What is 5G?

Alexsander Tamari
|  Created: February 21, 2017  |  Updated: December 18, 2020


What is 5G? Learn about this future technology and the impact it will have on your life. We’ll glimpse into the future and also take a step into the past to revisit older mobile network generations.

A History of Mobile Networks

As we head into 2017, we’re starting to make a change. A change towards faster and more reliable mobile network speeds. We’re going 5G. But what exactly is 5G and how do we get there? In this blog, we’ll go over a brief history of standard mobile networks before exploring what 5G is and what it means for the future.

Today we find ourselves at the edge of 4G, about to embark on a new journey towards 5G. Getting here wasn’t easy, we had to go through 4 iterations of mobile network technology: 1G, 2G, 3G, and now it seems we’re at the end of 4G. But before we talk about and move toward our future in 5G, let's take a quick look at our past hardware.


1G, by technology standards, is ancient. It's the first generation of mobile network technology. 1G technology is based on analog cellular systems and first started appearing in the early 1980s. It was designed for audio transmission, with a speed of up to 2.4 kbps. But when voice signals are sampled at 8 kHz and require a bandwidth of 64 kbps[1](as to not hear distortion in the voice), you can imagine that the audio quality is not going to be that great.

When you think of 1G, you can picture Zack Morris and his phone.

what-is-5g   old-school-phone
Image courtesy of zackmorriscellphone & the New York Times

Because these devices and their industrial automation systems were analog, they were big, power-hungry, and inefficient. Just look at it! Half of it is a battery that lasted 30 min after a 10-hour charge.

Image courtesy of superbloggertyblog

As great as 1G was, it had its problems. The problem with 1G was that analog signals didn’t allow advanced encryption methods to be used[2], meaning there was no security of the data being passed. Not only could someone listen in on a conversation, but they could also steal user information. In addition to a lack of security, interference was leading to a decrease in sound quality.


With the introduction of 2G in the early 1990s, we moved away from analog and jumped into the digital world. This gave us smaller devices, a more secure connection, better call quality, and a higher capacity for connectivity.

Since analog components were no longer needed with the jump to 2G, phones could be made smaller and more compact, jump starting the trend of miniaturization. That is until we realized we could watch videos on our phones, then we started to get bigger.

Image courtesy of Daily Infographic

As with most upgraded systems, 2G was much faster than its predecessor with speeds up to 64 kbps. This increase in speed — in addition to error detection and correction —  resulted in clearer voice reception than 1G. Even with all its advantages, however, 2G did have its faults and clear voice and text messaging wasn’t enough. We needed 3G.


The idea of 3G is mobile broadband, a network more optimized towards data rather than voice, with speeds up to 2Mbps (2000 kbps). With a network geared toward data, we were introduced to a whole new world of mobile audio/video streaming, internet, GPS, and more.  

3G doesn’t just mean the 3rd generation of mobile network technology. 3G is a network protocol data unit that refers to telecommunication equipment that is compatible with IMT-2000 (International Mobile Telecommunications-2000). This is why different companies can state that they have a better 3G service than someone else. They all adhere to the minimum standards to be considered 3G but some outperform others.

The main distinction between 2G and 3G configuration that allowed media streaming to take place is that 3G utilizes packet switching data transmission rather than switching. Data is broken down into small pieces or packets and then sent to the destination. Using this method of transmission greatly increases the speed, allowing one to send data through multiple channels in parallel rather than one channel in series. This technology also allows users to pay for data used rather than time spent online.



Chances are that if you have a smartphone, you’re on a 4G network, but what exactly is 4G? Similar to 3G, 4G was designed with data in mind but much faster and more secure, with speeds of 100 Mbps (100,000 kbps).

4G is an IP based network system which integrates different 4G technologies (OFDM, MC-CDMA, LAS-CDMA, etc..) What this integration means for you, the user, is that you have the freedom of movement. You’re able to access several radio access interfaces with uninterrupted handoffs. That way you can watch your cat videos without pause, even while on the move.

Image courtesy of xybernetics


The future portrayed in movies almost always has amazing tech  — flying cars, holograms, robots, the list goes on. But all this technology isn’t possible without the mobile network capacity or speed to support it. That's where 5G comes in,  Now, I’m not saying 5G will make all these things possible, but it is most definitely a push towards a more connected future, which is a step in the right direction.

