The MobileIron 5-minute 5G primer 

It’s a tough job, but I’m going to attempt to explain all the gnarly details about 5G in only 5 minutes. That’s approximately the amount of time it takes to download 50 full-length HD movies over a 5G network (6 seconds a piece if you don’t have a calculator handy). Let’s get started, we’re already short on time.


What is 5G?

5G is the next generation of cellular wireless connectivity. We’ve all heard it’s going to be fast, but 5G technology is going to enable us to light up the world in ways we can’t even imagine yet. Below are some 5G benefits:

  1. Using the Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB) consumer standard, 5G is going to allow us to do more on our devices - and even our desktops - because it will be many times faster than 4G allows today. It’s also going to make AR and VR work more seamlessly, without needing to connect to WiFi.
  2. In the IoT world, we’ll see Massive Machine Type Communications (mMTC), which will allow for the growth of smart cities with a need for a high density of connectivity.
  3. 5G will enable new services requiring Ultra-Reliable and Low-Latency Communications (uRLLC). Think cars, drones, robotic surgery, and more.
  4. Network Slicing and RANs (Radio Access Networks) are essentially private networks carved out of the 5G spectrum. They are sold to an enterprise and can be configured with different speeds and different latency.


How Fast is 5G, really?

Theoretical speeds of 5G technology and 5G internet are pegged at up to 20 Gbps. However, achieving that speed requires a perfect storm of elements to come together, including:

  1. The right weather. Rain degrades the 5G signal. So do walls and concrete.
  2. The right density of small cells. 5G requires a LOT of small cells to attain high speeds. Since these signals don’t go as far, small cells are going to be everywhere -- but they are much less practical to deploy in dispersed rural areas.
  3. The right equipment running an up-to-date version of the 5G protocol.

One of the stated goals of consumer 5G or eMBB is to provide at a minimum 100 Mbps download speeds with only 4MS of latency (today most 4G users experience download rates below 10 Mbps). So, although we may not achieve the theoretical maximum in the real world, even the slower speeds are an order of magnitude faster than what we see today with 4G deployments.


Who’s going to use 5G, and when?

Everyone, really, but it’s going to take a little while. Practically every carrier on the planet is implementing 5G, but some are doing it more quickly than others. In the US, carriers like Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile have been focusing on lighting up major urban centers. The general consensus is that, as of January 2020, countries like South Korea, China, and Japan have the largest commercial deployments. Check out Ookla’s map of worldwide 5G rollouts if you want to learn more. The technology will take some time to become ubiquitous though, so we shouldn’t expect something similar to current 4G density until around 2025.

2020 will also be a big year for flagship devices with 5G capabilities. The chip manufacturer Qualcomm, the leader in the 5G chipset space, will likely be equipping the next version of the iPhone with it’s 5G modems as part of a six year exclusive contract with Apple when the new devices launch in the fall of 2020. Qulacomm also expects to see as many as 200 new devices deployed with their Snapdragon 5G chipsets in 2020. Samsung has already launched on their high-end devices with their own internally developed Exynos processor (although they use Qualcomm in the US) and Huawei also builds their own chips with massive deployments in China, where they also build the backend systems that run the 5G network.


What spectrum will 5G use?

5G NR (New Radio, the RF component of 5G) essentially uses two spectrums, although it’s capable of doing things like aggregating 4G and 5G channels, and may also sometimes use “mid-band” frequencies (2.4-4.2 GHZ). The 3GPP spec is evolving so more frequencies will be deployed and freed up in the future.

Low Band: This is the sub 6Ghz band. It isn’t as fast as the higher frequency bands, but it goes farther and has less trouble with obstacles. The goal for this standard is to provide consistent 100Mbps download speeds with sub-four millisecond delay.

High-band: 24-100 Ghz. This is the standard that will allow for sub-one millisecond latency along with the highest speeds, which will enable technologies like self-driving cars using uRLLC. The radio signals don’t travel as far and are susceptible to rain or anything else that gets in the way, including a person or a wall. To help address this, the “small cells (think shoebox sized radios) used to broadcast these technologies are often boosted with massive Multiple-In Multiple Out (MIMO) antennas and beamforming technologies that allow the base station to change the direction of a radio wave. 


Who exactly builds the 5G standard?

5G, sometimes referred to as 5G NR (New Radio), is a specification built by the 3GPP standards committee, or Third Generation Partnership Project. I know, the name is a little out of date… 3GPP is part of a larger standards body, the IMT-2020, which is part of a larger organization, the  International Telecom Union (ITU), which was formed way back in 1865. I know, confusing isn’t it?

The point here is 3GPP builds the standards, and then vendors follow them to build 5G infrastructure. Those vendors, led by the likes of Nokia, Ericsson, and Huawei, make equipment that they sell to mobile operators. It takes a long time to build new versions of the 5G standard. In January 2020, we are currently at version 15 of the 5G NR standard with 16 and 17 in the works. After a new version is finalized, it typically takes 18 months before the updated version of the protocol gains a foothold in public networks.


Will 5G be safe?

Many have claimed 5G is the most secure cellular protocol ever, but recent findings at BlackHat in 2019 demonstrated Man-in-the-Middle (MiTM) attacks over 5G. Later, researchers at Purdue and The University of Iowa demonstrated theoretical vulnerabilities in 5G using a tool they developed called the 5GReasoner. With it, they were able to demonstrate the ability to

  1. Find a person’s location
  2. Run up someone’s wireless bill with a replay attack. (NAS counter reset)
  3. MiTM attacks, Denial of Service Attacks, Battery depletion attacks
  4. Hijack the paging channel and create a fake emergency alert

One very current issue, and of great concern to the Department of Homeland Security and others, is something called Supply Chain Trust. The premise? If you can’t trust the manufacturer of the 5G equipment, with a prime example being Huawei, you can’t be certain that any of your data is protected. That’s why today many organizations are redefining their security perimeters and building Zero Trust into their networks.

If you want to learn more about 5G risks, check out The Emerging Risks of 5G


Russ Mohr

Director, N. American Carrier and Channel Sales Engineering at MobileIron

About the author

Russell Mohr is a 20 year veteran of the tech industry. Before joining MobileIron in 2012,  he worked extensively in sales, business development, product marketing, and engineering for companies including Lucent  Technologies and Blackberry. In his current role as a technical director of our channel and carrier team,, Russell helps customers solve challenges and devise strategies using MobileIron’s best in breed EMM and IoT solutions. He is a regular speaker at MobileIron and partner events and frequently publishes blogs, white papers, and podcasts. 

Follow Russell’s twitter handle @rhmohr to stay updated about the latest industry developments or find him on Linkedin.