What is 5G?
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Published: 20 February 2024
Contributors: Mesh Flinders, Ian Smalley

What is 5G?

5G, or fifth-generation mobile technology, is the new standard for telecommunications networks launched by cell phone companies in 2019. 

5G networks run on the same radio frequencies as their predecessors, 3G, 4G and 4G LTE networks, which previously served most mobile phones worldwide. However, improvements in speed, latency and bandwidth give 5G networks shorter download and upload times, stronger connectivity and better reliability, making them the natural successor to 4G technology.

Like artificial intelligence (AI), the Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning (ML), 5G is a disruptive technology with the potential to transform the way human beings interact with the internet, social media and information in general. More specifically, 5G has big implications for the technology that powers self-driving cars, gaming systems and video streaming over a high-speed network connection.

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Why is 5G important?

As demand for internet access rises worldwide along with the emergence of new technologies, the amount of data being created is increasing exponentially. In the coming decade, the amount of data generated every day, worldwide, is expected to grow by several hundred zettabytes. The network infrastructure that 4G, 4G LTE and 3G wireless networks rely on won’t be able to handle that amount. 5G—with its lightning-fast speeds, low latency and expanded capacity for data— is equipped to handle the requirements of new technologies like next-generation smartphones that need 5G coverage.

Critical differences between 5G and 4G/3G

While 5G utilizes the same radio frequencies as 4G and 3G networks, there are a few important differences that make it superior, especially for businesses looking to use the technology as part of a digital transformation project.

Speed and latency

5G speeds are 10x faster than those offered by 4G and 3G networks, meaning activities like downloading a large file or backing up data to the cloud will take less than a second rather than minutes, or even hours. 5G’s data transfer rates reach 20 gigabits per second (Gbps) and it has average download speeds of 432 megabytes per second (Mbps). 5G's data rates, with implications for everything from mobile gaming to remote surgery, are one of the major reasons it is expected to be so transformative.

The reason 5G technology can deliver such fast speeds is that it has a much lower latency—the amount of time it takes data to travel from one point to another—than previous networks. While 4G networks delivered a latency of around 200 milliseconds, 5G networks can routinely deliver a latency as low as one millisecond.

Physical footprint

Another important differentiator of 5G is that it uses smaller transmitters than previous networks did, allowing for them to be placed unobtrusively on buildings, trees and other common objects. Cells (or “small cells”) in 5G networks are essentially base stations that play pivotal roles in connecting the overall network. In 4G technology, the equivalent of a small cell, known as a macrocell, was larger and required more power.

Error rates

5G’s adaptive Modulation and Coding Scheme (MCS), a schematic used to send data from WiFi devices, is an improvement upon the MCS used in 4G and 3G networks, making its Block Error Rate (BER) extremely low. In 5G technology, when an error rate increases to a certain level, the transmitter automatically lowers the speed until the error rate drops. This technique sacrifices speed for accuracy in real-time and helps ensure an error rate of near zero on 5G networks.


5G networks operate on a wider range of bandwidths than 4G and 3G networks, including low-band, mid-band and high-band. This is accomplished by expanding its radio spectrum resources from the sub-3 GHz specification used in previous networks to 100 GHz and greater. This tweak allows 5G to function across a wider range of bandwidths, expanding its capacity and throughput. Essentially, these technological advances enable more devices to be connected at once on a single network or cell and allow the devices to send and receive data at the same time. 


How does 5G work? 

Like 3G and 4G technology, 5G relies on cellular technology that divides a service area into smaller, geographical sections known as cells. Any 5G wireless devices within the boundaries of a cell connect to the internet and phone network using radio waves, a base station and antennae. Newer networks are faster, with download speeds reaching 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) when only one user is on the network.

Not only can 5G connect more devices on a network because of its wider bandwidth, it can also deliver faster speeds that improve the quality of internet applications when many users are on the same network—even in the same cell—such as a crowded urban environment. As 5G technology expands and the number of applications built to utilize it increases, it is widely expected that more and more popular Internet Service Providers (ISPs) will adopt 5G home internet, such as Verizon, Google and AT&T, increasing its use-cases exponentially. Here are some features that make 5G technology unique and well-positioned to disrupt mobile technology in the future:

Network slicing

Network slicing, or the ability of network operators using 5G technology to deploy numerous independent virtual networks on the same infrastructure, has many potential business applications. Network slicing allows for enterprises to form collections of 5G network functions and group them by use case or business model. This capability gives users a more reliable wireless experience on their device of choice.

