5G Technology Explained: How Does It Work, How Is It Different

5G Technology Explained: How Does It Work, How Is It Different

5G technology is the fifth generation technology standard developed and deployed for wireless broadband digital communication. It was defined and has been maintained by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project or 3GPP international consortium. It is specifically a cellular network technology standard that succeeds 4G and long-term evolution or LTE cellular network technologies.

Each generation of cellular network technology is significantly faster than the previous ones. 5G represents a step forward. Its general selling point revolves around faster broadband internet speed and more reliable connectivity than 4G systems, including 4g LTE and LTE Advanced, as well as the older 3G and 2G technologies, using higher-frequency electromagnetic waves.

Explaining How 5G Technology Works and How it is Different From 4G Technologies

The idea of introducing a fifth-generation communication technology and cellular network standard could be traced back in 2008 when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration partnered with Machine-to-Machine Intelligence Corporation to work on a project involving nanosatellites. South Korea was also developing another generation of wireless broadband networking around this time based on beam-division multiple access and relays.

Several institutions and individuals soon undertook separate initiatives aimed at exploring new mobile communication technologies from 2009 to 2013. The International Telecommunication Union came up with a standard in 2017 that was communicated through IMT-2020. The 3GPP eventually chose 5G New Radio technology and other established LTE standards and specifications to define the fifth generation of cellular network technology.

Underlying Technologies and Principles

There are different underlying technologies and principles that make up the entire 5G standard. Take note of the following:

• OFDM: Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing or OFDM is a method for reducing and managing interferences and frequency selective fading through multiplexing or the modulation and encoding of digital signal on multiple carrier frequencies.

• New Radio: 5G also uses an air interface called New Radio or 5G NR alongside OFDM principles. The NR specification is subdivided further into two frequency bands: Frequency Range 1 or Sub-6 GHz and Frequency Range 2 or millimeter-wave or mmWave.

• Sub-6 GHz: The FR1 or Sub-6 GHz frequency band represents cellular networks that operate at frequencies below 6 GHz. The most common frequencies in existing 5G networks are within the 3.3 GHz and 4.2 GHz range of the electromagnetic spectrum.

• mmWave: FR2 or mmWave represents frequency bands in the upper limits of radio waves or within the range of microwaves. These are the ultra high frequency or UHF and extremely high frequency or EHF areas of the electromagnetic spectrum.

• Massive MIMO: Multi-user multiple-input and multiple-output or MU-MIMO and massive MIMO systems involve the use of multiple antennas at the transmitter and receiver ends of a wireless communication system to increase throughput and capacity density.

• Beamforming: The process of directing electromagnetic waves to a particular target is called spatial filtering or beamforming. This technique allows faster mobile connectivity, less bandwidth traffic or network congestion, and programmable high directivity levels.

• C-Band 5G: A standard called C-Band is an implementation of the Sub-6 5G standard. The IEEE considers the microwave frequencies between 4.0 GHz to 8.0 GHz while the U.S. FCC has designated frequencies between 3.7 GHz and 4.2 GHz as part of the C-Band.

Difference with 4G and LTE Technologies

There are some similarities between 5G and 4G technologies. Both operate on a wide range of spectrum allotments. 4G also uses OFDM to have better data transmission speed and less interference than 3G technology through multiple-carrier modulation.

However, there are stark differences between the two. 4G technologies are limited within or further below the Sub-3 GHz. On the other hand, the 5G standard can operate within the upper limits of the sub-6 GHz bands, and within the range of frequencies of the mmWave specification. 5G is theoretically better than 4G in terms of bandwidth and data transmission speed.

The difference between 5G and LTE and 4G technologies primarily boils down to the usage of electromagnetic spectrum resources. The fifth generation of cellular network technology runs on a wider range and higher domains of the spectrum than the previous generations. It is inherently better because it uses electromagnetic radiation with higher frequencies.

Note that data transmission speeds depend on the level of the frequency and the size of the wavelength. Furthermore, the overall reliability and stability of wireless digital communication are determined by the level of traffic within a particular frequency. Congestion and clutter result in interferences and reduced data transmission speed and network performance.

Below are the specific differences between 5G and 4G technologies, as well as 3G technologies, in terms of history, infrastructure requirements, and network performance:

• Deployment: The fourth generation of cellular network technology was deployed the public around 2006 and 4G Long Term Evolution was first deployed commercially in 2009. Take note that the 3G standard was deployed around 2004 and 2005. On the other hand, 5G was first deployed in 2019 in key cities in South Korea and the United States.

