Millimeter wave to low-band: The different types of 5G and how they work

5g spectrum variants header dt
Rose Behar

If you’ve been keeping up on news about the next generation of wireless technology, 5G, you’ve likely come across the terms “low-band,” “mid-band,” and “millimeter wave” in your reading. But what do those terms actually mean? The answer provides a good overview of how 5G works, so we break it down in this guide to the different types of 5G.

If you want a full overview of 5G — from what it is to how it will be used — check out our in-depth explainer.

How radio wave spectrum works

Low-band, mid-band, and millimeter wave all refer to different segments of the electromagnetic spectrum. All three are within the radio wave range, but the spectrum also contains light, gamma rays, X-rays, microwaves, and much more.

In the radio wave range of the spectrum, things are pretty crowded. While radio spectrum is becoming increasingly dedicated to mobile devices, it also hosts broadcast TV, HAM radio, and aircraft communication, among other things. Radio spectrum ranges from 30 Hertz to 300GHz — 1 GHz being equal to 1 billion Hertz. That’s a pretty massive range, so it makes sense that spectrum at the far ends of that range act very differently.

Spectrum on the lower side, known as low-band, has longer wavelengths than spectrum on the higher side, which allows it to be more robust and travel longer distances at the expense of bandwidth. The waves get shorter and shorter through the mid-band frequencies, gaining bandwidth but losing transmission distance. Eventually, they reach millimeter wave.

The importance of millimeter wave

Millimeter wave has in its title a reference to the small size of its wavelengths, which range from around 10 millimeters to 1 millimeter. It’s an extremely effective swath of spectrum, with large bandwidth, but it’s also very sensitive to external variables — whether it’s walls, trees, or even just rain. Whereas low-band antennas are good for covering areas of up to several miles — whether it’s large patches of city, residential areas, or rural expanses — millimeter wave (or mmWave) makes more sense for small, targeted deployments such as inside a baseball stadium, or for fixed wireless in a specific area.

5g spectrum variants mmwave image
Image courtesy of Qualcomm.

Fixed wireless, or using wireless to replace wired internet, is actually one of the first use cases most carriers are attempting with 5G — and you can already find it available or launching soon from U.S. operators including AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.

In addition to its larger bandwidth, one of the most exciting parts about mmWave for both telecommunications companies and consumers is the opportunity for larger channels of spectrum, which also aids in providing significant speed benefits.

5g spectrum variants cablefree ofcom frequency bands
Image courtesy of Cable Free.

Think of it like this: Rather than having several different narrow roads back and forth from your factory to the customer, wouldn’t it be more efficient to have a massive freeway? That’s the promise of mmWave, because it’s a relatively untapped resource. Until 5G, many in the industry were skeptical that such finicky spectrum could be put to commercial use in any sort of effective way. However, through the use of techniques like beam-forming (a method of focusing spectrum and shooting it directly at recipients), the engineers and scientists working on 5G have made it possible. And since there’s plenty of it to work with, telecoms can snatch up large contiguous sections of mmWave spectrum to create their data freeways.

Real world expectations

So what does all this mean? In a nutshell, tapping into mmWave was one of the biggest breakthroughs leading to the fifth generation of wireless, and it allows for some blazing fast, multi-gigabit speeds — but it’s early days yet. If you’re lucky enough to use mmWave in the next year or so, chances are it’ll be an intermittent experience on mobile, and it might drain your battery while it’s at work.

As for 5G on mid-bands and low-bands, improvements will be more incremental. The new wireless technology is more efficient than 4G LTE on existing bands, but not by a huge amount. 5G also is designed specifically to piggyback on the 4G network, with the aim of bolstering, rather than replacing, 4G speeds. Eventually, like any wireless technology, it will become dominant as carriers gradually upgrade their equipment, making for networks with much more consistently high speeds.

