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5G Explainer

Will 5G live up to all its promises of providing faster broadband speeds, promoting innovation, and enabling a new generation of AI and machine learning technology? Theoretically yes, but these promises will require investments and action by policymakers, regulators, and private carriers to ensure its deployment is equitable and timely.

5G is the fifth generation of mobile broadband technology as defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Mobile carriers are providing 5G services that are intended to deliver internet speeds up to 20 Gbps, 20 times faster than the previous generation of mobile data technology.

How does 5G work?

Unlike previous generations, 5G has a tremendous capacity to operate on a range of frequencies within the radio spectrum ranging from 1 Hz to 3000 GHz. Frequency bands within the radio spectrum have historically been designated to various applications, such as radio stations or maritime communications. Over the past few decades, these frequencies have been widely adopted by modern broadband and telecommunication technologies; thus, the recent development of mobile broadband technology has led to increasing demand for spectrum availability. The ability for 5G to operate on higher bands gives it an advantage over former generations of mobile broadband technology, such as 4G LTE, which only operate at mid- and low-band ranges, much narrower than 5G. New high-band capabilities are where significant opportunities exist for high-speed service. However, 5G still creates considerable opportunities in mid- and low-bands (see Figure 1).

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Figure 1

5G’s operation at any of these frequencies comes with benefits and challenges (see Figure 2). High-band networks can offer the fastest speeds and low latency to many users and devices. However, these promises are limited by the inability of high-band networks to penetrate solid objects. This makes it challenging to reach long distances and is best for stadiums with many users. Mid-band 5G will still offer high-speed service, but not at the peak suggested by 5G carriers. It will provide more reliable service in urban and suburban areas where high-band spectrum can’t. Low-band networks can penetrate most solid objects and will best serve rural areas or, for example, provide cell service to a hiker in a forest. Providers must consider each spectrum’s different advantages and weaknesses when allocating and prioritizing resources for their 5G networks.

Figure 2

Source: T-Mobile 

Benefits: The fifth generation of wireless broadband technology is exceedingly faster than previous generations and could significantly contribute to the U.S. economy and competitiveness.

  • Faster Speeds: Mobile 5G mmWave service could deliver speeds up to 20 Gbps download speeds and improved upload speeds. This means faster processing and streaming times.
  • Alternative Home Internet: Fixed wireless access (FWA) from mid-band stations will provide broadband similar to traditional fixed networks. In the mmWave, 5G FWA is capable of gigabit speed, which is comparable to fiber-optic broadband.
  • Lower Latency: The latency of wireless transmissions will be less than ten milliseconds. That’s faster than it takes our brain to process what our eyes see. This will support new applications and AI.
  • Higher Volume: Up to 1000 times more network connections are possible over 5G than in the previous generation. A farmer, for example, could install more sensors across their land to track data and operate their farm more effectively.
  • Stimulating Innovation: 5G’s connectivity goes beyond phone service and is ideal for connecting a range of devices, such as smart-home IoT devices, virtual and augmented reality applications and autonomous vehicles.

Concerns: 5G capabilities are limited and can have unintended consequences such as security risks and costs.

  • Coverage Limitations: Major benefits like 10 Gbps speeds are only offered in dense urban areas where mmWave spectrum is available.
  • Limited Availability: 5G is currently limited in its coverage and reliability in many locations across the country. Major U.S. carriers have different priorities regarding coverage and speed of their 5G network rollout. Regulators are also responsible for repurposing or making available new spectrum bands for 5G service.
  • Increases Cyber Risks: Increased connectivity with more devices and applications increases the vulnerability of 5G networks to cybersecurity threats. More bandwidths will strain current security monitoring methods.
  • Infrastructure Buildout: Deployment of 5G requires a higher number of antennas and base stations for efficient coverage and costly upgrades to existing infrastructure.
  • Aviation Safety: Due to proximity and potential interference of frequencies used by 5G networks and aircraft safety equipment, the FAA imposed restrictions on flight operations. Safety assessments and technological advancements will play a role in how 5G services can utilize the valuable C-band.


As this technology continues to develop and more people begin incorporating it into our daily lives, new benefits and concerns are likely to appear. Policymakers must continually review these advances and challenges to encourage innovation and ensure long-term success. BPC will continue to inform regulators and consumers about the true capabilities of 5G and, if appropriate, make recommendations when appropriate to help advance our nation’s broadband infrastructure.

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