• Infrastructure: 4G and sub-6 GHz 5G generally use existing infrastructure. The latter requires several added technical modifications and upgrades. However, mmWave 5G requires the deployment of hundreds and thousands of smaller cells to cover a city. 5G also requires the integration of additional technologies defined in the 3GPP standard.

• Bandwidth: 4G has a bandwidth of up to 200 Mbps compared to the 2 Mbps bandwidth of 3G. On the other hand, the fifth generation of cellular network technology has a theoretical bandwidth of more than 1 Gbps. Bandwidth is the maximum amount of data that can be transmitted over a network in a given amount of time

• Latency: One of the notable advantages of 5G technology over 4G is improved latency. Estimates are about less than 10 milliseconds compared to the 20 to 30 milliseconds latency of 4G and 100 to 500 milliseconds latency of 3G. Note that network latency is the time it takes for data to be transferred between its source and its destination.

• Transmission Speed: The average real-world data transmission speed of 3G is 144 kbps while 4G has a real-world average speed of 25 Mbps. The theoretical and real-world data transmission speed of 5G can vary between 50 Mbps and 200 to 400 Mbps. The variation comes from the difference between sub-6 GHz specification and mmWave specification.

• Coverage Area: 3G and 4G networks have a wider coverage area per cell because they transmit signals using lower frequencies and longer wavelengths. Signals that use higher frequencies and shorter wavelengths have shorter propagation. This is the reason why mmWave 5G coverage depends on the deployment of more smaller cells.

How 5G Technology Works in a Nutshell: Wider Spectrum Allocation, Higher Frequencies, and Additional Technologies

5G technology is fundamentally based on using higher-frequency electromagnetic radiation within the radio wave and microwave areas of the electromagnetic spectrum. Remember that the difference between 5G and 4G and LTE technologies primarily boils down to the usage of spectrum resources. The fifth-generation standard specifically uses frequency bands via the sub-6 GHz specification and higher frequency bands through the mmWave specification.

Of course, because the sub-6 GHz specification and mmWave specification use different technologies, the entire fifth-generation standard involves using two broad categories of cellular network or cells: cell towers deployed for transmitting and receiving frequencies below 6 GHz and dedicated cells or nodes for transmitting and receiving frequencies above 6 GHz.

Sub-6 5G and mmWave 5G are have fundamental differences and respective pros and cons. The two have different deployment and infrastructure requirements. The sub-6 specification has a wider network coverage and it depends on large cell towers spread in wider distances. On the other hand, the mmWave specification has very limited coverage per cell, thereby requiring the deployment of hundreds of smaller cells in a given area to expand network coverage.

Wide spectrum allocations and the use of higher frequencies would provide 5G technology network performance that surpass 4G and 4G LTE technologies. The gains in performance also closely rival wireless communication protocols such as Wi-FI and wired digital communication standards such as wired broadband communication using fiber optics.

Furthermore, apart from its wider spectrum allocation and usage of higher frequencies, it is also worth mentioning that the standard behind the 5G technology and the deployment of 5G networks or capabilities also involves using accompanying wireless communication technologies such as Multi-User MIMO, Massive MIMO, and beamforming. These supplementary technologies maximize the potential and performance of wireless data transmission via higher frequencies.


  • Konsyse. 2021. “Electromagnetic Radiation: Characteristics and Properties.” Konsyse. Available online
  • Kumar, A. and Gupta, M. 2018. “A Review on Activities of Fifth Generation Mobile Communication System.” Alexandria Engineering Journal. 57(2): 1125-1135. DOI: 1016/j.aej.2017.01.043
  • Parkvall, S., Dahlman, E., Furuskar, A., and Frenne, M. 2017. NR: “The New 5G Radio Access Technology.” IEEE Communications Standards Magazine. 1(4): 24-30. DOI: 1109/mcomstd.2017.1700042
  • Zada, M., Shah, I. A., & Yoo, H. (2021). “Integration of Sub-6-GHz and mm-Wave Bands With a Large Frequency Ratio for Future 5G MIMO Applications.” IEEE Access. 9: 11241-11251. DOI: 1109/access.2021.3051066