The fifth generation of cellular technology, 5G, isn't a single flavor. In fact, 5G is more like a Neapolitan mix of three flavors with new, advanced capabilities available to add on to each type.
The different types of 5G comprise the various frequencies on which 5G will operate, dubbed low-band, midband and high-band 5G. The distinctions between these flavors relate to the different characteristics of each spectrum, according to Lindsay Notwell, senior vice president of 5G strategy and global carrier operations at Cradlepoint Inc., a networking vendor based in Boise, Idaho, recently acquired by Ericsson.
The respective characteristics of each 5G type aren't inherently new. They build upon capabilities of past generations and aim to solve problems those generations created. However, the different types of 5G are notable because they enable advanced applications and techniques that make 5G unique for enterprise networks.
Instead of viewing 5G as one sole flavor, we can compare the different 5G types to the flavors of Neapolitan ice cream, a type of ice cream made of three separate flavors in one container. Low-band, midband and high-band 5G are similar to vanilla, chocolate and strawberry, respectively.
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1. Low-band 5G
Low band is the closest 5G spectrum to 4G and 4G LTE and operates on the closest frequencies to TV and radio stations. That's why it's vanilla: It's classic, everyone's familiar with it and it's fairly basic in terms of advanced frequencies.
This doesn't mean low-band 5G isn't worthwhile, though. This type of 5G can travel long distances, Notwell said, and when combined with midband and high-band frequencies, low-band 5G will be 10 or more times faster than 4G speeds. TV stations used -- and some still use -- similar frequency bands because of the bands' abilities to cover large areas. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) claimed low-band 5G will range from 600 GHz to 900 GHz.
However, low-band 5G isn't as fast as the other flavors, which is why it can travel so far. Low-band 5G has low bandwidth: It can travel far because it has a lower capacity to carry data than higher frequencies.
"It's sort of a two-edged sword," Notwell said. "The low band has great characteristics -- reach, frequency and penetration -- but it's just not very wide."
T-Mobile dipped its toes into low-band and midband 5G first in its 5G planning and uses 600 MHz spectrum. Verizon and AT&T took an opposite approach, launching their 5G strategies with high-band spectrum. However, all three major U.S. carriers will offer the Neapolitan combination of flavors by the end of 2021, Notwell said.
"By the end of 2021, you're going to see a very competitive set of comparable offers across all three. Right now, T-Mobile's got the coverage lead. Verizon's got the performance lead -- just small coverage -- and AT&T's got a bit of a mix. It's just a matter of time before they all gain that parity," Notwell said.
2. Midband 5G
Midband 5G is like chocolate ice cream: a bit more advanced than vanilla low band yet not the most hyped of the different types of 5G. Midband is generally synonymous with the sub-6 GHz spectrum, as the FCC claimed midband 5G will range from 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz and 3.7 GHz to 4.2 GHz bands. Midband 5G spectrum is five times as wide as low-band spectrum, Notwell said.
While midband 5G is wider than low-band 5G with more capacity to transport larger amounts of data, it can't travel as far. Buildings and other solid objects can affect higher ranges of midband 5G, although that permeation issue more prominently impedes high-band 5G.
T-Mobile gained use of the 2.5 GHz band from its Sprint acquisition, as Sprint already used midband spectrum for its 4G network. Verizon acquired midband spectrum during the FCC summer auction in 2020. Its bid included the use of Citizens Broadband Radio Service, which is shared spectrum in the 3.5 GHz band.
AT&T has lagged behind with midband and will likely acquire this spectrum at another FCC auction toward the end of 2020. That auction will feature mostly licensed spectrum, so, should the FCC accept AT&T's bid, the carrier wouldn't have to share the spectrum. According to Notwell, AT&T's choice to avoid shared spectrum is likely because it couldn't consistently guarantee use of the spectrum if it was shared.
3. High-band 5G (millimeter wave)
High-band 5G is effectively the opposite of low-band 5G: It can't travel far, but it has the superfast speeds that result from 5G's most touted benefits. High-band 5G correlates to strawberry ice cream, as it adds a distinctive flavor to the Neapolitan combination: faster speed. The FCC claimed high-band 5G will include 24 GHz, 28 GHz, 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands.
