What is 5G? Here’s everything you need to know

5G's arrival is transforming tech. Here's everything you need to know to keep up


It has been nearly a decade in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. Carriers started rolling out fixed 5G to select cities in 2018, and mobile 5G has already starting making appearances in cities around the U.S. this year, with much more comprehensive rollouts expected in 2020.

Right now it seems like there are more questions about 5G than there are answers. Some people are wondering what 5G is, and if they’ll ever see it in their city, while others are more interested in 5G smartphones. And of course, there is the debate about which carrier will have the best 5G service.

If you have questions, we’re here to help. Here’s everything you ever wanted to know about 5G.

How 5G works

Before we explain how 5G works, it’s probably a good idea to explain what 5G is. There are a lot of specifics, which we talk about later in this post, but here’s a quick primer.

5G is the next generation of mobile broadband that will eventually replace, or at least augment, your 4G LTE connection. With 5G, you’ll see exponentially faster download and upload speeds. Latency, or the time it takes devices to communicate with each other wireless networks, will also drastically decrease.

Now that we know what 5G is, it’s a good idea to understand how it works, since it’s different from traditional 4G LTE. From spectrum bands to small cells, here’s everything you need to know about the inner workings of 5G.

Spectrum

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GSMA / ITU

Unlike LTE, 5G operates on three different spectrum bands. While this may not seem important, it will have a dramatic effect on your everyday use.

Low-band spectrum can also be described as sub 1GHz spectrum. It is primarily the spectrum band used by carriers in the U.S. for LTE, and is quickly becoming depleted. While low-band spectrum offers great coverage area and penetration, there is a big drawback: Peak data speeds will top out around 100Mbps.

T-Mobile is the key player when it comes to low-band spectrum. The carrier picked up a massive amount of 600MHz spectrum at a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) auction in 2017 and is quickly building out its nationwide 5G network.

Mid-band spectrum provides faster coverage and lower latency than you’ll find on low-band. It does, however, fail to penetrate buildings as well as low-band spectrum. Expect peak speeds up to 1Gbps on mid-band spectrum.

Sprint has the majority of unused mid-band spectrum in the U.S. The carrier is using Massive MIMO to improve penetration and coverage area on the mid-band. Massive MIMO groups multiple antennas onto a single box, and at a single cell tower, to create multiple simultaneous beams to different users. Sprint will also use Beamforming to improve 5G service on the mid-band. Beamforming sends a single focused signal to each and every user in the cell, and systems using it monitor each user to make sure they have a consistent signal.

High-band spectrum is what most people think of when they think of 5G. It is often referred to as mmWave. High-band spectrum can offer peak speeds up to 10Gbps and has very low latency. The major drawback of high-band is that it has low coverage area and building penetration is poor.

AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon are rolling out high-band spectrum. 5G coverage for the carriers will piggyback off LTE while they work to build out nationwide networks. Since high-band spectrum trades penetration and user area for high speed and coverage area, they will rely on small cells.

Small cells are low-power base stations that cover small geographic areas. With small cells, carriers using mmWave for 5G can improve overall coverage area. Combined with Beamforming, small cells can deliver very extremely fast coverage with low latency.

5G uses

Improved broadband

The shift to 5G will undoubtedly change the way we interact with technology on a day-to-day basis, but it also has a serious purpose. It’s an absolute necessity if we want to continue using mobile broadband.

Carriers are running out of LTE capacity in many major metropolitan areas. In some cities, users are already experiencing slowdowns during busy times of the day. 5G adds huge amounts of spectrum in bands that have not been used for commercial broadband traffic.

Autonomous vehicles

Expect to see autonomous vehicles rise at the same rate that 5G is deployed across the U.S. In the future, your vehicle will communicate with other vehicles on the road, provide information to other cars about road conditions, and offer performance information to drivers and automakers. If a car brakes quickly up ahead, yours may learn about it immediately and preemptively brake as well, preventing a collision. This kind of vehicle-to-vehicle communication could ultimately save thousands of lives.

Public safety and infrastructure

5G will allow cities and other municipalities to operate more efficiently. Utility companies will be able easily track usage remotely, sensors can notify public works departments when drains flood or streetlights go out, and municipalities will be able to quickly and inexpensively install surveillance cameras.

Remote device control

Since 5G has remarkably low latency, remote control of heavy machinery will become a reality. While the primary aim is to reduce risk in hazardous environments, it will also allow technicians with specialized skills to control machinery from anywhere in the world.

