5G is the newest generation of cellular network technology, offering faster speeds and lower latency than previous generations. However, one downside of 5G is that it has a much shorter range than older cellular technologies like 4G LTE. This article explores why 5G signals travel much shorter distances compared to other cellular signals.
Higher Frequency Radio Waves
The primary reason 5G range is so limited is that 5G networks operate on very high frequency radio waves in what is known as the mmWave spectrum:
- 5G frequencies: 24 GHz to 72 GHz (and higher)
- 4G LTE frequencies: 700 MHz to 2.5 GHz
These extremely high frequency 5G waves have short wavelengths that carry lots of data very rapidly. However, higher frequency signals lose energy faster as they propagate. As a result, 5G mmWave signals cover much shorter distances.
Higher frequency also means 5G signals are easily blocked by buildings, trees, vehicles, rain, and other objects. 5G needs nearly line-of-sight access between towers and devices.
Building Density Further Limits Signal Travel
In addition to higher frequencies limiting range, 5G signals struggle to penetrate solid objects. Materials like brick and concrete strongly attenuate 5G signals.
As waves pass through dense buildings, signal range drops exponentially. This prevents signals from effectively traveling between indoor user devices and outdoor 5G towers.
Without a clear path, building construction materials soak up 5G’s energy. This necessitates more small cells to transfer signals between indoor and outdoor areas.
Short Wavelengths Enable Massive MIMO
The short 5 to 10 mm wavelengths used in 5G allow for smaller antenna elements to be packed together into much more compact arrays. This facilitates a critical 5G technology called massive MIMO.
Massive MIMO uses dozens to hundreds of tiny antennas in one array to focus signals into narrow beams. This adds capacity and precision targeting to enhance both speed and range.
Solving 5G’s Range Limits
While basic physics limits 5G propagation, telecom engineers employ various strategies to broaden coverage:
More Small Cells
Deploying more numerous, lower-powered 5G base stations allows for greater blanket coverage with less distance between access points and users. This greatly expands coverage but increases infrastructure costs.
Dynamic Spectrum Sharing
Because 4G operates on lower frequencies less prone to building penetration issues, 4G LTE bands can be dynamically allocated to 5G as needed to improve indoor range. This leverages 4G’s propagation while providing 5G speeds when possible.
Advanced beamforming concentrates signals into focused directional beams aimed precisely at intended user devices. This allows 5G frequencies to travel farther with better reliability.
Upgrading infrastructure by reducing barriers, adding mmWave repeaters, installing fiber backhaul to enhance signals, and deploying 3D mapping provides more robust networking environs to transport 5G signals farther.
- The ultra high frequencies used for 5G provide blazing fast speeds and expanded capacity compared to 4G LTE and earlier networks.
- However, these mmWave signals suffer from poorer propagation and vulnerability to disruption from objects in the environment.
- Creative solutions like small cells, spectrum sharing, beamforming, and infrastructure upgrades help expand 5G’s range and coverage.
- Over time, maturation of the technology and infrastructure will continue increasing usable 5G service areas.
In summary, 5G’s exceptionally short range stems primarily from its utilization of very high frequency radio waves in the mmWave bands. Signals at these frequencies enable the fast data rates 5G is known for. But the tradeoff is that they cover much shorter line-of-sight distances before attenuation, cannot easily penetrate solid objects, and are impacted by weather and physical obstructions.
Engineers employ an array of clever workarounds like MIMO beamforming, small cells, and dynamically borrowing from 4G LTE spectrum to address range limitations. As 5G infrastructure continues improving, service ranges should expand to offer ultra high speed wireless to more users and regions moving forward.
Frequently Asked Questions
- What frequency does 5G use?
5G utilizes high frequency radio waves in the 24 to 72 GHz range, and even higher bands, referred to as mmWave spectrum. These extremely high frequencies allow blazing fast data rates.
- Why does 5G have such short range?
The primary factor limiting 5G range is the very high frequency mmWave signals used. High band frequencies cannot propagate long distances and are easily disrupted.
- Why does 5G struggle with buildings?
Materials like brick and concrete strongly attenuate signals at mmWave frequencies. Without line of sight between towers and devices, building construction soaks up 5G’s energy.
- How far can 5G realistically travel?
Under ideal conditions, 5G signals may travel 500 to 2,000 feet. But real-world obstructions often limit practical signals to just a few hundred feet or less.
- What restricts 5G signal distance?
Key factors reducing 5G distance include operating frequency, signal disruption by objects, inability to penetrate solid structures, susceptibility to weather effects, and need for line of sight.
- Can 5G go through walls?
5G radio waves, especially at higher mmWave frequencies, cannot easily pass through most solid materials. Special repeaters or infrastructure may be needed for indoor 5G service.
- Does 5G have better building penetration than 4G?
No, 4G generally has superior building penetration capabilities due to operating on bands under 6 GHz, allowing signals to better travel through walls and structures.
- How is 5G range expanded?
Strategies like small cell deployment, beamforming, spectrum sharing with 4G LTE, infrastructure upgrades, and improved modem chips all help expand usable 5G signal range.
- Will 6G have better range than 5G?
Potentially, but it depends which frequency bands future 6G networks utilize. Lower 6G frequencies could improve range over mmWave 5G signals at the cost of some bandwidth capacity.
- What is the range of 4G LTE?
Average 4G LTE range under moderate conditions is estimated to be around 3 to 5 miles, with a freqeuncy range of 700 MHz to 2500 MHz allowing better propagation than 5G signals.
- Can I get a 5G signal booster?
Yes, 5G signal boosters are available to amplify mmWave signals in buildings and homes, although performance may be inconsistent due to 5G’s heavy reliance on line-of-sight signaling.
- Why does 5G drain my phone battery faster?
The energy-intensive beamforming required for mmWave 5G signals along with shuffling between 5G/4G bands can drain batteries quicker than just 4G LTE access alone. Improved modems will help.
- How far can 5G mmWave penetrate glass?
About 25% of 5G mmWave signal strength can penetrate household glass without too much loss. Far less will make it through commercial glass, necessitating other strategies for indoor service.
- Can 5G penetrate trees?
Even leafy trees can severely attenuate, reflect or fully block 5G mmWave signals. Directional beamforming helpsaim signals around foliage, but vegetation remains a propagation challenge.
- Does rain affect 5G signal?
Yes, heavy rain or snow can interfere with 5G connections due to operating at such high frequencies vulnerable to disruption by atmospheric moisture and precipitation.