5G is very different from 4G and older wireless standards. It’s extremely fast, radically reduces delays, and supports a vast number of densely packed devices, but what does this really mean for you?
Each of those three important improvements listed above might not seem world-changing in and of themselves, but together they will make possible major shifts in just about every industry. Wide availability of 5G may even create some new industries.
From super-ultra-fast broadband to smart and autonomous cars, to enormous networks of Internet of Things (IoT), 5G could be the catalyst that brings about a much smarter and more connected planet.
To see if 5G is available where you live, check out our piece on 5G availability around the world, and stay current with 5G news updates.
Broadband Internet Everywhere
Broadband is defined by the FCC as any internet speed of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up, which is an increase from the 4 Mbps and 1 Mbps defined in 2010. However, both are much slower than 5G speeds, which sometimes range anywhere from 300–1,000 Mbps, and even higher in some cases.
For reference, in July 2019, the median download speed for mobile users in the US was around 34 Mbps. As of August 2022, that speed jumped to around 61 Mbps; the average download speed was 130 Mbps.
5G is also available for home or business use via a fixed wireless access (FWA) connection. This means an entire building can get a direct 5G connection from a nearby cell, and within that building, every device can take advantage of 5G’s speeds via existing Wi-Fi connections, including TVs, game consoles, phones, desktop computers, laptops, etc.
FWA gets really interesting when it's used outside a city. It's not uncommon for people in the heart of a big city, or even in the suburbs, to have speedy internet. What's uncommon is for folks in the country to have a fast and reliable connection.
When 5G gets set up on the edge of a city or further into rural areas, these residents can finally upgrade to something much better than satellite or [brace yourselves…] dial-up, even if it's not as high-end as what's found in densely populated areas.
Smart Cities, Vehicles and Traffic
Vehicles are pretty smart already, with smart car add-ons and built-in features like lights and wipers that turn on automatically, adaptive cruise, lane control, and even semi-autonomous driving. However, 5G will enable a quantum leap in-car tech. No, still no flying cars, but many amazing changes are coming.
Much like with every other change 5G is bringing, ultra-reliability and high bandwidth connections are the driving force behind a smart city. When communication is near-instant and everything in the vicinity can talk with one another, all of it can become interconnected and provide efficiency like never before.
One example is smart traffic controls. When a whole city is online with 5G, and cars can communicate directly with other cars and traffic lights, traffic signals will respond appropriately. One day, you can quit waiting at a stoplight when no other cars are around; the system will know when other vehicles are approaching fast enough to warrant a red light on your side, and will otherwise let you cross the intersection seamlessly.
Vehicles, specifically self-driving ones, require GPS to know exactly where they’re located. While GPS is already super accurate, and the latest generation of GPS chips are even more accurate, direct vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication will make the entire experience even better, specifically when it comes to alternate routes and safety.
Avoiding pile-ups and traffic jams are other examples of how 5G will one day change the way we drive. They happen when cars upfront slow down to the point that everyone behind them has to stop to avoid an accident. Before you know it, dozens of vehicles are backed up, and it takes forever for anyone to get going again.
Vehicle communications on a 5G network won't let it get that far because every car will know where other ones are located and will know ahead of time—far before you will—that a new route needs to be created or speeds adjusted to keep traffic flowing smoothly. This kind of always-on data can’t transmit smoothly or on time if the area is congested with lots of other wireless traffic; 5G is built to support these huge data demands.
Since autonomous cars rely on a high-bandwidth network, and rural areas will one day get broadband internet, smart cars will finally be usable in the countryside. This will enable safe transportation for the disabled, elderly, and others who are unable to drive themselves.
Another potential use case for a smart 5G city when it comes to safety is directing traffic: stopping or slowing down for school buses, construction, trains, and other dynamic scenarios that require extra attention. If 5G-connected sensors are set up in a construction zone, or school buses are communicating directly with other vehicles, drivers can be alerted before entering those areas that they need to remain watchful or completely stop.
Smart Factories and Farms
Factories can benefit from 5G, too, not only in automation but also in allowing heavy machinery to be remotely operated, making it easier to avoid dangerous situations. Instant feedback is necessary, and 5G has the low latency to support it.
