Stories

Facts Matter

How 5G works

A 5G logo is displayed at an event
Qualcomm touts 5G wireless during an event at CES this year. Photo: David Becker/Getty Images

5G wireless networks, a segment of the wireless infrastructure that Trump's National Security Council may seek to nationalize, are expected to deliver data up to 100 times faster than any mobile technology available today.

Why it matters: 5G — shorthand for the fifth generation of wireless networks — will enable a wide range of products, including self-driving cars, virtual reality and other parts of the growing Internet of Things that all rely on super-fast connectivity.

How it works

  • Data moves quickly along high frequency airwaves but those airwaves get stopped by objects in their path. That means that providers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile would have to use collections of smaller transmitters to deliver those revolutionary speeds to phones and other devices rather than the classic large cell towers, which have a longer range.
  • The wireless industry forecasts that building nationwide 5G networks will require 300,000 new cell cites (the size of pizza boxes) to be erected by 2020. For comparison, there are currently 150,000 cell towers in existence today.
  • Providers could also build 5G networks using more reliable, but lower-frequency, airwaves. This is the chunk of spectrum that the Trump administration is talking about nationalizing.

What it does

The promise of 5G is not just that consumers will have faster data speeds, but offers two other key benefits:

  1. Less lag as data moves across the network. That makes it more feasible, for example, to control an industrial machine remotely or to communicate information in real time to a self-driving car.
  2. While 4G was aimed primarily at smartphones, 5G is designed to handle phones plus all manner of Internet-of-things devices. Some of these devices need very fast connections, while others are tiny sensors that need only a trickle of communication.