5G, the fifth generation of wireless network technology, is the newest way of connecting wireless devices to cellular networks. Each previous generation of wireless technology has revolutionized the way people communicate and socialize, and led to waves of novel products and services using the new capabilities. The leap from 3G to 4G technology brought with it faster data transfer speeds, which supported widespread adoption of data cloud and streaming services, video conferencing, and Internet of Things devices such as digital home assistants and smartwatches. 5G technology has the potential to enable another wave of smart devices: always connected and always communicating to provide faster, more personalized services. While these new products and services may create significant benefits for both businesses and consumers, connected devices can raise substantial privacy risks. Concerns about data collection, use, and sharing must be addressed.
How Does 5G Technology Work?
5G uses very fast, short-range signals on an unused frequency band to send and receive more total data, within a dense network of specialized small cell sites. A small cell site refers to the area within which this short-range wireless signal can be received. In contrast, current 4G technology uses long-range signals transmitted across crowded low frequency radio waves to send and receive data over a broad network of larger cell sites. 5G operates on a different part of the spectrum, using bands with little interference, at a higher frequency. This can result in faster download speeds and more stable connections for wireless devices, but waves at these frequencies have a shorter range. The 2G, 3G, and 4G/LTE systems all used the same long-range band of airwaves, as does broadcast television. This shift to a different part of the spectrum promises better connectivity, but will require a larger number of cell sites.
Current 4G networks provide service by broadcasting radio waves from large cell towers to extended areas. The capabilities of individual tower sites, the geographic features of covered areas, and the amount of available spectrum all impact the quality of service. These 4G/LTE services operate on a model of regional centralization – all service from large areas, including up to several states worth of traffic, is collected from broadly spaced cell towers, then aggregated into one central location before distribution (connection to the internet).
The initial deployment of 5G technology to cell towers will likely operate similarly, and many of the gains will not be immediately noticeable to users until the supporting small cell sites are in place. Some early use cases will likely be in stadiums, malls, or other large venues where small cell sites will be placed to create discrete, distributed systems serving those bounded locations in ways that will provide faster service.
5G service requires telecommunications providers to convert existing cell towers to accommodate the new technology and then incorporate a network of small cell sites, densely located for maximum coverage of service areas. Most carriers are currently upgrading the services available on 4G systems as an interim step before full deployment of 5G – the full extent of which will take several years. For example, 4G towers are taking advantage of “MIMO” (multi-input/multi-output) technologies, which enable simultaneous operation of 2 or 4 channels to receive or send signals. Also, some carriers are opting to push internet connectivity out to more local levels than the current regionalization model – either to a single point per state, per metro area, or even to individual cell towers in some dense urban areas. These changes produce a noticeable increase in speed for individual users within those service areas.
5G technology will use a different type of signal called millimeter waves that, while significantly faster, are more limited in range and will ultimately require many more total sites. Such small cell sites must be much closer to each other than existing cell tower networks in order to allow the millimeter waves to carry a signal successfully. Service on this millimeter wave spectrum can only happen once the full infrastructure of small cell sites is in place. This transition is a massive process. In the U.S., it will likely be 2-3 years to upgrade all the existing cell towers – which will represent the initial level at which a carrier may claim to be providing 5G level service. (AT&T for example, has currently upgraded towers in over 20 metropolitan locations, and is continually adding to this list.) Some other countries are ahead of the U.S. in completing this initial phase, but none has yet extensively deployed the network of small cell sites to bring the system to full capability.
Telecommunications companies are starting in the core of dense, urban areas, then spreading to the suburbs and fringes of metropolitan areas, and ultimately will reach all towers. Setting up the small cell sites can be done simultaneously with the cell tower conversions, but will almost certainly take much longer to reach full coverage. Many rural or less densely populated cities are offering accelerated permit processes, and other business incentives to entice carriers to prioritize upgrades in those locations.
How Will 5G Technology Change Wireless Services and Products?
When companies reach widespread 5G small cell coverage, the new technology will offer two major improvements: (1) increased signal coverage (reliability) and (2) significantly faster mobile speeds with lower latency, i.e. the lag time between a signal and a response. However, it’s important to note that no devices designed solely for 4G will work on 5G networks. 5G-enabled hardware will be required, and devices designed and sold during the transitional years will almost certainly have to include connectivity to both networks. Whereas current devices can switch between 4G and 3G connectivity based on which signal is available in any particular location, the devices only operate on one of these systems at a time. Dual-capability 4G/5G devices will be able to operate on 4G and 5G at the same time – thus ensuring minimal disruption to service as consumers transit between locations and service availability.
