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What is 5G?

5G stands for the fifth generation of mobile telecommunications. The new communication standard builds upon its predecessor 4G (LTE), but enables significantly faster data transmission with minimal latency and thus entirely new application areas.

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A definition of 5G

5G is the successor to the previous mobile telecommunication standards GSM (2G), UMTS (3G), and LTE (4G). Development and standardization are being carried out by the 3GPP standards organization and have not yet been finalized. The new communication standard goes far beyond digital telephony and fast mobile internet. It is seen as a response to the increasing data traffic worldwide in the course of digitalization, which is being driven by things such as streaming, big data, and the Internet of Things (IoT). 5G is expected to set new standards in terms of data speed, network capacity, response time, reliability, and data security and enable real-time data communication for the first time. This promises many new application possibilities, such as in the areas of IoT, self-driving cars, and Industry 4.0 (IIoT).


How does 5G work?

The 5G technology available to date usually still requires an existing 4G network to establish a connection, so it does not work independently. That is why this is referred to as 5G non-standalone (5G NSA). The full potential of 5G will only be exploited with independent networks (5G standalone, 5G SA), upgraded technology behind the transmission towers, and compatible devices.

Higher frequency ranges allow faster data transmission

Compared to LTE, new frequency ranges and far more antennas are used for 5G. While LTE uses bands below 3 GHz in particular, the 5G frequency range extends to 6 GHz and is to be expanded over the long term to include frequencies from 24 GHz to a maximum of 100 GHz. This means that significantly more bandwidth is available for data transmission. However, widespread 5G coverage also requires significantly more base stations than LTE. That is because the higher a frequency is, the more data can be sent over it. At the same time, however, the range decreases proportionally.

Network slicing: an optimized network for every requirement

One of the most important technical innovations of 5G is the ability to divide the network into application-specific layers depending on requirements and to operate several virtualized subnetworks concurrently. This is based on technologies such as network functions virtualization (NFV) and software-defined networking (SDN). The 5G network is cut into several slices, so to speak, which is why it is also referred to as “network slicing.” Each layer or slice is optimized for a specific requirement:

  • Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB): for the fastest possible connections with high data rates (e.g., ultra-high-resolution video streaming)
  • Massive Machine Type Communication (mMTC): for as many connections as possible with rather low data rates and low energy consumption (e.g., Internet of Things)
  • Ultra-Reliable Low-Latency Communications (uRLLC): for the most reliable low-latency connections possible (e.g., self-driving vehicles and industrial automation)

This subdivision makes it possible to provide a wide variety of applications with exactly the resources they need. In this way, the 5G network can be flexibly adapted to specific customer groups, services, and market segments.

Beamforming enables targeted radio coverage

“Beamforming” active antenna technology provides greater capacity and efficiency in radio coverage. Unlike passive antennas, which radiate signals aimlessly in all directions, 5G masts with active antennas can direct radio waves to individual devices in the transmission radius, flexibly adapting them to the actual needs. Beamforming is already used to some extent in LTE, but in a less mature form.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of 5G?

Theoretically, 5G technology enables data rates of up to 20 Gbit/s and thus up to 20 times faster data transmission than the previous generation. At the same time, 5G promises latency times of less than one millisecond, which for the first time allows data communication in real time. Energy consumption is also expected to be lower than with 4G, and it should be possible to network up to 1,000 times more devices per square kilometer. This opens up numerous new application possibilities in professional and private environments.

Benefits and application areas for industry and business

  • Improved machine-to-machine (M2M) communication for automation (e.g., wirelessly connected manufacturing robots)
  • Real-time communication as the basis for connected road traffic and self-driving vehicles
  • Guaranteed network availability (e.g., for emergency services) through service levels and private campus networks (closed 5G networks for local company sites, a university, or individual buildings)
  • Telemedicine (e.g., augmented reality, direct video connection, and smart meters)
  • Digital agriculture (e.g., remote control of agricultural machinery and the use of digital measurement and control technology)

