How Does 5G Work?


5G is the acronym used for the fifth generation of mobile networks and in this article, we look at the question 'How does 5G work?'. 5G is significantly faster and more significant than the current 4G mobile networks. Mobile devices (not just phones) have increased massively over the past couple of years, and the future of internet-connected devices is set to explode. From autonomous cars, drone delivery services, farming equipment and connected internet of things (IoT) devices, 5G uses exceptionally high speed and low latency connections to make future innovations possible.

5G currently works in harmony with 4G networks as the rollout is still in its infancy. However, 5G will evolve naturally to be completely stand-alone.

A key advantage of 5G is its low latency. Latency is the computed time taken for devices to communicate with each other over wireless technology. 5G enables almost instant communication with latency response as low as 1ms (millisecond).

How Does 5G Work?

Wireless communications systems such as 3G, 4G and 5G use radio frequencies or 'spectrum' to transfer data over the airwaves. We talk more about spectrum and explain the values of mapping spectrum in this article >

These radio frequencies are shown as 'waves' (how we got part of our company name). The higher the frequency within the spectrum, the closer together the waves become.

To date, smartphones and other devices use a very narrow frequency range between 3 KHz and 3 GHz. Yet with an increasing number of mobile and smart, connected devices sharing this frequency range, the lack of capacity is reducing data transmission speeds and increasing connection failure. To remedy this, frequencies in a range below 6 GHz will be used and auctions for additional spectrum have already concluded. To add to this, in the future there are expectations to allocate frequencies in the millimetre wave range (mm-wave). These frequencies will be above 26GHz. Mobile devices are currently not transmitting within this frequency and there is sufficient bandwidth available for innovation. Millimetre waves have one disadvantage though, due to their short wavelength, they cannot penetrate walls and objects and require a clear line-of-site to operate effectively.

5G can use these millimetre waves isolating higher radio frequencies than 4G and 3G. This part of the spectrum can enable 5G to carry more information at a super-fast transfer rate, with exceptionally low latency (delay of data).

To solve this problem, 5G will use multiple input and output (MIMO) antenna to boost signals using existing 4G towers, masts and infrastructure. In addition, smaller localised transmitters will be placed on buildings and streetlights. Finally, smaller devices similar to broadband routers called CPE (customer premises equipment) will connect us when indoors.

The Physical Components Within a 5G Network

A 5G network has two principal components: the 'Radio Access Network' (RAN) and the 'Core Network'. 5G signals connect to the core network using both Macrocells and Small Cells.

The Radio Access Network

The Radio Access Network consists of a range of Macrocells, Small Cells and Femtocells positioned on towers, masts or street furniture with dedicated in-building and home systems. This infrastructure connects mobile users and wireless devices to the central core network.

5G Macrocells

5G Macrocell antennas are the large base stations situated on tall masts or building rooftops consistent with what we're familiar with. These look identical to existing 3G and 4G transmitters. Macrocells have multiple elements and connections with the ability to send and receive data simultaneously. Macrocells can provide coverage for miles and are currently used in the UK by carriers such as Vodafone, O2, EE and Three.

5G Small Cells

Small Cells are base stations similar in size to a small pizza box and are the critical component of 5G networks. Small Cells boost wireless connectivity in targeted areas giving coverage to an area the size of a football pitch. They are increasingly being installed on utility poles and lamposts in more densely populated areas like cities, universities and sports grounds. They will be a significant feature of the new 5G networks.

Small Cells are divided up further into three sub-categories:


Substantial base station with a coverage of up to 1.5 miles capable of supporting 200 users simultaneously.


For use in larger offices and shopping centres covering up to 250 meters and supporting up to 64 users.


These are small-sized 5G wireless access points (WAP) devices for your home or office about the same size as your broadband router. Covering indoor areas only up to 50 metres and 16 simultaneous users.

Due to the short frequency connection in the millimetre wave (mmWave), links need to be closer together than 4G networks to maintain performance. This means that 5G cells will become a significant presence, particularly in urban environments with an epicentre of connected devices. Due to the limited range of 5G small cells, network experts anticipate a need of 5-10 times the small cells to macrocells.

As this rollout will take time, the UK shouldn't see full 5G coverage for several years.

5G OpenRAN Ambitions

The RAN provides the critical technology that connects mobile devices to the network over radio waves. It also acts as the bridge to access and connect key applications from the internet.

Current RAN technology is provided as a hardware and software integrated solution. The ambition for Open RAN is to build a multi-supplier solution that allows for a separation between hardware and software, with open and accessible interfaces to control and update cloud networks. Benefits to an open solution are not just reduced costs, but supply chain variety, greater flexibility, and increased competition and innovation.

The O-RAN Alliance (O-RAN) is a global alliance of mobile network operators, vendors, research and academic institutions founded in 2018.  The goals are to provide agreements and benchmarks for building a RAN solution enabling parts from different vendors to interoperate, including solutions for AI and machine learning for more efficient network management.