Health care

The ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G could fundamentally change health care. Since URLLC reduces 5G latency even further than what you’ll see with enhanced mobile broadband, a world of new possibilities opens up. Expect to see improvements in telemedicine, remote recovery, and physical therapy via AR, precision surgery, and even remote surgery in the coming years.

Remember massive Machine-Type Communications? mMTC will also play a key role in health care. Hospitals can create massive sensor networks to monitor patients, physicians can prescribe smart pills to track compliance, and insurers can even monitor subscribers to determine appropriate treatments and processes.

IoT

One of the most exciting and crucial aspects of 5G is its effect on the Internet of Things. While we currently have sensors that can communicate with each other, they tend to require a lot of resources and are quickly depleting LTE data capacity.

With 5G speeds and low latencies, the IoT will be powered by communications among sensors and smart devices (here’s mMTC again). Compared to current smart devices on the market, mMTC devices will require fewer resources, since huge numbers of these devices can connect to a single base station, making them much more efficient.

When will we see 5G?

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So when should you expect to see 5G in your neighborhood? Well, it depends on the neighborhood you live in. Some neighborhoods already have 5G access — meaning that all you need to take advantage of the blazingly fast speeds is a 5G-enabled smartphone. All of the major U.S. carriers are working furiously to build out 5G networks, yet deployment across the entire country will nonetheless take several years. If you’re interested in seeing if your city has access to 5G, check out this guide.

It’s also worth noting that each carrier has a different 5G rollout strategy. This means your 5G experience may vary greatly depending on your carrier. Here are all the details we currently have concerning each carrier’s deployment plans. If you’re looking specifically for phones, check out our guide to the 5G phones that are coming (and already here!).

Verizon

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Verizon

In its quest to be the first carrier to provide 5G, Verizon began offering pre-standard fixed 5G in homes in October 2018. Verizon’s fixed 5G service is currently available in portions of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento, California. Since then, however, Verizon has also started rolling out its mobile 5G offering — and so far has brought mobile 5G to parts of Denver, Minneapolis, and Providence., Rhode Island.

Verizon is rolling out 5G on higher-frequency spectrum known as mmWave (28-39GHz). That means that while Verizon’s 5G will offer blazing-fast speeds when available, it will piggyback off its LTE spectrum for years to come. According to Verizon, 20 cities will get standards-based 5G in 2019, including Atlanta, Dallas, Memphis, Tennessee, and more.

As for hardware, Verizon already has a few devices that are available. First up is the 5G version of the Samsung Galaxy S10, but the carrier also supports the 5G Moto Mod for the Moto Z3 and Moto Z4. The carrier also supports the LG V50 ThinQ. And we can’t forget the Inseego Mi-Fi 5G hot spot, featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip.

Keep up with Verizon’s 5G rollout

AT&T

AT&T officially won the race to be the first carrier to roll out true 5G service. In December 2018, the carrier began offering  5G in parts of Atlanta; Charlotte, North Carolina; Dallas; Houston; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Florida; Louisville, Kentucky; New Orleans; Oklahoma City; Raleigh, North Carolina; San Antonio; and Waco, Texas. In early 2019, the carrier also started deploying to parts of Orlando, Florida; Las Vegas; Nashville, Tennessee; Los Angeles; Austin, Texas; Dallas; and more. And, it says that the tech will be coming to Chicago, Cleveland, and Minneapolis soon.

Unfortunately, while AT&T’s 5G rollout is pretty comprehensive, AT&T is initially limiting its 5G service to a select group of businesses customers. It plans to provide free service and equipment to this group for at least three months, before rolling out the service to a larger audience.

Like Verizon, AT&T is rolling out its mobile 5G on mmWave spectrum. In an interview with Urgent Communications, Dave Wolter, assistant vice president of radio technology and strategy for AT&T Labs, offered some insight into what you should expect with the carrier’s 5G service initially. “If you’re in a downtown urban environment — where it’s going to be pretty much line of sight until you go around a corner — that’s one thing … If you have a street lined with trees, that’s going to be a different environment. If you’re in a heavily treed environment, that’s going to be difficult. All of those things are going to impact the kind of range that we can anticipate.”

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is available on AT&T too — though currently it’s only worth getting if you’re a business customer. The Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot was also announced by the carrier earlier this year.

When it comes to fixed 5G service, it’s going to be a little bit longer. Trade publication SDX Central reports AT&T will roll out fixed LTE service in late 2019 over the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum and eventually migrate to 5G service.

