“Nationwide 5G” is here, but for many people, it isn’t making much of a difference. Both AT&T and Verizon are running forms of 5G that light up a ‘5G’ icon on your brand-new smartphone but feel and work exactly like 4G.
That may lead people to wonder what the big deal is with 5G. Is what we’re seeing right now even 5G at all? The answer is yes—technically. It turns out that 5G technology and a “5G experience” are very different things, and right now in the US we’re getting the former without the latter.
Things will start to turn, though. T-Mobile’s “ultra capacity” 5G is showing speeds several times higher than 4G, and starting in late 2021, the upcoming C-band networks may accomplish the same feat for AT&T and Verizon.
5G is an investment for the next decade, and in previous mobile transitions, we’ve seen most of the big changes happening years after the first announcement. Take 4G, for instance. The first 4G phones in the US appeared in 2010, but the 4G applications that changed our world didn’t appear until later. Snapchat came in 2012, and Uber became widespread in 2013. Video calls over LTE networks also became big in the US around 2013.
With the 5G transition, there’s another twist. There are three main kinds of 5G—low-band, mid-band, and high-band—and while the US put its bet on low and high, it turns out that mid-band is probably the best way to do it. T-Mobile has mid-band—that’s the “ultra capacity” stuff—but AT&T and Verizon had to wait for the C-band auction, which just ended, to get theirs.
So following that plan, while we’re getting fits and starts of 5G right now, you should expect the big 5G applications to crop up in 2022.
1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G
First of all, if you’re hearing about 5G Wi-Fi or AT&T’s “5G E” phones, they aren’t 5G cellular. Here’s a full explainer on 5G vs. 5G E vs. 5GHz: What’s the Difference?
And if you’re hearing that 5G means millimeter-wave towers on every lamppost, that’s not true. That’s only one of the three main forms of 5G we’re seeing right now.
The G in this 5G means it’s a generation of wireless technology. While most generations have technically been defined by their data transmission speeds, each has also been marked by a break in encoding methods, or “air interfaces,” that makes it incompatible with the previous generation.
1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second. 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward, and they are now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds.
5G brings three new aspects to the table: bigger channels (to speed up data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).
It isn’t a clean break with 4G. 5G phones all need 4G networks and coverage. At first, all 5G networks used 4G to establish their initial connections, something called “non-standalone.” We’re starting to move away from that now into “standalone” networks, but they lose significant performance without an assist from 4G. Part of the 5G spec allows 5G phones to combine 5G and 4G channels invisibly and seamlessly to the user. So most connections will be combined 4G/5G links for quite some time.
That symbiosis between 4G and 5G has caused AT&T to get overenthusiastic about its 4G network. The carrier has started to call its 4G network “5G Evolution,” because it sees improving 4G as a major step to 5G. It’s right, of course. But the phrasing is designed to confuse less-informed consumers into thinking 5G Evolution is 5G, when it isn’t.
While 2G and 3G are going away soon, 4G has many years ahead of it as part of the 5G equation.
Low, Middle, and High
5G gives carriers more options in terms of airwaves than 4G did. Most notably, it opens up “high-band,” short-range airwaves that didn’t work with 4G technology. But 5G can run on any frequency, leading to three very different kinds of 5G experiences—low, middle, and high.
The key thing to understand here is that 5G isn’t much faster than 4G on the same old radio channels. Instead, the 5G spec lets phones use much wider channels across a broader range of frequencies. The carriers and the FCC have to make those wider channels available, though, and that’s where they’ve largely fallen short.
With 4G, you can combine up to seven, 20MHz channels to use a total of 140MHz of spectrum. Most of the time, though, phones are using 60MHz or less.
With new phones in low- and mid-band 5G, you can combine two 100MHz channels for 200MHz usage—and stack several more 20MHz 4G channels on top of that. In high-band 5G, you can use up to eight 100MHz channels. But if you don’t have the airwaves available, you don’t get the speeds.