With 4G approaching its limits, you’ll probably hear the term 5G being thrown around a lot, but what is 5G? Yes, obviously 5G is the successor to 4G mobile network technology but how exactly is it different, how do we get there, how will it affect our lives, and more importantly, when will we be able to use it?

The main differentiator between 4G and  5G is capacity and latency. These features aren’t just what separates the two technologies, they’re the reason we need 5G. I’ll expand on that in a little bit, but first, let's continue as to how these technologies differ.

As mentioned above, 5G offers capacity and latency improvements that will far surpass its predecessor. Global mobile data traffic was 44 exabytes ( 1 exabyte= 1x109 Gigabytes ) in 2015 and that number is only going to increase. In 2020, traffic is estimated to reach 367 exabytes[3]!

Here’s another example to put how much data we use into perspective: in 2016, the total traffic demand in the US was 90-100GB per user per month. In 2025,  it’s expected to reach 388GB per user per month. But, if augmented reality, virtual reality, and 360° video reach a 20% penetration then that rate could increase to 5,903GB a month by 2025[4]. To accommodate this level of traffic would be impossible for our current 4G systems. And if we want to live in a connected world we’re going to need 5G.

Latency. Future networks in the connected world will have to be fast and that's what 5G is going to deliver. One of the limitations of LTE (4G) is that it has a fixed frame structure and numerology set to a 10ms frame and 1 ms TTI or transmission time interval[3]. With 5G that will no longer be the case; its frame structure will be self-contained allowing it to take in large data packets and transmit them efficiently. Most networks today experience latencies of 20-100 ms, but with 5G that will be reduced to between 0-3 ms. Honestly, we could talk about the technology behind 5G for a long time, but we should save that for another day. If you’d like to learn more, check out some of the sources I used at the end of this blog.

LTE vs 5G Source: Dr. David Soldani

Now that we know some of the details, why should we care? How is this going to affect our lives? The innovation that 5G can and will bring is immense and could prove to be a key moment in the history of technology. The capacity and latency at which 5G operates opens the door to autonomous cars, remote healthcare, virtual and augmented reality, and more!

5G enables a truly connected world and allows for IoT devices, unlike anything we’ve seen before. Smart homes that are able to take care of their own maintenance or keep track of the food in your fridge and order more as necessary. The possibilities are limited only by the capacity of our imagination.

The idea of a connected world between man and machine is fun to entertain but how do we get there? How do we make the leap from 4G to 5G? Well, the path to 5G is through the evolution of 4G. Most carriers will not jump directly from early 4G systems to 5G, but instead go from 4G to 4.5G to 4.5G Pro and then finally to 5G. This timeline isn’t the same for all carriers as they might add or remove some steps, but it seems that most carriers will follow a similar timeline.

5G Plan: Source: Dr. David Soldani

Looking at Nokia and their plan, they believe that phase 0 of 5G will be introduced during the beginning of 2018. Keep in mind that we’re currently in what Nokia considers the 13th release of 4G or R13, which can be seen in the timeline above. Also, R13 and above is considered LTE-Advanced Pro and R12  is considered LTE-Advanced.

LTE-Advanced Pro. Source: Dr. David Soldani

Now, to answer the question we’ve all been waiting for: when is 5G going to be available to me!? A whitepaper released by Huawei shows that 5G should start to rollout by 2020. Even though projection is at 2020, we might get a taste before then. I’ve read that some companies will be testing their 5G technology at large venues and events. Sprint for example did this at a Philly’s game and also at Levi’s stadium[5] [6].

Either way, I’m excited for what 5G has to offer. Remember, 5G isn’t just so you can check out the latest memes faster, it's a platform that enables us to achieve a great many things: mobile healthcare, new businesses, smart homes. Actually, not just smart homes but smart cities.

5G can enable a connected society built by hardworking and passionate engineers. And to create an advanced society we need advanced tools, we need Altium Designer®. With Altium, we can create the future today, with advanced routing features like ActiveRoute®; or even create a new IoT device with a flexible design.

To learn more about IoT, check out our blog post IoT and The Three C’s.


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About Author

About Author

Alexsander joined Altium as a Technical Marketing Engineer and brings years of engineering expertise to the team. His passion for electronics design combined with his practical business experience provides a unique perspective to the marketing team at Altium. Alexsander graduated from one of the top 20 universities in the world at UCSD where he earned a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering.

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