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5G versus 4G: how speed, latency and application support differ

5G versus 4G: how speed, latency and application support differ

5G wireless network technology is set to boost the bandwidth, capacity and reliability of cellular broadband

You've probably already heard about 5G, the new cellular technology that's poised to bring massive change to both mobile and fixed wireless data networks.

What you may be wondering is how 5G differs from 4G, the current cellular network standard, and what benefits the new technology will bring both enterprises and individual users.

To bring you up to speed on 5G's structure and capabilities, and how it improves on 4G technology, here's a quick update:

What is 5G?

As the latest step forward in cellular network evolution, 5G will see untold thousands of small antennas deployed onto cell towers, utility poles, lampposts, buildings and other public and private structures.

The technology, which is designed to supplement rather than replace current 4G networks, promises to accelerate cellular data transfer speeds from 100 Mbps to 10 Gbps and beyond, a massive boost that will make next-generation wireless competitive with even the fastest fibre-optic wired networks.

Overall, 5G should significantly improve the bandwidth, capacity and reliability of cellular broadband far more than previous generational shifts.

Major carriers are already formulating their 5G strategies. In the US, the top four carriers—AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon—will begin rolling out 5G networks in 2019 and 2020.

On the mobile phone front, Verizon and Samsung have partnered to make a 5G smartphone they plan to begin marketing in the first half of 2019. Apple, however, won't roll out its 5G phone until 2020.

Inside homes and offices, 5G technology is expected to provide serious competition to cable- and telephone-based Internet service providers (ISP).

4G versus 5G performance

5G uses new and so far rarely used radio millimetre bands in the 30 GHz to 300 GHz range. Current 4G networks operate on frequencies below 6GHz.

Low latency is one of 5G's most important attributes, making the technology highly suitable for critical applications that require rapid responsiveness, such as remote vehicle control. 5G networks are capable of latency rates of under a millisecond in ideal conditions.

4G latency varies from carrier to carrier and cell to cell. Still, on the whole, 5G is estimated to be 60 to 120 times faster than average 4G latencies.

Over time, 5G is expected to advance wireless networking by bringing fibre-like speeds and extremely low latency capabilities to almost any location. In terms of peak speed, 5G is approximately 20 times faster than 4G.

The new technology also offers a minimum peak download speed of 20 Gb/s (while 4G pokes along at only 1 Gb/s). Generally speaking, fixed site users, such as offices and homes, will experience somewhat higher speeds than mobile users.

5G enterprise impact

Although 4G lacks the speed, capacity and flexibility necessary to fully support a rapidly expanding array of innovative mobile and fixed devices, 5G promises to seamlessly work with wireless sensors, vehicle-to-vehicle communication technologies, smart traffic lights, smart energy grids, mobile wearables, smart home devices and other cutting-edge technologies.

Most observers also expect 5G to help the Internet of Things (IoT) finally live up to its long-promised potential.

Since IoT applications typically need to collect massive amounts of data from large numbers of devices and sensors, the technology requires an efficient network for data collection, processing, transmission, control and real-time analytics.

5G's high speed, low cost, ubiquity and flexibility make it a strong choice for IoT networking.

5G also has the potential to make smart cities, another long-anticipated yet largely unfulfilled technology, practical in real world settings.

5G's speed and ultra-low latency will be crucial for supporting smart city applications including public transit scheduling, crime detection and reporting, smart streetlights and sensors that monitor things such as air quality, water use, parking spaces, traffic flow, sewers and trash collection.

Within the enterprise, 5G is expected to lead to the development of a seamless workplace IoT environment capable of supporting real-time collaboration between people and devices.

New augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) technologies, connected between users via 5G, promise to allow real-time anytime/anywhere collaboration on a wide range of tasks, leading to a more effective and decentralised workforce that would be impossible to support with 4G networks.

5G is also expected to help bring a variety of telemedicine applications, such as remote patient monitoring and care, into the mainstream.

In a hospital setting, the technology promises to allow surgeons to operate remotely on patients anywhere in the world, something that would be impossible today given 4G's high latency.

5G's low latency is also expected to give cloud computing a boost, allowing complex tasks to be handled in real time and giving both home and enterprise users access to massive processing power and virtually unlimited data storage at lower price points.

5G security concerns

With great power comes great responsibility. Although 5G isn't generally viewed as less secure than 4G, there are concerns that the new technology's speed and application support could create new security weaknesses that both service providers and adopters will need to address.

The biggest worry is that 5G, by supporting new types of services, users and devices, will increase the overall attack surface, offering attackers new ways of entering and tampering with networks and workplace environments.

Another troubling concern is that 5G's higher data rate will open the way for more powerful and effective Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks.

Since a DDoS assault harnesses together multiple devices to direct data toward a targeted system, overwhelming it to the point of failure, higher data rates could make such attacks more powerful and destructive.

The downside to 5G's improved IoT support is that larger networks offering enhanced performance and functionality, such as edge processing, will become attractive targets for attackers.

Additionally, a new generation of 5G-enabled mobile and fixed technologies will give attackers a wider selection of potential targets, including autonomous vehicles, smart homes/cities assets, and office, industrial and medical devices.

5G future

"Industry in general seems to be taking a generally sensible posture to 5G hardware, software and networks, while keeping an eye on future innovation and new use cases," observes Jon Zayicek, principal, IT risk and security, at business and technology consulting firm Cask.

"5G is early enough in its lifecycle that risks can be managed and mitigated as adoption increases."


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