Carriers can also flexibly share channels between 4G and 5G using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). DSS makes the walls between 4G and 5G channels movable, so carriers can split channels between 4G and 5G based on demand. That’s what Verizon has been using for its “nationwide” 5G. It doesn’t free up any new airwaves for 5G—it just reuses odds and ends of 4G—so we haven’t seen DSS 5G offer better performance than 4G.
sometimes show 5G icons when they aren’t even using 5G, making it hard to tell any difference.
Mid-band 5G is in the 2–10GHz range. That covers most current cellular and Wi-Fi frequencies, as well as frequencies slightly above those. These networks have decent range from their towers, often about half a mile, so in most other countries, these are the workhorse networks carrying most 5G traffic. Most other countries have offered around 100MHz to each of their carriers for mid-band 5G. Here in the US, T-Mobile’s “ultra capacity” 5G network runs on channels of up to 80MHz of mid-band. AT&T and Verizon are largely waiting for the results of the C-band auction to make big mid-band plans, which they’ll likely start rolling out in late 2021 or 2022.
speeds over 3Gbps on Verizon’s high-band network, which it calls “ultra wideband.” Unfortunately, we found in our Fastest Mobile Networks 2020 tests that Verizon’s network had as little as 4–5% coverage on our citywide drives. AT&T and T-Mobile also have some high-band, but they haven’t talked much about it for months.
How 5G Works
Like other cellular networks, 5G networks use a system of cell sites that divide their territory into sectors and send encoded data through radio waves. Each cell site must be connected to a network backbone, whether through a wired or wireless backhaul connection.
5G networks use a type of encoding called OFDM, which is similar to the encoding that 4G LTE uses. The air interface is designed for much lower latency and greater flexibility than LTE, though.
5G networks need to be much smarter than previous systems, as they’re juggling many more and smaller cells that can change size and shape. But even with existing macro cells, Qualcomm says 5G will be able to boost capacity by four times over current systems by leveraging wider bandwidths and advanced antenna technologies.
The goal is to have far higher speeds available, and far higher capacity per sector, at far lower latency than 4G. The standards bodies involved are aiming at 20Gbps speeds and 1ms latency, at which point very interesting things begin to happen.
Where Is 5G Available?
5G is now “nationwide,” although with the carrier’s very different approaches to it, you’re going to have different experiences in different places.
Verizon has a slow “nationwide” 5G based on shared 4G channels, and fast, high-band 5G in more than 60 cities, with online coverage maps here.
T-Mobile currently has a slow nationwide low-band 5G network that covers most of the country; faster mid-band covering 106 million people, with a coverage finder here; and high-band in seven cities (the ones listed in that link, plus Miami).
AT&T has slow low-band across about most of the country and high-band in 35 cities, which it doesn’t give maps for. It calls the low-band “5G” and the high-band “5G .” The company has low-band maps and a high-band city list here.
Low- and mid-band 5G is less expensive to implement than high-band 5G, so many AT&T and T-Mobile phones lack high-band 5G. I’m of two minds about whether or not that matters. More technology is better, and the companies do own a lot of high-band airwaves. But they’ve been extremely reticent about what they plan to do with them, so it’s unclear what advantage high-band will bring you in AT&T and T-Mobile phones. If you want to dot all your i’s, the Galaxy Note 20 Ultra, the Galaxy Z Fold 2, the Galaxy S21 series, the iPhone 12 series, the Pixel 5, and the LG Wing all have high-band.
OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and OnePlus 8 received critical software upgrades to improve low-band performance before the Samsung phones did. Yep, that means the OnePlus phones worked better on low-band but lacked high-band, while the Samsung phones had high-band but did worse on low-band. It’s messy.
You can check out our current rundown of the best 5G phones for more.
Other countries have even more 5G phones, with models from Huawei, Oppo, Realme, Xiaomi, and others. They generally don’t work on US 5G networks because they don’t support our frequency bands; they use European and Asian mid-band systems we don’t have here.
Is 5G Safe?