5G Cell Connectivity

While a network of these cells provides a 5G connection, their signal propagation and building penetration features differ significantly. Macrocells provide low-frequency coverage for about a mile and can penetrate buildings, walls and other solid barriers.

Small Cells like picocells and microcells provide 5G's actual high-frequency coverage in an immediate area. These high frequencies, however, cannot penetrate through walls and solid objects. So instead, small cells rely on a line-of-site delivery for the best connection. As a result of this, poor weather conditions can impact connectivity.

Femtocells connect back through your broadband connection to the internet. As a result, femtocells operate in the same way as routers, with a small coverage range. Another benefit of femtocells is that they do not have line-of-sight limitations like small cells.

Complimenting 4G (in the near term)

These types of base stations are not unique to 5G. You will have already seen many of them around your environment.

5G Small cells can transmit over low and mid bands and efficiently serve 4G, simply to boost network capacity and speeds. However, the frequencies used through 4G do not require small cells for transmission. For true low-latency, high-speed 5G, however, small cells are essential in providing the high mmWave frequencies it promises. This is why small cells are the most critical part of 5G (Radio Access) networks.


Who Is Building The 5G Hardware?

We see the dominance of China in the news, particularly with Huawei equipment being banned in the UK over security concerns, but who are the other 5G players?

Currently, nine international companies sell 5G radio hardware and systems for carriers. These are Altiostar (US), Cisco Systems (US), Datang Telecom (China), Ericsson (Sweden), Huawei (China), Nokia (Finland), Qualcomm (US), Samsung (South Korea) and ZTE (China).

The Evolution of Mobile Network Generations

1G - First Generation

1G was an analogue technology first developed in the 1970s but more established in the late 1980s. Battery life for mobile phones was poor, voice quality was low and essentially insecure. 1G relied on the main PSTN (public switched telephone network) to operate and had a very low bandwidth of just 2Kbps.

2G - Second Generation

The first mobile phone upgrade happened in the 1990s with a move to 2G. This change was significant as it was the first move to digital mobile technology. A digital approach ensured more secure and reliable communications. Digital 2G technology also allowed for data transfer and voice, so SMS and conference calls were possible. Bandwidth started at around 14.4Kbps, and as the network evolved through 2.5G, speeds rose to 64Kbps. Other technologies such as EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) and GPRS (General Packet Radio Service) were integrated into networks for greater reliance.

3G - Third Generation

3G mobile technology was when we started to realise we could have portable computers in our pockets. The first Apple iPhone and the iconic launch created an explosion in new innovations, apps, social media and photography possibilities (including the narcissistic selfie). 3G initially used 2G as its foundation combining new technology and protocols to deliver a significantly improved data transfer rate of 2Mbps. These speeds allow multimedia applications and streaming services to operate. 3G was also upgraded throughout its life to 3.5G. 3G networks had a latency response time of around 100 milliseconds.

4G - Fourth Generation

As with other generations, 4G operated on a different frequency that carriers needed to purchase through auctions throughout the world. 4G was primarily brought about for speed, connectivity, improved security and a lower cost for data transfers. The maximum transfer speed for 4G is about 100Mbps. 4G was also backwards compatible, ensuring a connection through legacy 3G and 2G networks. LTE (long term evolution) technology was adopted in many networks allowing for continuous upgrades through 4.5G. 4G networks had a latency response time of around 30 milliseconds which, along with the faster transfer speeds, enabled multiplayer online gaming to happen.

5G - Fifth Generation

5G promises extremely low latency (transfer speeds) and significantly faster data transfers over 4G. 5G aims to enable device-to-device connections, better battery consumption, revolutionary security, and transfer rates six times faster than that of 4G. Potential speed gains as 5G evolves could allow download speeds well over 10Gbps. For users, gaming will see instantaneous responses with latency as low as just 1ms (millisecond) and enable at least 100 billion devices to be connected and communicate. 5G can also support nearly 1,000 more devices per metre than 4G.

What Will 5G Enable Us To Do?

5G will enable a truly connected world through low latency and the ability to connect billions of devices. 5G will allow an actual interaction between the physical and digital worlds, in real-time, by enabling data to move in a frictionless environment.

How Does 5G Work - Attributes

We will see a new generation of technology, services, applications and business opportunities through the introduction of 5G, particularly in the following areas:


In the future, 5G will enable self-driving cars to be ubiquitous, ensuring higher safety standards than human drivers.


5G will allow higher flexibility, lower cost, and shorter lead times for factory floor production reconfiguration, layout changes, and alterations.


5G can facilitate IoT devices to take measurements such as livestock location and field conditions, sending notifications when crops need watering, pesticides, or fertiliser.


5G will prove valuable in healthcare through remote surgery and tracking patient movements. Real-time monitoring will deliver continual treatment information and health & lifestyle support to patients.

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