Types of 5G: Which one is right for your organization?

5G technology isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution that can enable digital transformation at the touch of a button. There are three kinds of 5G, each with its own specific use cases and capabilities, that business leaders need to understand.

5G wireless is broken down into three types—low, mid and high band—named for the spectrum of radio frequencies they support.

  • Low-band 5G transmits data on frequencies between 600 and 900 MHz
  • Mid-band 5G transmits between 1 and 6 GHz
  • High-band 5G transmits from 24 to 47 GHz.

All major North American carriers, including AT&T, Verizon and Google (and most carriers worldwide) offer all three bands. Before we get into the capabilities each band offers, let’s take a closer look at 5G technology itself, how it works and why enterprises everywhere are interested in its potential.

What is 5G?

5G, or fifth-generation mobile technology, is a new specification for wireless networks developed in 2018 by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3DPP) to guide the development of devices, including smartphones, PCs, tablets and more, that are designed to run on 5G networks.

Like previous wireless technology standards, such as 3G, 4G and 4G LTE, 5G sends and receives data on radio waves. However, due to improvements in latency and bandwidth, 5G networks are capable of much faster upload and download speeds. Some 5G networks’ download speeds can reach as high as 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) making them ideal for new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and Internet of Things (IoT).

As use cases for 5G increase, so does demand for networks that can support the devices that run on it. In North America alone, more than 200 million homes currently have access to 5G connection speeds (link resides outside ibm.com) with that number expected to double within the next four years.

How 5G works

Like other kinds of wireless networks, 5G technology operates on a geographical area of coverage that is divided up into “cells.” Within each cell, a device like a 5G phone, PC or IoT sensor can connect to the internet via radio waves. This same method of establishing connections was used in previous generations of wireless networks, but with 5G, technological improvements have enabled much faster speeds.

New RAT standard

The 5G NR (New Radio) standard for cellular networks established by 3DPP in 2018 defines the next generation of radio access technology (RAT) specifications for all 5G mobile networks. Critically, the new RAT released in 2018 opens the 5G spectrum above 6 GHz—frequency bands that were previously not used by cellular devices.

Network slicing

Another key development of the 5G rollout in 2018 was the addition of network slicing. 5G offers telecom providers the ability to deploy independent virtual networks in addition to public networks using the same 5G infrastructure. This feature, unique to 5G, gives users more functionality when working remotely while still enabling a high level of security.

Private networks

5G-enabled enterprises can create fully private networks with personalization and security features that allow for more control and mobility for their employees across a broad range of use cases.

How 5G is different than other networks

5G has been praised for its transformative potential across a number of industries, largely due to the higher frequencies it utilizes and its new capabilities around the swift and secure transfer of large data volumes. Since broadband technology first rolled out in the early 2000s, the amount of data generated by wireless devices has been increasing exponentially. Today, cutting-edge technologies like AI and ML require too much data to run on older networks. 5G devices, on the other hand, are perfectly suited for applications with large data requirements. Here are some key differences between 5G and its predecessors.

  • Smaller physical footprint: 5G transmitters are smaller than those used in 3G, 4G and 4G LTE networks, and the small cells that coverage areas are divided up into require less power.
  • Improved error rates: 5G deployment relies on an adaptive Modulation and Coding Scheme (MCS), a schematic for transmitting data that’s far more powerful than the schemes used in 3G and 4G networks. As a result, 5G’s Block Error Rates (BER)—the frequency of errors on its networks—are much lower.
  • Better bandwidth: By using a broader range of radio frequencies than previous generations of networks, 5G can support more devices on its networks at once.
  • Low latencies: 5G’s lower latency—a measurement of the time it takes data to move between devices on the network—makes activities like playing video games, downloading a file or working in the cloud much faster than on other types of wireless networks.

Types of 5G networks

Here’s a closer look at the three types of 5G networks and why businesses should consider them.  

Low-band 5G

Low-band 5G operates on frequencies between 600 and 900 MHz, very near to the frequencies of TV and radio stations. While not “lightning-fast” by any means, these frequencies are still considerably faster than 4G speeds—up to 10 times in some instances—and are capable of traveling long distances and covering large areas. For users willing to sacrifice speed for reach, low-band 5G is a great option.

Mid-band 5G

While faster than low band, mid-band 5G still isn’t capable of reaching the speeds required by cutting-edge applications like AI, ML and IoT. Mid-band 5G operates on frequencies ranging from 1 to 6 GHz, which gives it more capacity to move bigger volumes of data, but not over a large area. One important consideration for enterprises seeking to leverage mid-band 5G networks is the fact that buildings and other solid structures can interfere with connectivity, especially at the higher end of its bandwidth.

High-band 5G

High-band 5G can’t travel very far but is capable of delivering the lightning-fast speeds that 5G’s most exciting applications demand. High-band 5G sets the gold standard for many transformative technologies, such as autonomous vehicles, robotics and smarter cities. Much of this vaunted speed and performance is due to 5G’s millimeter waves (mmWave) technology, a particular spectrum between 30 and 300 GHz.