Yes. Online conspiracy theories have blamed 5G for everything from cancer to coronavirus, but they tend to fall apart at the slightest tap of actual facts. Low-band and mid-band 5G are based on radio frequencies that have been used for decades. Low-band 5G uses UHF TV bands, which have been in use since 1952. Sprint’s mid-band has been in use at least since 2007; parts of it were first used in 1963.
The greatest 5G worries in the US tend to be around high-band, or millimeter-wave, 5G. This is the short-range type that requires a lot of small cell sites, so the infrastructure is more visible than it was before. The ironic thing about worrying that millimeter-wave will fry your cells isn’t that it’s too strong, but that it’s too weak: It’s blocked by leaves, walls, glass, cars, clothing, and skin.
why 5G is safe.
What’s 5G For?
Most of the real-world 5G demos we’ve seen just involve people downloading Netflix very quickly on their phones. That kind of usage is table stakes, just to get the networks built so more interesting applications can develop in the future.
On phones, OnePlus CEO Pete Lau said that 5G could make onboard storage irrelevant, which dovetails with ideas I heard around the launch of the Samsung Galaxy S20. The Galaxy S20 takes huge 108-megapixel photos and 8K videos, which quickly eat up your storage and are difficult to upload unless you have a fast 5G connection. On a trip to Korea, I found that high-quality video chat was a major driver for wanting 5G.
5G home internet shows one major advantage over 4G: huge capacity. Carriers can’t offer competitively priced 4G home internet because there just isn’t enough capacity on 4G cell sites for the 346GB of monthly usage most homes now expect. (The pandemic era has pushed that number higher as people work and learn from home.) So 5G, if implemented right, could increase home internet competition in the US, where, according to a 2016 FCC report, 51 percent of Americans only have one option for 25Mbps or higher home internet service. Verizon has launched an unlimited 5G home internet service, but so far it is very hard to sign up for.
5G home internet is easier for carriers to roll out than house-by-house fiber optic lines. Rather than digging up every street, carriers just have to install fiber optics to a cell site every few blocks and then give customers wireless modems. Verizon chief network officer Nicki Palmer said the home internet service would eventually be offered wherever Verizon has 5G wireless, which will give it much broader coverage than the carrier’s fiber optic Fios service.
On a trip to Oulu, Finland, where there’s a 5G development center, we attended a 5G hackathon. The top ideas included a game streaming service, a way to do stroke rehab through VR, smart bandages that track your healing, and a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators. All of these ideas need the high bandwidth, low latency, or low-power-low-cost aspects of 5G.
We also surveyed the 5G startups that Verizon is nurturing in New York. At the carrier’s Open Innovation Lab, we saw high-resolution wireless surveillance cameras, game streaming, and VR physical therapy.
Our columnist Michael Miller thinks that 5G will be most important for industrial uses, such as automating seaports and directing industrial robots.
Driverless cars may need 5G to really kick into action, our editor Oliver Rist explains. The first generation of driverless cars will be self-contained, but future generations will interact with other cars and smart roads to improve safety and manage traffic. Basically, everything on the road will be talking to everything else.
To do this, you need extremely low latencies. While the cars are all exchanging very small packets of information, they need to do so almost instantly. That’s where 5G’s sub-one-millisecond latency comes into play, when a packet of data shoots directly between two cars or bounces from a car to a small cell on a lamppost to another car. (One light-millisecond is about 186 miles, so most of that 1ms latency is still processing time.)
Another aspect of 5G is that it will connect many more devices. Right now, 4G modules are expensive, power-consuming, and demand complicated service plans, so much of the Internet of Things has stuck with Wi-Fi and other home technologies for consumers, or 2G for businesses. 5G will accept small, inexpensive, low-power devices, so it’ll connect a lot of smaller objects and different kinds of ambient sensors to the internet.
The biggest change 5G may bring is in virtual and augmented reality. As phones transform into devices meant to be used with VR headsets, the very low latency and consistent speeds of 5G will give you an internet-augmented world, if and when you want it. The small cell aspects of 5G may also help with in-building coverage, as it encourages every home router to become a cell site.