Smart farms will arise out of 5G connectivity, too, to not only provide better crops but also save money. Super precise farm equipment coupled with ground sensors means farmers will have instant updates on how their crops are doing, allowing them or even the equipment to respond appropriately, and faster than ever before.
Add drones to the picture for full automation: crops can be watered when needed and animals fed on time, while you sit back getting instant updates on your phone about how things are doing. Things like soil moisture can be monitored, too, with something like an agri-robot.
Everything Is On-Demand
On 4G or a low-bandwidth Wi-Fi connection, you probably experience delays when watching live TV like the news or a sports program. Movies and shows might buffer as they wait for more data to download.
We could go on and on about other not-so-positive experiences with supposedly "on-demand" online services. 5G, on the other hand, is built to minimize the delays that cause these problems and provide a huge pipeline in which data can travel to reach your devices nearly instantly.
Online gaming and video/audio chat are some other areas where 5G’s power can be seen. A lag-free experience is required for smooth gameplay, and real-time feedback during an internet-based video call is necessary, especially in professional settings.
5G is also laying the foundation for a new way to communicate. It’s being used to test 3D hologram calls, with applications ranging anywhere from gaming to a richer experience during business calls and remote education.
Another 5G use case is in web apps. While it’s true that it’s just as easy to download apps as it is to download any program, and 5G makes the whole experience seem instant, you can free up storage space and avoid installation steps by using a web-based app that’s already set up and ready for you to stream from a web browser.
In other words, 5G is introducing a world where you need very little storage on your phone because everything, including your apps, is instantly available from the cloud.
To take this further, imagine a gaming console that works years longer than your current one because you never have to upgrade. Instead of getting a different console with a new disc reader that supports bigger games, or better hardware to handle the newest titles, all of that processing power could be offloaded to a remote server and then streamed to your device in real-time.
The same could be said for computers: give it basic hardware and access to a fast remote server, and with a 5G connection, all your computer needs could be relayed back and forth between the ultra-fast server hardware.
Immersive AR and VR
Augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are very bandwidth-demanding technologies, which 5G can handle with no problem. Immersive games played in AR and VR is one of the most talked-about use cases for 5G, but that’s not all you can do with these reality-hacking technologies.
Sports is another area where VR will shine. A football player, for example, can wear a head-mounted camera to feed his point of view, in real-time, to anyone connected to the camera. Users can wear a virtual reality headset to get a first-hand experience of the player while he’s on the field.
Because augmented reality projects digital data into the real world around you by interrupting your field of vision, the number of applications is almost unimaginable. With so much that can be done with AR in so many situations, and with 5G able to send information to and from the AR device in basically real-time, there's a lot of excitement around the future of this industry.
Some early, and simple, examples of 5G AR include projecting emails and text messages into the surrounding room, creating multiple floating monitors to extend your computer's display for enhanced gaming, and projecting a virtual HDTV in your living room.
VR headsets and AR headsets are already available, but 5G is the only way they can be used smoothly on a mobile network and in conjunction with other network-enabled devices. Plus, with near-instant access to the cloud where everything can be processed remotely, these devices can be made thinner and smaller.
Exchanging information with a medical professional or an AI-powered system should be something you can tap into at any time, especially in emergency situations. An “on-demand doctor” is exactly where we’re headed with 5G.
Imagine the near future where smart wearables not only monitor your heart rate and rhythm but also your blood sugar, hemoglobin, etc. The last thing you'd want in an emergency is for your device to withhold communicating important data for your doctor because the connection was slow or congested. Your 5G-compatible wearable will be able to quickly contact a server to update your health records for medical professionals to see, or to alert a family member that your vitals are out of safe levels and that you need immediate attention. 5G allows frequent data transmissions at reasonable speeds without killing the battery.
Similarly, being able to near-instantly send very high-resolution photos and videos from anywhere on a 5G network allows anyone at any time to update their doctor with visuals that she can actually diagnose from. Doctors might one day perform examinations remotely to save time and money.
Along the same lines of immediate care is 3D printing and drones. Both are relatively new industries, but 5G will help push them to a place where quick access to 3D designs and instant ordering of new materials becomes a reality. Ambulance drones might soon provide immediate care to remote locations or densely populated areas where land travel is too slow.
