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What is 5G?

Headshot of Dave Schafer
Researched by
Dave SchaferContributing Writer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor
Updated 3/30/23

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Few buzzwords have taken the tech world by storm quite like “5G.” However, mobile network carriers have done a terrible job of explaining what’s so great about 5G technology and why it’s worth all the hype. Let’s take a deeper look at exactly what 5G is and why you should care to demystify the topic once and for all.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless networking technology. It’s a big step up from the previous generation, 4G—at least in theory. The benefits of 5G fall primarily under three areas:

  • Speed: 5G can theoretically offer speeds up to 1,000 Mbps (or 1 Gbps) per second. This is 10 times faster than 4G, which tends to cap out at 100 Mbps. In the real world, 5G is about twice as fast as 4G on average, which is still excellent. (1,2)
  • Latency: Due to something called multi-access edge computing and other tech advancements, 5G offers significantly reduced latency compared to 4G and other mobile network types. (3) Latency is the delay between when a signal leaves its source and arrives at its destination. Lower latency means faster response times. While this isn’t a huge deal for basic web browsing and social media, it’s critical for self-driving cars and other Internet of Things (IoT) applications.
  • Capacity: Finally, 5G promises a tremendous increase in network capacity—in fact, this is one of the main reasons for its development. As the IoT continues to grow, the number of connected devices is exploding. A tremendous amount of capacity is needed to support all these simultaneous connections, and 5G helps make this possible.

How does 5G work?

5G works similarly to 4G LTE—it uses radio bands to deliver both voice and data—but can use channels across a much larger range of radio frequencies, most of which are higher than what 4G could use. This results in three basic “types” of 5G—low-band, high-band, and mid-band.

  • Low-band 5G: These are your basic 5G networks—most of the networks employed by US mobile carriers are based on low-band 5G. It works similarly to 4G LTE, although with slightly higher maximum potential speed.
  • High-band 5G (millimeter wave): High-band 5G, also known as millimeter wave (or mmWave), is likely what most people think of when they think of “5G.” It’s the ultra-fast, ultra-short-range type that’s resulted in 5G antennas going up on many street corners in major cities. The large number of broadcast sites is necessary due to the short range of this type of 5G.
  • Mid-band 5G: A middle-ground 5G type that splits the difference between low- and high-band. Mid-band 5G offers faster speeds than low-band and longer range than mmWave, making it a solid option that cellular providers are starting to tap into.

5G also piggybacks on 4G to help provide coverage. The 5G spec allows devices to combine 4G and 5G signals to improve performance, and many (if not most) phones and devices use these combined connections.

Where is 5G available?

At this point, 5G is pretty much available nationwide. However, which type of 5G is available (and thus, the performance available) depends heavily on where you’re located.

Low-band 5G is the most widely available, by far, but it’s also the slowest type—performance is often no better than 4G LTE. However, mid-band networks are currently being built out by major carriers, and this means average speeds are likely to increase over the next few years. These networks are still largely confined to big population centers, but the coverage is improving.

The fastest 5G, mmWave, remains a rarity. Essentially, you need to not only be close to a tower, you need to have direct line-of-sight with it. That means coverage is largely reserved for downtown metro areas and big venues like sports stadiums and concert arenas, where its benefits (like huge capacity) are most impactful.

What are the uses for 5G?

5G has a couple different uses. The first, and most obvious, is as a step up from 4G LTE in mobile phone applications. Smartphones are everywhere, and many people use them as their primary means of internet access. 5G’s faster speeds makes this much nicer and can help open up new uses. For example, being able to download an entire HD movie in seconds could potentially change the way you spend your morning commute.

5G also theoretically reduces battery usage. The emphasis is on “theoretically” because it really depends on how it’s implemented and how much you use it—when smartphones first started transitioning to 5G, many users found that it actually had a negative impact on battery life, potentially due to increased usage or the inefficient initial generations of modems.

5G is also seeing success in a number of use cases outside of smartphones:

  • Home internet: One of the most interesting uses for 5G internet is as a home internet alternative to cable, fiber, DSL, or satellite. This isn’t an entirely new concept—fixed wireless internet has been available for a while now using 4G. However, fixed 5G has the potential for much faster speeds. This isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but may open up some additional provider choices for consumers—always a good thing. It also promises much faster speeds for customers looking for internet in their RV or while traveling.
  • Remote controlled and self-driving vehicles: The low latency of 5G helps ensure that reaction times are as quick as possible, and the additional bandwidth easily supports all of the various sensors, cameras, and other tech that these devices need.
  • Providing internet access at high-capacity venues: Another novel use for 5G is as a source of wireless internet at concert arenas, sports stadiums, and other large venues. The high capacity of 5G is ideal for creating wireless hotspots in these super-congested areas, where you may have tens of thousands of people online at once.

As 5G networks, particularly mmWave, continue to be built out, more and more new uses for the technology are sure to appear.

The future is 5G

If you’ve bought a smartphone in the last few years, there’s a good chance it supports 5G. However, you may still be wondering what all the hype is about. What’s more, you may be wondering “what’s the difference between 5G and older connection types?” or even “what’s next?”

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Contributing researcher
Headshot of Dave Schafer
Researched by
Dave SchaferContributing Writer

Dave Schafer is a freelance writer with a passion for making technical concepts easy for anyone to understand. He’s been covering the world of gadgets, tech, and the internet for over 8 years, with a particular focus on TV and internet service providers. When he’s not writing, Dave can be found playing guitar or camping with his family and golden retriever, Rosie.

Contributing reviewer
Headshot of Bri Field
Reviewed by
Bri FieldAssigning Editor

Bri Field has a background in academia, research writing, and brand marketing. She has edited scientific publications, conference papers, digital content, and technical communications. As Assigning Editor, she enjoys ensuring all content is accurate, clear, and helpful. In her free time, you can find her in the kitchen trying a new recipe, out on a hike, or working through her massive TBR list.

Endnotes and sources
  1. 5G Experience Report,” Opensignal. Accessed 9 January 2023.
  2. Mobile Network Experience Report,” Opensignal. Accessed 9 January 2023.
  3. "What is multi-access edge computing?" Juniper Networks. Accessed 30 March 2023.