Just as strawberry ice cream contains tiny pieces of strawberry, high-band 5G includes an added surprise: millimeter wave (MM wave), the spectrum between 30 GHz and 300 GHz that provides high-speed connectivity and faster download speeds. These capabilities -- and MM wave's high bandwidth and ability to carry more data between destinations -- have increased global interest in 5G technology.
MM wave is also the only type of 5G with potentially different use cases than the other flavors. For example, data centers may require MM wave for failover, as data centers are fed by fiber only because the medium is fast and reliable, Notwell said. MM wave would support the level of performance and speed that data centers require more than low-band or midband 5G. Overall, use cases won't vary much by spectrum type.
Verizon and AT&T launched their 5G offerings with MM wave, offering 28 GHz and 39 GHz, respectively. T-Mobile is working on its MM wave offering and will expand its availability over time. Still, all three U.S. carriers will offer all types of 5G by the end of 2021.
One of the biggest challenges with high-band 5G for both carriers and enterprises is MM wave's line-of-sight travel, which limits how far the frequency can travel -- for example, even heavy rainfall could impede MM waves. Because of this limitation, proper installation will be critical for an organization's successful 5G deployment, Notwell said.
"If all we had to rely on was millimeter wave, that would be a problem," Notwell said. "But what we're seeing is newer technologies enabling 4G and 5G to work in the same frequency. That's called dynamic spectrum sharing."
Other assorted 5G capabilities
Dynamic spectrum sharing is one capability the different types of 5G can use -- it's like an assorted topping available for any flavor of 5G technology. Other toppings and capabilities include ultrareliable low latency, IoT capabilities and enhanced mobile broadband.
Dynamic spectrum sharing. Thanks to dynamic spectrum sharing, the different types of 5G frequencies can exist on the same spectrum as 4G. This sharing will become more prevalent with 2G and 3G sunsets, as carriers shut down spectrums they allocated solely to 2G or 3G technologies, respectively, and invest in spectrums that 4G and 5G could operate on together, according to Notwell.
Lindsay NotwellSenior VP of 5G, Cradlepoint
Dynamic spectrum sharing can benefit organizations that employ 4G technology already and aren't sure if a 5G investment would be worthwhile.
"4G actually can serve 95% or more of the use cases that are out there today. So, the strategy for a lot of those is just deploy with 4G and then plug in 5G when and where you can," Notwell said.
So, for those organizations that want to add a scoop of coffee ice cream -- or 4G -- to their 5G Neapolitan dessert, dynamic spectrum sharing enables that combination.
Ultrareliable low latency. Each type of 5G technology supports ultrareliable low-latency connections, which enable quick responses to requests and benefit areas such as automation and video conferencing.
Further, this ultrareliable low-latency connectivity can save organizations money, as it enables remote communication, so organizations wouldn't pay as much to fly employees to job fairs or conferences, Notwell said. Communication could be instantaneous with 5G -- even without a person's physical presence. This connectivity can also enhance facial recognition and video surveillance capabilities.
IoT capabilities. The three different types of 5G can enable massive machine type communication, which is the ability for machines to communicate with one another without human intervention -- like IoT. In particular, 5G enables narrowband IoT, a low-power IoT technology that can benefit and support a large amount of IoT devices.
Narrowband IoT also enhances mobile device battery life, so an IoT sensor battery could last up to 10 years, Notwell said. Also, if an organization has disparate systems for all its connected devices, 5G could shrink those to one network. Each type of 5G aims to quickly and reliably support all connected devices on a single 5G network with these new capabilities.
Enhanced mobile broadband. This capability is exactly how it sounds: Enhanced mobile broadband improves standard mobile broadband operations. Enhanced mobile broadband can also cut an organization's costs, as it enables organizations to "cut the cord," Notwell said, literally and figuratively.
This enhanced broadband is the reason experts have questioned whether 5G will eradicate Wi-Fi because enhanced mobile broadband offers faster, more flexible and more reliable connectivity than both traditional cellular technology and Wi-Fi connectivity.
"You'll see this dramatic change in wide area networking -- the wired world -- into one that's wireless because it gives the freedom of place and freedom of time," Notwell said. "[A big] problem retailers have is getting the wiring install and store opening date to align. Well, wireless is there already, so I can just turn it on."