December 18, 2019 TECHNOLOGY

What Is 5G and What Does It Mean to Me?

By Jeffrey M. Allen and Ashley Hallene

We have had several people ask about the significance of 5G, what it means, and whether they need it. Some have asked whether they must get it as well. As a result, we will use this column to respond to those questions and share the information with all.

What is 5G?

The G in 5G does not stand for gravity, it does not stand for thousand (as in a grand, as one person suggested to us). It stands for generation. The reference to 5G is a reference to the fifth generation of cellular technology. Those of you who have paid attention have figured out that each generation of cellular technology has given us more features, more speed and better cellular service than the last. The coming evolution to 5G will offer radical changes to what cellular service means and what it offers. The new system has been touted as one that will transform the world by creating a system allowing all of us to connect to everything all the time. The plan is that 5G will offer much faster service and the ability to transfer massive amounts of data in very short time periods. 5G brings three things to the table: greater speed, lower latency (more responsiveness), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at the same time.

The current 4G technology working with WiFi has allowed us to stream information and entertainment media. It has also given rise to the IoT (Internet of Things) giving us the ability to develop smart houses, smart appliances, smart watches, smart phones, etc. (you get the idea). The difference between 4G and 5G might compare to the difference between early color televisions and the high-quality, low cost displays currently available (comparisons to 3G take you back at least to black and white television and behind that to radio). Some of the providers have already started to roll out 5G on a test basis in limited markets. The initial 5G offerings do not provide all the benefits that 5G promises; we will not see all of those until 5G becomes more generally available. The major providers (ATT, Verizon, Sprint and T Mobile) have all said that they plan to bring 5G online in 2019 and 2020. You can expect to see 5G networks continuing to grow over the next several years. The more ubiquitous the systems become and the more seamless the 5G coverage, the better the service and the more features you can expect to enjoy. Note that while a handful of Android phones have 5G capabilities, none of the iPhones yet do. You cannot get 5G on a phone not built for it. Apple and several other manufacturers have indicated an intent to release 5G equipment in 2020.

Do you need 5G?

Short answer: Not really.

You will not have to switch to 5G (at least not initially). The offering of 5G service will not mean the end of 4G service (just as 3G continues to survive although we have had 4G for many years. You can safely anticipate that 4G service will continue for many years to come, filling in coverage where 5G has not yet arrived. The transition to 5 G service will likely occur over the next 5-10 years. In fact, it is likely that in some rural areas, 3G service will continue as 4G has not yet made it there. If you do upgrade to 5G equipment, anticipate that it will work with 4G and 3G as well, just as 4G phones continue to work with 3G service. Likely in areas where 4G and 5G coexist the 5G phones will prefer 5G service and only use the earlier services when in a location that does not have 5G service. Do not get confused by the somewhat misleading advertising from some of the providers who have labeled their current 4G service as 5G Evolution. It is not 5G.

The other thing you will need to understand is that all 5G service will not work the same. The bandwidth available for 5G includes both lower and higher frequencies. Lower frequencies offer better range (distance) than higher frequencies, but will provide slower connections than higher frequencies. Higher frequencies trade speed and low latency for the ability to cover larger distances. Some providers may choose to use primarily higher or lower frequencies. Some providers may choose to use different frequencies for different purposes. For example, anticipate that providers may ultimately elect to use lower frequencies in rural areas where they will have fewer towers and higher frequencies in urban areas where they will have more towers.

You should be able to continue with the same service you currently have without upgrading to 5G equipment and a 5G service plan. The service you currently have should continue pretty much as it is now and will continue to work on your 4G equipment.  If you do not get 5G equipment, you will not get 5G service (so don’t pay for it). In fact, it is possible that your 4G service will show some improvement as others move to the 5G platform relieving some of the demand currently borne by the 4G system. While your 4G service may show minor improvement, you will not get any of the new features or the advantages of 5G unless you acquire equipment built for 5G. The providers have not yet announced their service offerings or pricing for 5G. There has been talk that some providers will treat it as a premium service, at least initially, charging a higher rate for 5G service than 4G service. We will have to wait and see whether or not that comes to pass.

Do you want 5G?

Put aside the question of pricing, which we cannot currently answer and deal with the benefits 5G can offer you. Those benefits include, among others, 5G service offering the potential of vastly improved data transfer speeds for media and other data allowing you, for example, to download an entire movie in seconds. Lower latency will make augmented reality and virtual reality more useful. 5G could conceivably transform education by enabling virtual and augmented reality experiences that can bring ideas and information out of textbooks and into real life for students in classrooms. Faster connectivity without latency could also revolutionize medical care, enabling holograph-assisted surgeries. 5G could make self-driving cars safer, because communication between vehicles and infrastructure will become effectively instantaneous. Anticipate the Internet of Things continuing to expand as more and more of us add to the repertoire of smart devices in our lives. Note that throughout this article we have talked about data transmission not cellular telephone calls. While you may see some difference in the quality of cellular telephone calls, the reality is that 5G will affect data transfer much more significantly. Your normal telephone calls will likely not show significant improvement with 5G. You will see real improvement in video calls due to the ability to transfer the data for the video call much faster.  Do you need/want these benefits? Likely many, if not most of you will conclude that you do. If so, you will need to upgrade to 5G compatible phones and a 5G data plan.

When should I upgrade?

Early adopters living in urban areas targeted for the first wave of 5G services by one of the major carriers can consider upgrading as soon as 2020. For the first several years, however, 5G services will be largely hit or miss as you go through a city. Pockets of 5G service will exist, but the entire city will not have 5G available. Realization of the full benefits of 5G technology will not occur until we have widespread 5G service. That could mean several years. We would like 5G service and will consider getting a 5G phone as soon as next year if the price for the 5G equipment is not substantially higher than for 4G equipment. We don’t think that it makes sense to purchase 5G equipment at substantially more than 4G equipment and then get a 5G plan unless you live in an area that will have a significant part of the city covered by high quality 5G service. If the carriers offer the service at no increase in price over 4G we will certainly take advantage of that. 

Authors

Jeffrey M. Allen is the principal in the Graves & Allen law firm in Oakland, California, where he has practiced since 1973. He is active in the ABA, the California State Bar Association, and the Alameda County Bar Association. He is a co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0

Ashley Hallene is a petroleum landman at Alta Mesa Holdings, LP, and practices Oil and Gas law, Title Examination, Due Diligence, Acquisitions and Oil and Gas Leasing in Houston, Texas. She frequently speaks in technology CLEs and is Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the Technology and Reviews Department of the GPSolo eReport.  She is co-author of the ABA books Technology Tips for Seniors and Technology Tips for Seniors Volume 2.0