Imagine there was an invisible skyscraper everywhere on earth

The seeds of this post started when I saw that a newsletter I’m subscribed to made a mini-series of five videos about 5G. I had no idea what 5G really was, so I made my dad watch them with me. And because he has a weirdly detailed understanding of the topic and helped explain it to me, I kind of get it now.

So here’s my attempt to briefly explain what 5G is without knowing anything about electricity and whatever else it has to do with. Hopefully I don’t say anything too inaccurate.

The G in 5G stands for Generation. So 5G just means “fifth generation.” In this case, the word “generation” doesn’t have to do with time. (Maybe this would be a good time to use the phrase “social construct”?) It’s more similar to how there’s different generations of iPhones. So with 5G, some kind of global nerd convention came together and decided, hey these are what characteristics 5G has and what makes it different from 4G.

Specifically, it’s the fifth generation of “cellular networks.” (Cellular networks are basically just what electronics use to talk to each other.) So in 1G and 2G, cellular networks could only send audio between electronics. Then 3G could send audio and video. And then 4G was when internet was added. And now, 5G is just a much faster version of 4G — faster to the point that an entire system of self-driving cars has become a realistic possibility.

But the part that really blew my mind was the part about the “electromagnetic spectrum,” aka spectrum. In one of the videos I watched, the person compared spectrum to real estate — for both, a limited amount of it exists and more can’t be made. When I first heard that, I looked at my dad and was like huh??? And he was like, yeah. Just like how the earth has a limited amount of land, spectrum is limited.

Imagine there was an invisible skyscraper everywhere on earth. This is the Spectrum Skyscraper.

And then imagine that the Spectrum Skyscraper is divided into multiple sections. Every country owns a section. Each country’s section correlates to its territory. The Germany section covers Germany, and the US section covers the US.

So you know how radio stations are like 90.9 or 95.1? That stands for 90.9 and 95.1 hertz. They’re specific frequencies on the electromagnetic spectrum — aka, specific floors in the Spectrum Skyscraper. Every country’s section has the same number of floors — every section has floor 90.9, floor 95.1, and so on.

Now imagine that the US’s floors are further split into rooms. There’s a 90.9 Dallas room, a 90.9 Orlando room, and so on. So if I wanted to host station 90.9 in downtown LA to play metal jazz music, I would go rent the 90.9 LA room. Then whenever people in LA listened to 90.9 on their car radios, they would be visiting my “room.” And if I decided to close the station because I realized I didn’t like metal jazz in the first place, the room would still be there. It would just be empty until the next person rented it out.

TV stations do the same thing. Except that the rooms they rent out have taller ceilings because audio+visual takes up more space then just audio. (So the quirk to the Spectrum Skyscraper is that the higher the floor you’re on, the higher the ceilings are. And the higher the ceilings are = the more stuff you can put in them.)

The US government is in charge of renting out everything in the US section. (At this point, I was like what??? The government owns electromagnetic wave space?? Yes, apparently they do.) Specifically the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rents the space out. I don’t know how much money they make from this, but it must be bank.

Now with 5G, companies like AT&T and T-Mobile are bidding against each other to rent lots of super high-up floors from the government. That’s where the “limited amount of space” factor makes things a little tricky.

There are some floors that the government agencies use — for example: the military, the national weather agency, and the Department of Transportation. And they want to make sure the FCC (the governmental agency that sells the spectrum floors to people) does not mess with their floors. In a specific example, the Department of Tranportation has already taken over some floors in preparation for automated cars, which is pretty cool, and they absolutely don’t want that space being auctioned off to companies.

Okay, so that’s about the extent of what I know about 5G.

Is there a random topic you’ve learned about recently?
Did you know the government owns electromagnetic spectrum??
What’s a metaphor that’s helped you understand something before?
Are there any topics that people around you have a weirdly in-depth understanding of?

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