Benefits and application areas for consumers

  • Shorter loading times and faster page loading (e.g., when browsing or streaming video)
  • Very low response time (e.g., when online or cloud gaming)
  • Better coverage and stability of the connection (e.g., at large events or on a train)
  • Improved mobile telephony (voice over 5G)
  • Possible alternative to fixed networks for gigabit internet
  • New application areas such as augmented or virtual reality in real time, ultra-high-resolution live TV (5G broadcast), and 4K video telephony


  • Gigabit mobile communications have so far provided little added value for consumers
  • Still inadequate availability (especially in rural areas)
  • New devices required
  • More transmission antennas required for uniform network coverage than with 4G
  • Issue of health hazards from mobile radiation not yet conclusively clarified

What security features does 5G include?

Some additional protection mechanisms are intended to make 5G significantly more secure than previous generations. For example, all network components are secured separately with new cryptographic solutions. If individual components are compromised, the others remain protected. Unlike in previous generations of mobile communications, the International Mobile Subscriber Identity (IMSI) is also transmitted in encrypted form in the 5G network in order to eliminate points of attack for eavesdropping (e.g., using IMSI catchers).

When roaming, i.e., when the device is on a foreign network, it sends cryptographic proof of the foreign cellular carrier’s identity to the domestic carrier. This authentication confirmation (AC) ensures that the device is in a recognized network and that data exchanged on it remains protected. Thanks to network slicing, virtual, specially protected networks can also be set up for exchanging sensitive data, such as patient data in a hospital.


What are the risks associated with 5G?

Of course, there can be no hundred percent security in the 5G network either. Security researchers have already uncovered several vulnerabilities in the network protocols that permitted man-in-the-middle attacks and DoS attacks, among other things. In general, software vulnerabilities are one of the main gateways for cybercriminals. And since software plays a significant role in the 5G infrastructure, the potential risk it poses is also immense.

Backdoors built into network components at the factory or at a later time can also pose a risk, such as permitting data to be spied on or even sabotage attacks to be carried out. In this context, there is also the risk of government interference. As one of the main suppliers of 5G components, Chinese network equipment supplier Huawei has come under criticism in many places. 

The United States, for example, is accusing it of taking part in espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. For this reason, Germany’s planned IT Security Act (IT-SiG 2.0) provides for critical components from suppliers to be subjected to strict scrutiny and for “untrustworthy” manufacturers to be excluded from the 5G network rollout.

As the new cellular standard becomes more widespread, the impact of botnet-based DDoS attacks will inevitably increase. This is because even more IoT devices will be networked at significantly higher data rates via 5G in the future. If they are not adequately secured, cybercriminals will have far more bandwidth at their disposal, which they can misuse for more powerful attacks.


What is the current status of the 5G network rollout?

In Germany, 5G has become more widespread since 2019. While the LTE infrastructure has largely been used as the technical basis to date, the expansion of 5G technology in the form of standalone transmission towers and antennas is steadily progressing. According to Deutsche Telekom, more than two-thirds of the people in Germany can already access its 5G network today, and coverage is expected to reach 80 percent by the end of 2021 and 99 percent by 2025. Vodafone now reaches more than 20 million people in Germany with its 5G network. That number is expected to rise to over 30 million by the end of the year. Telefónica Deutschland aims to supply more than 30 percent of German households with 5G by the end of 2021 and to offer a “nationwide” 5G network by 2025. Globally, 5G is expected to be available to one-third of the world’s population by 2025. According to estimates by the GSMA, the new communications standard will then account for as many as 1.2 billion connections.


What you need to know about 5G

The fifth generation of mobile communications promises significantly higher data rates with minimal response times and low energy consumption in the long term. Thanks to 5G, data communication in real time will be possible for the first time, opening up many new application areas. This will benefit industry and business in particular, such as in the areas of IoT, production automation, logistics, and networked or autonomous driving. Consumers can look forward to new types of augmented and virtual reality applications, as well as ultra-high-resolution video streaming. By 2025, 5G should be available to virtually everyone in Germany. However, the opportunities offered by the new technology also come with risks: the growing number of networked devices sharing huge amounts of data via 5G also increases the potential attack surface.

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