We mentioned virtual reality already, but it has specific applications in the healthcare field, too. Trainees who have yet to operate on the real thing can use a VR headset to learn the ins and outs of what it will be like in the field, or use AR to keep the patient’s vitals in view at all times.
VR might also one day be used with drones so that a surgeon or healthcare professional can provide advice to a patient remotely. Virtual reality requires very low latency and lots of bandwidth, which is exactly what a high-speed 5G network brings.
5G seems to be exactly what we need to let a remote professional operate on someone across the world. Imagine a small hospital with just a few surgeons, and a patient needing immediate surgery that only a handful of people around the world are capable of performing. 5G's extremely low latency means that the surgery can take place in real-time hundreds or even thousands of miles away.
Telemetry is another 5G use case that involves communicating data from a device to a monitoring station that can interpret or store the information. Devices like a dropsonde already use telemetry, but integrating one with the fifth-gen wireless network technology means results come in faster than ever before. Plus, 5G’s massive bandwidth capacity opens up the possibility for other types of telemeters, maybe ones that can avoid data compression so they can receive results even quicker, or ultra-sensitive telemeters that respond with live data.
Another 5G medical transformation is in digital record-keeping and file transfers. Many hospitals manage to keep digital health records without using 5G, but with improved speeds, machines in the whole building can move large sets of data much quicker.
An MRI is one example of a machine that can take a long time to send large scans and can easily delay a medical professional from seeing other patients and withhold important information from the technicians that need to read the scan.
5G is opening up a whole new scenario where machinery in the hospital can relay data to the appropriate places faster, benefiting not only other patients and the whole hospital, but also potentially saving lives. Nokia is one company that’s been working on a 5G hospital in Finland since 2016, and Verizon launched a 5G healthcare lab in 2020.
Breaking language barriers is another 5G medical use case that, of course, extends beyond healthcare into other fields where communicating is difficult, but is especially helpful in emergency situations. A translator isn’t always local, so having a clear, instant dialogue between him or her and the patient, is critical in relaying a diagnosis or requesting information from the patient or doctor.
Better Law Enforcement
A police drone on 5G that’s equipped with HD cameras can provide a low-latency (basically live) feed of a chase that operators in a car or back at the station can monitor in real-time. These types of drones could be used for other things, too, like monitoring alleys and other areas a police car can’t reach, or for responding to a call more quickly than a ground driver could.
Police-operated drones also allow a city to deploy drones for regular monitoring of its citizens. While some people see this as a dangerous invasion of privacy, and there's certainly a case to be made there, it's no doubt a benefit from a government's perspective. Given that drone technology is already here, it's likely that 5G will make it much more probable that they'll be deployed for this very reason.
On the flip side, citizens can view 5G as enhancing law enforcement through always-on body cams. These cameras are worn by police officers to track everything the officer sees. 5G allows the video/audio stream to be saved at a remote location in real-time to prevent data loss or tampering.
Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Communication
P2P connections are when two or more devices communicate with one another directly to transmit data back and forth without using a server.
The way most communication and data transfers work right now is by uploading information to a server, which someone else can then download from the same server. This is how most of the internet works. It's wonderfully effective and gives a seamless experience, but it isn't as fast as it could be.
For example, when you send a friend a collection of pictures, it's common to do so over email or a file-sharing app. This works by having you upload the data to the email server or data sharing service's server so your friend can then download the photos at fast speeds (since the server supports fast upload speeds).
5G is changing P2P connections because instead of just servers having access to quick upload speeds, your phone and computer can do the same. Every 5G cell has a minimum upload speed of 10 Gbps (1.25 gigabytes per second), meaning that in ideal conditions, users can transfer hundreds of megabytes of data every single second between devices. This is much faster than what's currently widely available.
Having such a fast upload speed on your end, and other people having access to 5G's ultrafast download speeds, means others can download data from you as fast as you can upload it.
P2P can be used in many forms, like when making phone calls, transferring files, relaying information between vehicles in a smart city, automating factory equipment, and interconnecting smart sensors in homes, cities, farms, etc.