5G

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About

5G is a standard for cellphone communications which is intended to supercede the 4G standard. Deployment of 5G began worldwide in 2019.

Advantages

Its main or possibly only advantage is a much higher bitrate, offering speeds close to 1 GB/sec in close proximity.

Disadvantages

The higher frequencies it uses are shorter-range than the frequencies used by 4G, requiring more base units to provide cell coverage for the same area.

Issues

There have been repeated claims of:

  • possible health issues
  • technical issues of interference with:
    • weather forecasting[1][2], especially as implemented in the US[3]
    • navigation

I have not yet had time to track down and properly evaluate these claims. It does appear that the field of discussion has been somewhat salted with conspiracy theories (including one theory claiming that 5G causes COVID-19), possibly in a deliberate attempt by the cellphone industry to poison the well of discourse around the issue of 5G's costs and benefits.

Technical Assessment

Based on a quick reading of the Wikipedia article, emphasis mine:

All 5G wireless devices in a cell are connected to the Internet and telephone network by radio waves through a local antenna in the cell. The main advantage of the new networks is that they will have greater bandwidth, giving higher download speeds, eventually up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbit/s).

Due to the increased bandwidth, it is expected that the new networks will not just serve cellphones like existing cellular networks, but also be used as general internet service providers for laptops and desktop computers, competing with existing ISPs such as cable internet, and also will make possible new applications in internet of things (IoT) and machine to machine areas.

So, okay, the ISP thing sounds great -- except that was already possible with 4G, and it worked well. The only ISP I know of that ever actually offered unmetered service, ClearWire, was shut down several years ago. (We had a ClearWire modem up in the attic as a backup for when the DSL went down.) There seems to be no reason to think that the economics for 5G would be any better.

IoT tends not to be very high bandwidth, so I don't get how higher bandwidth is going to enable it.

The only thing that would make sense of all this is if the client-to-tower bandwidth has been the bottleneck all along, and increasing that will let the cellphone companies lower their prices per GB -- but I'm not seeing any mention of this, so I'm thinking all the PR so far has been aimed at implying benefits that won't actually happen.

The increased speed is achieved partly by using higher-frequency radio waves than current cellular networks.[1] However, higher-frequency radio waves have a shorter range than the frequencies used by previous cell phone towers, requiring smaller cells.

Low-band 5G uses a similar frequency range to current 4G cellphones, 600-700 MHz, giving download speeds a little higher than 4G: 30-250 megabits per second (Mbit/s).[3] Low-band cell towers will have a similar range and coverage area to current 4G towers.

It looks an awful lot like it's mainly a gimmick to get people to replace their old phones sooner and drive demand for wireless bandwidth, which will be sold at the same price or maybe slightly less (optimistically), and the primary users will be one-percenters.

Links

Footnotes

  1. 2019-04-29 Global 5G Wireless Networks Threaten Weather Forecasts
  2. 2019-05-24 NOAA and NASA Warns 5G Technology Will Disrupt Weather Prediction
  3. 2019-04-26 Global 5G wireless networks threaten weather forecasts "The FCC auction set a noise limit on the US 5G network of –20 decibel watts, which is much noisier than the thresholds under consideration by almost every other nation for their systems. The European Commission, for instance, has settled on –42 decibel watts for 5G base stations, and the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) is recommending –55 decibel watts."