When fully operational, 5G networks promise to provide significantly faster speeds with lower latency compared to current 4G/LTE networks. While speeds vary based on a variety of factors, most 4G networks average 40 megabits per second (“Mbps”) download speeds with the fastest local networks getting up to 500Mbps. Although recent tests demonstrate that 4G networks can provide speeds up to 2 gigabit per second (Gbps) or 2,000 Mbps under some conditions, 5G networks promise still higher speeds and better connectivity. The early performance of 5G networks is likely to appear similar to current high-speed 4G networks, but 5G technology has been shown to reach speeds even up to 4.5 Gbps once small cells are fully deployed.
5G networks also promise drastic decreases in the latency of wireless transmissions, reducing the amount of lag time between an interaction with the network and the network’s response. To an ordinary consumer, the difference in speed and latency may not seem noticeable during everyday transactions, but for high-speed, data-intensive computing services these differences can completely revolutionize an industry. For example, lower latency in video conferencing may enable better feedback in communications and fewer dropped calls. Just as the shift from 3G to 4G/LTE provided capabilities that generated unforeseen applications and uses, it is impossible to predict exactly what may become feasible on 5G, and what consumer-facing services that will enable.
5G is unlikely to be used for all wireless communications. Although some analysts talk of autonomous vehicles relying on 5G, no current developers of these cars are designing with the intention to use 5G. Instead, carmakers are implementing different technologies that use a different part of the spectrum. Likewise, connected devices in homes (IoT and “smart home” technology) will primarily remain connected via WiFi systems. However, those home-related devices such as power and water meters, or smart city sensors that rely on cell technology will likely transition to 5G. The improvement here will not be so much the speed, as these devices use very little bandwidth, but in quantity. Current systems support millions of devices per square kilometer. With 5G, literal billions of devices can be managed.
The transition to 5G networks, the growth of IoT networks, and the expansion of other advanced technologies raises questions about security safeguards, particularly with regard to access and authentication protocols. Some IoT devices employ lighter security measures in an effort to allow simple connection and communication; this is particularly common for IoT technologies that pose lower risks to users and networks. 5G technology can support more connected devices on cellular networks, which will increase the number of potential vulnerabilities. But the 5G technology may include security improvements as well.
Work is under way to determine the best practices for securing 5G networks in various applications. Experts expect that faster speeds and higher capacity of these networks to allow for more sophisticated threat assessment measures and more secure authentication frameworks; both aspects of 5G which could improve network security. The nature of the 5G network is a shift from a centralized system to distributed, virtual networks. The carriers developing these systems are embedding security functions at multiple stages of deployment, including virtual protections as well as those which are hardware-based. Additionally, some techniques that work for 4G networks can be translated to 5G networks, as advanced 4G networks follow many of the same technological principles as 5G. While 5G may exacerbate some existing risks or create new security challenges, the technology may also provide for new, effective ways to secure data and devices through more sophisticated networks and algorithms.
Global Use of 5G
5G standards are largely stable and interoperable in the United States. However, stakeholders have not yet agreed on a single standard for worldwide interoperability of 5G networks. The telecommunications industry is working to identify and reach agreement on connectivity standards for global 5G connectivity. The current global standard for cellular connectivity is known as “3GPP.” This standard reflects the agreement of a consensus-driven oversight body that includes partners from Asia, Europe, and North America. The standards setting process is handled by working groups formed within larger technical specification bodies. Both individual company capabilities as well as regional balancing are priorities. All countries and companies will need to adhere to an agreed-upon standard for the manufacture and operation of 5G networks, as non-conforming equipment will not be interoperable across networks. The transition to a 5G network reflects a greater number of suggestions for standards, by both operators and manufacturers, than in the past, because of the obvious importance of interoperability.
Privacy Impacts of 5G
Faster speeds and lower latency may mean better products and services, but the transition to 5G will likely create privacy risks associated with new devices, data collection, and use of personal information. 5G access will enable individuals to have more smart devices that can reliably connect and interact with online services; at the same time, the technology can also create more detailed personal data sets for device manufacturers and service providers.
For video platforms, 5G promises to provide higher image quality with less lag time; this also means that facial recognition technology will have clearer images to analyze. Similarly, public video surveillance networks can transmit more detailed video of an individual’s activities and can be more easily analyzed by artificial intelligence systems to identify and track individuals in public. The ability to collect and share data more quickly is likely to result in more useful, personalized services; at the same time, increased data collection can increase users’ concerns about the creation of more detailed profiles on individuals.
5G promises to be a revolutionary improvement in cellular network technology. Better connections for users and faster speeds with lower latency for data intensive computing will likely lead to improvements in existing products and services, as well as the development and implementation of new technologies. However, such changes will include the need to consistently prioritize individual privacy in this new context; 5G technology will not eliminate existing privacy and security challenges. While including beneficial services, a faster, more efficiently connected digital world will continue to pose data risks and will require continued meaningful privacy safeguards to ensure appropriate handling and protection of personal information.