5G: What is it, What Makes it Different, How does it Impact Cybersecurity, and Is it Safe?

5G refers to the fifth generation of wireless technology, and offers three main improvements over the current 4G standard: greater speed, lower latency, and higher bandwidth. The 5G radio system, known as 5G-NR, is not compatible with 4G, but the first 5G phones will keep 4G as a supplement while 5G coverage spreads. Despite the arrival of 5G, 4G technology can and will continue to improve in terms of speed, keeping it comparable in that regard. The pressure on tech companies to demonstrate that they are on the forefront of the latest technology is fierce, leading some companies to make 5G-like references to what are actually improvements in their 4G technology, such as AT&T’s “5G Evolution.”

What makes 5G promising is its massive capacity combined with low latency beyond what can be achieved with 4G. Latency is defined as the time it takes for a source to send a packet of data to a receiver, and is typically measured in milliseconds. Taking advantage of larger clear blocks of airwaves than were available for 4G, the 5G network can operate on much larger channels than 4G, allowing it to carry higher speeds. The 5G network will also be able to leverage wider bandwidths and advanced antenna technologies to boost capacity over current systems. This affords a 5G network higher speeds and higher regional capacities, all at a lower latency than 4G. The higher bandwidth and lower latency of 5G means more potential for streaming and connected services. For example, due to bandwidth and latency restrictions with the current 4G network, driverless cars are held back in utility as they can only control themselves and are unable to communicate with other cars. The increased bandwidth and low latency of 5G would make possible the large-scale level of device communication and instant response time required for connected driverless cars on the road.

The wide array of new services made possible by improvements brought with 5G will bring new security concerns as well. One area of concern is the increased bandwidth of 5G; the increased communication made possible by 5G will require stricter security measures for smart home appliances, among other things.

Regarding safety concerns for the new 5G network technology, 5G uses millimeter wave frequencies which are shorter than the typical frequencies used by 4G and Wi-Fi signals, and therefore, higher in energy. 4G LTE can use frequencies of around 2.5 GHz, while Wi-Fi uses frequencies of around 5 GHz. In contrast, the millimeter wave frequencies used by 5G can be as high as 300 GHz. This extra energy output raises concerns of potential unknown health risks associated with 5G. However, under current scientific and medical reasoning, to cause damage, radiation must be high enough to be considered ionizing. Despite having a much higher energy level than 4G or Wi-Fi, the energy put out by 5G networks does not come close to this threshold. Whether advances in science and medicine lead to changes in this understanding remains to be seen.

by Kalyan Emerick

About the author: USIRCC