Ultimately, spectrum — and the need for more of it — is the major story behind the development of 5G. The early years of 5G may be bumpy (every wireless technology has had its awkward adolescence), but the opportunity these innovations afford are massive. With mmWave and improvements for low and mid-band spectrum, the future is looking more wireless data-focused than ever.

Mobile

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G might be a few short weeks away from launch

Samsung has announced a whopping four new Galaxy S10 devices, from the low-cost S10e to the triple-camera S10 and S10 Plus. But it's the Galaxy S10 5G that steals the show as it's among the first 5G-ready smartphones to hit the market.
Home Theater

Pandora now lets you mess with the secret sauce for its music playlists

Pandora introduced a new feature called Modes, allowing subscribers to pick between six different algorithms that determine what the popular music streaming service will decide to play.
Cars

Sibling rivalry: The Tesla Model Y takes on the Tesla Model 3

Tesla expanded its lineup with a fourth car named Model Y. It's an electric crossover positioned as a more spacious alternative to the Model 3. The two cars share about 75 percent of their components, but they're aimed at different buyers.
Mobile

5G is going to cost you a few bucks more, at least on Verizon

Verizon is in the midst of a massive 5G rollout. In addition to fixed 5G service, it will also begin deploying mobile 5G in the coming months. Here's everything you need to know about Verizon's 5G network and when it will be in your town.
Social Media

Facebook Messenger adds quoted replies to better organize group chats

Facebook is rolling out a feature that should help make group chats a whole lot more organized. The feature allows you to reply to specific messages within a group chat, so others will be able to tell what you're replying to.
Mobile

The 2018 iPad is often the best iPad for most people — and now it’s only $250

Apple may have recently taken the wraps off of a new iPad Air and iPad Mini, but it's still the standard iPad that is best for most people. Now, the standard iPad has gotten a pretty significant discount -- it's down from $330 to $250.
Product Review

With the S10e and S10 Plus, do we really need the Samsung Galaxy S10?

The Galaxy S10 is the middle child in this year’s Galaxy S10 range, between the Galaxy S10e, and the Galaxy S10 Plus. There’s no striking reason to buy it, but it’s still an excellent phone you’ll be happy with.
Photography

Looking to keep prying eyes at bay? Here's how to hide photos on your iPhone

People take tons of photos using their smartphones, but not all are meant to be shared or seen. Luckily, hiding photos on your iOS device is easy, whether you want to use built-in utilities or apps with added security.
Wearables

Fitbit Versa Lite tips and tricks to get started with your new smartwatch

Got your hands on a Fitbit Versa Lite? The smartwatch may be the pared down version of the more expensive Fitbit Versa, but there's still plenty for you to tweak in the settings. Here are our Fitbit Versa Lite tips and tricks.
Smart Home

Postmates now offers a way to get free delivery on meal orders

Postmates is offering customers the chance to order meals with free delivery. But you'll have to be cool with the idea of waiting a little longer, as the delivery driver will be carrying other meals for different customers.
News

Browse safely and securely with Opera’s unlimited VPN on Android

Opera has added a new VPN to its Android browser, offering an easy way to keep your privacy and data locked up solid, and with no limits on usage or cost, you can keep it on all the time.
Product Review

The new iPad Mini certainly isn’t a beauty, but it performs like a beast

Apple’s new iPad Mini has beastly performance, fluid iOS 12 software, and good battery life. It also looks like it came straight out of 2015, because the design hasn’t been changed. Here are our impressions of Apple’s new 7.9-inch…
Mobile

Need a quick battery boost? Try one of our favorite portable chargers

Battery life still tops the polls when it comes to smartphone concerns. If it’s bugging you, then maybe it’s time to snag yourself a portable charger. Here are our picks for the best portable chargers.
Mobile

You can now listen to Google Podcasts on your desktop without the app

The Google Podcasts app is no longer entirely necessary to listen to the podcasts it offers. With a simple tweak of the sharing URL, you can listen to a Google Podcasts podcast on your desktop or laptop without the app.