What is 5G Technology?

It's here. 5G. The next generation of mobile wireless voice and data communication. It's already enabling newly-evolved 5G smartphones and laptops, with more advancements to come. But what, exactly, is 5G technology?

At its most basic level, 5G is simply the successor to 4G/4G LTE, the previous giant leap in mobile wireless that arrived about 2010 and enabled a lot of the smartphone functionality we rely on today (highly complex apps, live video streaming, and so on). Every major wireless carrier is investing heavily in 5G, and new 5G-capable networks are under construction around the world.

Not all 5G services are identical. Yes, they’re all much faster than 4G and support far more connected devices. But owing to the physical transmission equipment that’s involved, the 1 Gbps+ downloads often attributed to 5G are only available in the most advanced 5G networks (with more hardware at more locations). Other 5G networks are built to transmit over low- and mid-band frequencies similar to those used today – yet still with significantly greater speed and capacity than 4G.

What does 5G mean? How does 5G work?

Put simply, 5G is better because it can transmit data over higher frequency radio waves than previous generations of mobile technology. If you imagine a radio wave as a long line with a series of up and down curves, higher frequency waves have more ups and downs per second -- and thus more data carrying capacity. Some 5G networks meet or exceed the upper range of home Wi-Fi systems (which generally fall between 2.4 GHz to 5 GHz) whereas 3G and 4G use much lower frequencies. Think MHz rather than GHz. [Remember, this is a simplified explanation.]

Of course, home Wi-Fi users know the downside to high-frequency radio waves: they don't carry very far and are easily disrupted by walls, objects, or electronic interference. So while 3G and 4G networks (and 5G networks utilizing lower band frequencies) can support large regions with just a few well positioned signal towers, the fastest 5G networks will involve both tall central signal towers and small, widely distributed cells or nodes placed closer to each service location (neighborhood, street, office building, etc.). This makes deploying extreme 5G more extensive and expensive than earlier networks. And it explains why the global 5G network build-out will take a while to reach everyone and offer different top-level speeds when it does.

Still, there's more to 5G than just the characteristics of radio waves and the small, localized hardware nodes required for data transmission at the highest, fastest frequencies (called the “millimeter wave” or “mmWave” spectrum). To take full advantage of 5G's extra bandwidth – and overcome its inherent limitations – telecom engineers also needed solutions to keep more devices connected at once and to preserve those connections as users move around. Here's what they came up with:

  • Multiple Input, Multiple Output (MIMO): A method of sending many data signals over the same radio channel at one time (imagine a single antenna unit on a cell tower having the power of 100 or 1,000 separate antennae instead of just 10 or 50).
  • Beam optimization: Chooses the best signal path (central tower to local node to end user) to ensure uninterrupted 5G capacity for each connected device, rather than simply sending the signal in multiple directions and hoping the device stays in range.

5G involves many more technological advancements than we’ve listed in this simplified narrative. For example, as part of the MIMO solution described above, the engineers also figured out how to limit one antenna’s interference with another. And in many 5G networks, good old 4G will still be used to manage the initial device-to-device connection before it gets passed up to the 5G network when possible.

5G vs. 4G: Why does it matter?

So 5G follows 4G. That’s simple enough. Yet on a broader level, 5G’s vastly greater device capacity and maximum download speeds could revolutionize how we – and our growing list of connected devices – will use mobile data to manage and enhance our lives. Consider:

  • The highest 5G throughput speeds rival or exceed home and office Wi-Fi, so 5G could become the preferred mode of data communication. It might even eliminate the need for Wi-Fi and other limited-range local networks.
  • Each 5G node supports far more simultaneous connections than are possible with 4G. This should mean fewer "No service" errors when trying to connect in crowded areas, and pave the way for massive deployment of small, autonomous smart devices (the Internet of Things or IoT).
  • Latency, or the time required for two devices to create an initial data connection, is reduced to just a few milliseconds with 5G. This could help achieve the IoT’s true promise – near-instantaneous control of far-flung dam floodgates, industrial machinery, and all the rest.
  • The fastest 5G networks require more physical equipment in more locations, and some experts say this hyper-localized infrastructure will someday allow us to use the same mini-towers or node boxes to position more cloud data and computing power closer to the devices that use it (driverless cars, for example).

Pay particular attention to the final two listed items. Whereas faster throughput and more simultaneous connections have obvious benefits to consumers, it's extending the IoT and adding so-called “edge” computing power that could provide the biggest push (and a lot of the funding) for a full 5G build-out. Whereas the 4G infrastructure was paid-for largely by smartphone users, 5G networks could be financed heavily by the industries that are most anxious to exploit the IoT and edge computing.

So, are you ready for 5G? Depending on where you live, your next smartphone could be a 5G model. If you’re a highly mobile professional, you might want a 5G laptop.

Is it time for you to make the leap to 5G? When you want a 5G smartphone or are ready to take PC mobility to new levels, Lenovo has what you need to take full advantage of next-generation mobile connectivity.

  1. Based on research conducted by Lenovo in November 2019 of laptops sold by major PC manufacturers shipping more than 1 million units worldwide annually.
  2. Up to 24+ hours based on local, offline video playback on continuous loop, and requires unit configured with Qualcomm Snapdragon 8cx 5G Compute Platform. All battery life claims are approximate. Actual battery performance will vary and depend on numerous factors including product configuration and usage, software, operating conditions, wireless functionality, power management settings, screen brightness and other factors. The maximum capacity of the battery will naturally decrease with time and usage.
  3. Requires 5G network service and separately purchased cellular data plan that may vary by location. Connection speeds will vary due to location, environment, network conditions and other factors.. 5G availability and performance may be impacted by cases or covers.

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