Reviewing the Broad Strokes of 5G Technology

October 23, 2020 by John Koon

With 5G closer than ever, it may be useful to brush up on the basics.

Earlier this year, we discussed a few key ways 5G was forging forward in 2020. Despite pandemic-related setbacks, the trajectory of this technology has continued upward with Apple recently releasing its 5G-compatible iPhone 12. 

If 5G still seems a somewhat elusive and nebulous topic to you (you're not alone), this article will give you a brief rundown of what 5G is and where it's heading.


What is 5G?

5G is a fifth-generation fast network with reliable low-latency performance. To give you an idea of how fast it is compared to the fourth-generation (4G) long-term evolution (LTE), a full-length movie can be downloaded in seconds with 5G in what would usually take minutes with 4G. 


Diagram of massive MIMO providing better connectivity for denser concentrations of devices

Diagram of massive MIMO providing better connectivity for denser concentrations of devices. Image used courtesy of

5G has evolved over the years with multiple releases. While commercial products started to roll out in 1999, each release has added new features.

To create this new network, a new architecture must be defined. Some technical terms surrounding a 5G infrastructure include 5G NR, mmWave, small cells, massive MIMO, and beamforming.


5G Will Open Doors for Tech Development

5G is touted as the network of the future, enabling applications that 4G will never be able to accomplish. For instance, 5G may:

  • Make Industry 4.0 a reality
  • Enable millions of machine-to-machine (or IoT) connections in one single network
  • Manage remote devices using artificial intelligence, such as vehicle control, autonomous driving, and vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication
  • Use mixed reality to enable wireless connectivity
  • Provide high-speed blockchains
  • Supercharge the cloud
  • Connect smart cities
  • Facilitate telemedicine, including remote surgery


Is 5G a Standard?

Proponents of 5G claim this technology will impact the whole world. But first, developers must solve the issue of interoperability. To do so, regulating bodies have turned their sights on an international standard.

Seven international standard organizations—ARIB, ATIS, CCSA, ETSI, TSDSI, TTA, TTC—have joined forces to form the “Organizational Partners,” which created the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a coalition responsible for developing the 5G international mobile standard. Today, 3GPP is known as the organization behind the 5G standard. 

The project defines the three pillars of cellular telecommunications technologies: radio access, core network, and service capabilities. 

The 3GPP Release 16, commonly referred to as the 5G New Radio (NR) Release 16, was completed in July of 2020. This update fully embodies “standalone” (SA) mode and adds some enhancements related to mobile broadband. 


Timeline of 3GPP releases

Timeline of 3GPP releases. Image used courtesy of the 3GPP

The  “standalone” 5G network towers will be able to operate without depending on the older 4G hardware infrastructure. Additionally, it will also support 5G vehicle-to-everything (V2X) and industrial IoT communications, bringing smart cities one step closer to reality.

While Release 17 was initially scheduled for sometime in 2021, the pandemic has realistically pushed the next 5G update to take place sometime in 2022.


Where is 5G Heading? 

In the 4G to 5G migration, carriers worldwide will make every effort to gain market share and leadership.

Moving 5G forward is a complex process with so many countries involved with the 3GPP efforts. While 3GPP continues to release new specifications, many companies are forming alliances to gain an edge in this new and growing market. Some of the groups that may influence the future direction of 5G include: 


The FCC is Propelling 5G Forward

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is making additional spectrum available to support 5G. They include three bands:

  • High-band covers 28 GHz, 24 GHz, and the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands. 
  • Mid-band covers 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, and 3.7–4.2 GHz bands with more than 600 MHz available for 5G use.
  • Low-band covers 600 MHz, 800 MHz, and 900 MHz bands for 5G services.


Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum

Diagram of the electromagnetic spectrum. Image used courtesy of

In a press release issued in June of 2020, the FCC announced the deployment of 5G networks in the United States. The report added rules regarding modifications to existing wireless infrastructure. This action will expedite the 5G equipment upgrades and move 5G forward.


5G from an Electrical Engineering Perspective

While this article only touched on the bare-bones basics of 5G, the discussion on 5G from an electrical engineering perspective is both complex and robust. Here are a few articles that introduce some nitty-gritty design details of 5G technology. 

Why Thermal Management is a Hot Topic in 5G Design

Once 5G Hits, DC-DC Converters May Be RF Power Amplifier’s Saving Grace

How Will 5G’s High-Frequency Band Affect Signal Integrity?