What You Need to Know about 5G

5G is the Fifth Generation of Mobile Technology


5G is the talk of the mobile world. To help make sense of the new technology, today we discuss some of the 5G terminology you may have run into lately.

5G: Let’s start really basic: 5G refers to the fifth generation of mobile technology. This generation is a major one however; many are calling the introduction of 5G as a key element ushering in Artificial Intelligence as the Fourth Modern Industrial Revolution (after steam power, mass production, and computing automation). The 5G era we’re entering will enable communications at a truly revolutionary scale.

Bandwidth: 5G promises to deliver greater bandwidth, which is simply the amount of data received per second. At its theoretical maximum speed, 5G could be 100 times faster than 4G networks (that is, 10 gigabits per second instead of 100 megabits per second. To provide a practical example: at this speed, you could download a 90-minute feature movie in just 2.7 seconds on 5G, while it would take 4½ minutes using 4G technology.

Latency: 5G also offers “lower latency” than its predecessors. Latency just refers to the amount of time you have to wait for a response from one device to another. 4G networks offer response times in 20 milliseconds, while 5G can provide a response in just 1 millisecond. The difference might not seem like a big deal if you’re casually surfing to a web page: however, if you are a surgeon with a rare specialty operating a surgical robot from a remote location, split seconds are critical. This super-low latency offers nearly instantaneous or “real-time communication” (RTC) between devices.

Density: The third major benefit of 5G is increased “density”: the number of devices that can be supported at the same time. The density supported by 4G technology is about 2000 devices per square kilometre. That explodes with 5G, which can support up to a million devices in the same area. That provides the capacity to handle the rapidly growing number of devices connecting to the Internet: not just your phone, smartwatch and laptop, but the sensors in smart vehicles, elevators, lighting and HVAC systems, security cameras, door locks, industrial applications… well, you get the idea. Massive density is seen as one of the security concerns with 5G, as literally billions of IoT devices will be joining the Internet in the coming years.

Frequency and Wavelength: Mobile data is transmitted over the air on radio waves. Frequency is the number of waves in a given time, and wavelength is the distance between each wave (see illustration below from HowToGeek.com). The greater the frequency, the shorter the wavelength over the same length of time. And the greater the frequency, the more data that can be transferred over the same length of time. This is a key issue: the blazing speeds promised by 5G use higher frequency communications than 4G or earlier generations. But there’s a trade-off: while lower frequencies may be slower, they have a greater range. They can travel greater distances and (to some extent) can penetrate solid objects like walls and floors. Higher frequency signals are faster, but generally must have “line of sight” from device to device for the signal to be clean, and tend to degrade over longer distances.

Attenuation: This is the term for a reduction in the strength or quality of a signal transmission. With high-frequency 5G transmissions, signal degradation can occur over long distances, when objects get in the way, or when encountering signal or electrical interference from other devices or sources.

MIMO: Traditional cell tower antennas have a handful of transmitters (to send data) and receivers (to receive data). MIMO – which stands for “Multiple Input / Multiple Output” – uses several of the transmitters and receivers to handle the same stream of data – on high and low frequencies – all at the same time. This way, if any of the signals fail, alternative signals are available as backups: the system uses the fastest available signal to transfer the data. “Massive MIMO” is the same concept, on a bigger scale: 5G networks are being designed to allow each cell tower antenna to hold up to 100 ports, instead of just a dozen or so, so the system can work on a wider range of frequencies all at once.

Adaptive Beam Switching (ABS): ABS is the technology that allows 5G to handle the seamless switching between frequencies during broadcasts. ABS monitors signal quality, using fast, high frequency communications if possible – switching to a new frequency if there’s a problem – then back up once the fast signal is clean again. This manages the essential blend of performance and reliability that makes 5G so exciting.

Millimetre Waves (mmWaves): This refers to the highest frequency range (30 Ghz to 300 Ghz) that 5G will use. The nickname refers to the wavelengths of these high frequency signals, ranging from 1 to 10 millimetres. The chart below, adapted from FutureTimeLine.net, illustrates the frequencies used by each “mobile generation” over the years. Note that 5G leverages a very wide range of frequencies (including those used by 3G and 4G) to provide. 6G, as illustrated here, is strictly speculative! 

Small Cells: As we’ve discussed, high frequency communications work best across shorter distances and with direct “line of sight”. To address this for 5G networks, new communications hardware is required. In addition to large cell towers and antennas, 5G will be supported using “small cells”: compact broadcasting devices (about the size of a gym bag or backpack) that have much lower power and space requirements than cell towers, and can be installed indoors or out. However, for 5G, you need lots more of them (at least one every few hundred metres, instead of many kilometres apart as with 4G cell towers) in order for the high frequency transmissions to hop safely from point to point.

Huawei: This Chinese telecom giant Huawei builds the small cells – among other components – that are so important to supporting fast 5G. However, concerns about the potential for the Chinese government to place “backdoors” in the infrastructure to spy on data traffic have seen Huawei locked out of several markets, including the U.S., the U.K., and Australia. Canada’s decision is still pending: that’s why Rogers (which doesn’t use Huawei equipment) has come to market while other major players are on hold. In some circles, potential espionage is the biggest cybersecurity threat with 5G.

Network Slicing: 5G allows signals on its networks to be separated into narrower “virtual” networks. This allows carriers to fine-tune performance, security, and features on specific networks: for example, virtual reality applications, manufacturing processes, and remote surgeries could run over dedicated, super-low latency networks, while file-sharing services might be optimized for huge volumes of data, as close-to-zero latency isn’t as much of an issue. Done properly, network slicing yields many benefits, but introduces potential cybersecurity issues if the various network slices are not configured and secured sufficiently.

5G technology is complex and still evolving – we hope that this introduction to some of the key terms and concepts will be helpful as you explore 5G among your mobile workforce and IoT implementations. If you’re ready for a deeper dive into this technology, be sure to read our four-part series on the benefits and potential cybersecurity issues of 5G. At ISA, we know cybersecurity. Our security specialists can help you assess, plan, and remediate now so that you’re ready for the 5G transformation tomorrow.


Get exclusively curated cyber insights and news in your inbox

Related Posts

Contact Us Today


Get monthly proprietary, curated updates on the latest cyber news.