Are We Ready for 5G Phones?

5G phones have been all the buzz lately – and for good reason. This new technology has the capability to reach speeds even faster than most Wi-Fi connections around the nation, surpassing gigabit speeds. The secret behind this advancement is the switch to millimeter wave technology. Rather than cramming more data into 4G bands, 5G technology uses waves under a millimeter in wavelength and potentially more information. Yet, this comes at a serious cost; millimeter waves can only travel shorter distances, and have issues moving through any solid materials. Due to the expensive implementation, 5G communication is many years away from being viable, and may never truly replace Wi-Fi. 

Perhaps the greatest issue in implementing 5G is the range limitations, something inherent to the technology. 4G LTE and previous generations were able to send reliable signals as many as 45 miles. However, the millimeter waves transmitted by 5G towers are more readily absorbed by the atmosphere. Due to this absorption, the farthest waves can be transmitted is around 6 miles, assuming a clean line of sight and few weather hazards. Yet, given how rare these conditions are, the practical distance is much closer – perhaps a mile in range.

Compounding further onto this problem, 5G has very weak penetration power. Most people are accustomed to losing some signal inside buildings, but with 4G it’s usually possible to get a weak connection in most office buildings. In contrast, 5G waves can be blocked by substances as thin as a standard door – let alone the thick concrete or brick walls used my many buildings. In dense cities, this means that many small cell towers will have to be constructed throughout, further increasing cost and strain on infrastructure.

Between the geographical coverage required, the limited range, and how easily the waves are stopped, something has to give: either cellular companies will be forced to put in far more towers than previously necessary, or 5G coverage will be limited to specific geographic regions. Either way, the promise of both cheap and widespread 5G has been doomed from the start, and the chances of replacing Wi-Fi are slim to none. Don’t buy into the touted 5G offered by AT&T and the like — the real deal is years away. 

Author: Grey Ruessler, IT User Services


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Nordrum, A. (2016, November 7). Millimeter Waves Travel More Than 10 Kilometers in Rural Virginia 5G Experiment. Retrieved April 10, 2020, from