  • Millimeter waves (wwWave): mmWaves’ use cases are slightly different than other kinds of 5G networks and include data centers, streaming video and augmented/virtual reality (AR/VR) that require higher speeds and performance than the low-band spectrum and mid-band 5G networks can offer. While mmWave 5G is superior to other types of 5G in terms of speed and performance, it suffers from the same limitations when it comes to line-of-sight interruptions. For example, buildings, dense foliage and even heavy rain can impede 5G mmWave connections.
  • Dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS): To cope with some of the line-of-sight problems that higher band 5G frequencies have, some carriers deploy 5G on the same frequencies typically used with 4G mobile phones and devices. Dynamic spectrum sharing, or DSS technology as it’s known, allows organizations to achieve 5G speeds without replacing their existing infrastructure.

5G capabilities and standards

In addition to its speed, 5G technology is safer and more reliable than previous generations of wireless networks, enabling new features and benefits that enterprises of all kinds should consider.

  • Ultra-reliable low-latency communications: Ultra-reliable low-latency communications, or URLLC, is a new communications capability that was specifically designed to support the latency and reliability requirements of IoT and other high-demand applications that run on 5G networks. With URLLC, communication speeds are instantaneous no matter where two parties are physically located. URLLC enables tasks as wide-ranging as automation and remote vehicle operation to gaming with AR/VR headsets.
  • Enhanced mobile broadband: Enhanced mobile broadband, or eMBB technology, is a new standard for 5G services that enhances bandwidth and decreases latency when compared to 4G. Developed by 3GPP as part of its 5G NR standard, the eMBB guidelines serve to increase data rates, bandwidth and throughput across 5G networks, improving a wide range of media services. Applications covered under the eMBB standard include video streaming, gaming and AR/VR operations.
  • Massive machine type communications: Massive machine type communications, or mMTC, is another standard that 3GPP rolled out as part of its 5G NR guidelines to deal specifically with services and applications that utilize IoT technology. mMTC typically covers a network architecture designed for high-speed, low-latency communications between a large number of IoT devices and/or machines on a single network. Examples of mMTC include smart transportation networks, smart factories and smart energy grids.

5G use cases

Because of its speed, latency requirements and reliability, 5G is fast becoming one of the most talked-about enabler technologies available today. From driverless cars to smart energy grids to remote operating rooms, here are some of the most exciting developments 5G is making possible:

  • Autonomous vehicles: From taxis and drones to pilotless airplanes, 5G is behind some of the most advanced designs in autonomous vehicles. Until 5G, driverless cars were a bit of a pipe dream due to data requirements that previous wireless network standards couldn’t meet. Today, 5G’s connection speeds are enabling breakthroughs in the remote or self-driving operation of cars, trains, planes and more.
  • Smart factories: 5G, along with AI, ML and IoT technology, is making factories safer, smarter and more efficient thanks to breakthroughs in everything from fuel economy and equipment repair to remotely operated cameras that help prevent theft and make workplaces safer. For example, in a busy warehouse, drones and cameras connected via IoT that operates on a 5G network can assist in locating and transporting goods faster and more efficiently than human employees—and with less of a carbon footprint.
  • Smart cities: Hyper-connected urban environments are starting to rely on 5G network to spur innovation in areas like law enforcement, waste disposal and disaster mitigation. Some cities use 5G-enabled sensors to track traffic patterns in real-time and adjust signals to alter the flow, minimize congestion and improve air quality. Additionally, 5G power grids monitor supply and demand across heavily populated areas and deploy AI and ML applications to “learn” what times energy is in high or low demand.
  • Smart healthcare: The healthcare industry has been one of the biggest and earliest beneficiaries of 5G connection speeds. One example is the area of remote surgery that uses robotics and a high-definition live stream connected to the internet via a 5G network. Another is mobile health, where 5G allows medical workers in the field to quickly and securely access patient records, enabling faster, more informed decisions with the potential to save lives. Finally, during the pandemic, 5G-enabled contact tracing and the mapping of outbreaks played a big role in keeping people safe.
  • Edge computing: Edge computing, a computing framework that allows computations to be done closer to data sources, is fast becoming the standard for businesses that consider data processing to be one of their core competencies. According to this Gartner white paper (link resides outside ibm.com), by 2025, 75% of enterprise data will be processed at the edge (compared to only 10% today). This shift, powered by 5G connectivity and speed, saves businesses time and money and enables better control over large volumes of data.

5G solutions with IBM Cloud Satellite

Before enterprises can fully leverage 5G, they need a platform that’s built for it. IBM Cloud Satellite lets businesses of all kinds deploy and run apps consistently across on-premises, edge computing and public cloud environments on a 5G network. And it’s all enabled by secure and auditable communications within IBM Cloud.

Explore IBM Cloud Satellite

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