, as 5G wireless gear is distinct from today's 4G technology. That means billions of new phones, tablets and laptops over the next few years, making it clear why carriers and device makers are excited about 5G.

Which brings us to 5G's biggest enemy: 4G, which actually fares well in most people's opinions. 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. That's why even the carriers that are building out 5G are pretty frank about the fact that 5G won't replace 4G immediately.

And WBA Open Roaming is a new variant of Wi-Fi that challenges cellular networks, including 5G: It envisions vast global networks of Wi-Fi hotspots that you log into once and then seamlessly stay connected to as you move or travel, much like a cellular network but with the robust bandwidth we associate with Wi-Fi.  It doesn't answer all of 5G's attributes, but does take aim its best understood one: Bandwidth.

Is 5G 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's still no clear consensus that cellular technology in general is safe, let alone its 5G variant.

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 that uses 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 phones? 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 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, which 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.