Short for 'fifth generation' wireless technology, 5G is an advance on previous standards of wireless cellular networks introduced in late 2018.

Each generation has involved changes to technology, infrastructure and operations to increase speeds in data transmission and allow for a broader range of uses. Like three of the four earlier standards (1G stands alone as an analog standard), 5G describes ranges of electromagnetic frequencies used to transmit digital information.

Because 5G has new operating methods and encoding systems, it is incompatible with previous standards. This means individual networks around the world have been gradually updating their technology to accommodate these changes.

What frequencies will 5G use?

Cellular networks use low frequencies at the long wavelength (radio wave) end of the electromagnetic spectrum, below 300 gigahertz. The first standard, 1G, typically operated at frequencies of roughly 850 and 1900 megahertz, for example.

Each new standard since then has allowed for a broader range of frequencies to be used, moving further up the radio spectrum to include shorter and shorter wavelengths so more and more data can be packed in.

In the past, cellular networks were mostly used to help us communicate, linking up mobile phones. So a simple call could be allocated a narrow frequency to carry all of its information.

Unlike the other standards, 5G is designed to accommodate the diversity of applications we anticipate for the future beyond personal smart devices. It also promises faster download speeds, with a theoretical peak of 20 gigabits per second, which is 20 times faster than existing 4G networks' top speeds.

To manage the task, 5G technology makes use of a much wider range of frequencies, categorised into low-band, mid-band, and high-band tiers.

The lower and middle frequency categories aren't really all that different to those used for 4G's Long Term Evolution (LTE) networks. In fact, low tier frequency with 5G will probably perform much the same as existing 4G networks, operating as a basic data service.

The use of high-tier 'millimetre wavelength' frequencies – around 28 gigahertz – sets 5G apart, providing high-speed data transfer over short distances.

Higher frequencies can squeeze more data into every second. However, they also don't reach as far, or penetrate through obstacles as easily, which requires more signal-boosting boxes.

Given this added resource, high-tier 5G frequencies will be limited mostly to city centres for the foreseeable future. Just the thing we'll need in high density urban environments as we all watch more movies, call more friends, operate our driverless cars, and perform tasks we can yet barely imagine.

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