Improved standards and specifications

5G networks possess a unique air interface developed specifically for the new technology known as 5G NR (New Radio). This refers to a new radio access technology (RAT), that was built by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifically for use on 5G mobile networks. 5G NR was built to be the new global standard for cellular networks, with the first commercial launch deployed near the end of 2018. Today, many cellular network operators deploy 5G NR networks and many technology manufacturers are building their mobile devices to be 5G NR compatible. According to a recent report by Ericsson (link resides outside ibm.com), 45% of networks worldwide were 5G compatible by the end of 2023, with that number forecasted to rise to 85% by the end of the decade.

Private network capabilities

Private 5G networks are similar to public networks but give their owners enhanced personalization capabilities, such as the ability to restrict access and use a licensed or unlicensed wireless 5G spectrum. Private 5G is growing in popularity with enterprises worldwide because it allows businesses to take advantage of all the benefits of 5G technology in a closed, restricted setting, such as an industrial plant, office building, college campus, airport and more. Private 5G networks give companies the ability to manage all their devices, services and applications in a highly private, secure and efficient way—more than if they were on a public network.

Business benefits of 5G

5G services offer many improvements in wireless technology over previous generations of networks. Here are a few of the business benefits it makes possible:

Fully autonomous cars

On 4G, 4G LTE and 3G networks, fully autonomous vehicles, or self-driving cars, cannot operate because of the amount of time it takes to send and receive information. 5G networks, with their lower latency, will make it possible for fully self-driving and self-operating vehicles to send and receive information in as little as 1/1,000th of a second.

Smarter factories

Factories are already becoming smarter thanks to the use of AI and machine learning, but the arrival of 5G infrastructure will super-charge the trend. With the rollout of 5G, factories can automate more capabilities, connect thousands of smart devices wirelessly, and deploy a veritable army of cameras, drones, 5G phones and sensors that will be able to act on data in near real-time. The applications of these capabilities at the practical level are dizzying, with implications for everything from fuel economy and building design, to interaction with customers, to equipment lifecycle and repair.

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR)

Virtual reality (digital environments that shut out the real world) and augmented reality (digital content that augments the real world) rely on 5G technologies and have many business applications. In the last decade, mobile phones and smart glasses using virtual and augmented reality technology have added digital overlays, live views and other capabilities to a broad range of business scenarios, including warehousing and transportation of goods, industrial maintenance, equipment repair and more.

Edge computing

Edge computing, a distributed computing framework that brings enterprise applications closer to data sources, is greatly enhanced by the fast speeds and low latency of 5G technology. In edge computing, 5G brings computation and data storage closer to where data is generated, enabling greater control, lower costs and faster delivery of insights. According to a recent Gartner whitepaper (link resides outside ibm.com), by 2025, 75% of enterprise data will be processed through edge computing compared to only 10% today.

5G use cases

As 5G technology spreads, its potential to spur economic growth and improve connectivity is limitless. Here are some of the more ambitious ways 5G technology could change our world:

Smarter communities

Whether you live in a dense urban environment or a remote rural area, the ability of 5G to collect information from IoT devices connected to the internet will likely improve your day-to-day life. City planners, emergency responders and many others are looking to 5G connectivity in the coming years to help curb traffic, plan better, reduce air pollution and generally improve the lives of the populations they serve.

Better healthcare

When it comes to healthcare technology, 5G networks enable advances in remote surgery, data-related insights and patient care. 5G’s low latency, for example, allows for real-time information to be shared over HD video—potentially making remote surgeries much more commonplace. Additionally, real-time monitoring of patients through IoT connected devices using 5G networks will help doctors better care for patients that are not under their direct supervision. 

Greater sustainability

5G will vastly improve enterprises’ abilities to monitor their Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) goals, such as carbon emissions, worker safety, supply chains and much more. One of 5Gs many benefits is its ability to transmit information using relatively low amounts of energy compared to its predecessors. 5G technology will also empower the development of electric vehicles, smart buildings and remote work—all of which have been shown to reduce carbon emissions.

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