Illustration of 5G technology in use for energy utilities

5G Technology: What Energy Utility Customers Need to Know

Fifth-generation (5G) wireless is the latest technology in mobile communications, but is it the greatest? The previous generation, 4G LTE, was launched a decade ago, in 2010, which means it was time for an upgrade. 5G service promises faster speed and a higher-quality wireless experience, but all of that may come at a cost. This is what energy utility customers should know about the launch of 5G technology.

The long and short of 5G technology

The frequency of wireless signals can be measured as hertz (cycles per second) or wavelength (meters). These waves of energy radiate through the air, carrying bits of data that turn into text, pictures and video on your mobile device.

Higher speeds carry more data, which reduces data transfer time and allows for higher-quality audio and video content. 5G has a maximum download speed of up to 2,000 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to 10 Mbps for 4G LTE. The higher speed of 5G enables you to download an entire movie to your phone in seconds.

Higher frequency, though, means shorter wavelengths, which aren’t as good at penetrating solid objects — like buildings. Cell phones typically use lower-frequency, longer-wavelength wireless signals that originate from cell towers and can travel long distances and can pass through windows and walls. The shorter wavelengths used by 5G technology dramatically limit the distance the signal can travel, especially in cities where lots of buildings stand in the way.

Into the 5G spectrum

5G service can operate in a wide range of frequencies generally divided into three different spectrums: low-band, mid-band and high-band.

Low-band spectrum operates at under one gigahertz (GHz), or one billion hertz. It’s used by existing 3G and 4G LTE services and UHF TV channels. Although the frequencies are roughly the same, 5G channels are much wider than 4G and are more responsive (lower latency), which theoretically improves download speed. However, low-band 5G has been found to be relatively slow, acting like 4G or slower.  

The mid-band spectrum is between 2 GHz and 10 GHz. Cell tower range in this spectrum is only about 2,500 feet, about half a mile. Unfortunately, very little of this spectrum is available to phone companies today. T-Mobile is currently rolling out 2.5 GHz mid-band 5G spectrum as a result of its acquisition of Sprint. AT&T and Verizon operate off mid-band spectrum as well, mostly sharing overlapping spectrum from their 4G service.

The high-band spectrum (millimeter wave) is generally between 20 GHz and 100 GHz. Higher download speeds come with much more limited range and noticeable interference from buildings, glass, and even leaves and rain. Cell tower range is limited to about 800 feet and outdoor towers only provide service when outside. Also, high-band 5G requires advanced technology antennas that must be spaced close together. All major wireless companies have at least some limited high-band service, but Verizon only offers 5G service in the high-band spectrum.

5G technology and your smartphone

How will the switch to 5G affect your mobile device? Right now, almost all phones capable of 5G service still need 4G service, at least for voice communication. Eventually, 5G phones will operate in standalone networks. Few 5G-capable phones available today will work with all three spectrum bands.

5G phone chips use a lot more energy than 4G chips, and they drain phone batteries faster. This requires larger batteries or more energy storage capacity (4,000 mAh or more). 5G chips can also run hot and warm up your phone, sometimes causing 5G service to shift to 4G in hot weather. Integrated low-power 5G chips, currently on the horizon, should help clear up these issues.

Making waves at 5G speeds  

Despite these drawbacks, 5G is likely to have a big impact on wireless communication. Besides enabling high-quality video chat, faster downloading and virtual reality experiences, 5G could eliminate the need for onboard data storage. This would push even more data onto the cloud.

5G technology also allows energy utilities to touch every level of the utility customer value-chain. For example, high-speed wireless could accelerate the deployment of autonomous electric vehicles and in-home healthcare due to its higher responsiveness. It already empowers the smart grid, mission-critical communications (like remote equipment monitoring) and the resiliency of licensed spectrum. Stay tuned to find out where 5G wireless will take us next.

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