Keep up with AT&T’s 5G rollout

T-Mobile

America’s Un-Carrier is taking a more measured approach. Instead of racing to be first out of the gate, T-Mobile wants to provide a more reliable service with more coverage area. In early 2018, T-Mobile announced it was building out its 5G network in 30 cities. In mid-2019, the company announced that mobile 5G is available in six cities, including parts of Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, and New York. Expect to see T-Mobile 5G in 30 cities in late 2019. The carrier plans to offer 5G nationwide by 2020.

The carrier also offers the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G for those who live in areas with 5G and want to take advantage of the new speeds.

T-Mobile is making use of a range of frequency bands for its 5G rollout. While it was initially thought that the carrier would rely mostly on low-band spectrum, T-Mobile is also using mmWave tech, including 39GHz in some cities and more mid-band 28GHz in other areas. T-Mobile is also using 600MHz for a more reliable and stable connection — and the Samsung Galaxy Note 10 5G is the first device to support that 600MHz spectrum.

For fixed 5G, it looks like T-Mobile wants to make some serious waves. In a statement submitted to the FCC, T-Mobile said it projects more than 1.9 million in-home wireless broadband customers by 2021. By 2024, the carrier wants to provide fixed 5G to more than half the ZIP codes in the U.S., and be the nation’s fourth-largest in-home ISP.

Since T-Mobile CEO John Legere has publicly lambasted AT&T and Verizon for launching its 5G with mobile hots spots, it’s a pretty safe bet the carrier doesn’t plan to release its own hot spot, at least not for a while. Instead, T-Mobile is offering the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G to customers.

Keep up with T-Mobile’s 5G rollout

Sprint

Sprint wasn’t racing to be the first to deploy, but it has finally started deploying its 5G tech. The carrier announced that mobile 5G is available in Chicago, Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Kansas City, Missouri, with New York City, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. to soon follow. Additional markets will be added in the near future.

Sprint will initially launch its 5G network on its extensive mid-band spectrum (2.5 GHz). That’s the same spectrum the carrier uses for its 4G data network, and it plans to use 128-radio massive MIMO equipment on its towers to create a 4G/5G split. Since Sprint is one of the few carriers with lots of extra 2.5GHz spectrum, it can use the excess mid-band to roll out 5G service quickly and relatively inexpensively in larger cities.

When it comes to hardware, Sprint has actually promised three 5G products for 2019, and they’re all already available. For starters, Sprint offers the LG V50 ThinQ. Sprint also announced a 5G Mobile Smart Hub with HTC, and the carrier also supports the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G.

Keep up with Sprint’s 5G rollout

T-Mobile and Sprint merger

So what happens if T-Mobile and Sprint merge? Well, both companies claim the merger would be good for the economy and the country. The companies also claim that together as the New T-Mobile, it would have the assets and spectrum on multiple bands to become the first nationwide 5G carrier.

While the combined bandwidth of the two companies would almost certainly lead to a faster and more reliable nationwide 5G rollout, there are some issues. For starters, there would be fewer options in the already anemic U.S. carrier market. And that means less competition for both consumers and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).

There’s also the issue of foreign ownership. T-Mobile’s parent company is German company Deutsche Telekom, and Sprint is owned by Japanese investment giant SoftBank. While Deutsche Telekom may not raise eyebrows during the FCC or Department of Justice review, there’s a small chance these agencies may take issue with SoftBank since it has significant ties with Chinese telecom companies.

The most recent news suggests that T-Mobile and Sprint will have to sell off some of their assets to help create a fourth carrier, and it’s expected that Dish may buy many of those assets.

Who are the major 5G players?

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Countries around the world are racing to roll out 5G service. While the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China are the first with commercial 5G service, other countries will not be too far behind.

Large-scale deployments require huge investments in infrastructure. There are currently six major companies providing network products for 5G deployments around the world.

Qualcomm

First up is Qualcomm. This telecommunications giant holds 15% of all 5G patents, and surpasses every competitor by a wide margin. From smartphones to small cells, Qualcomm is involved in just about every facet of 5G.

Over the past few years, Qualcomm announced several major pieces of hardware to jump-start the mobile 5G revolution. In 2016, it launched the X50 5G modem, the world’s first 5G modem. The X50 was followed in 2018 by the first integrated mmWave RF antenna for smartphones, as well as a second antenna for sub-6GHz 5G. And at the end of 2018, Qualcomm showed off its Snapdragon 855 Mobile Platform — the world’s first commercial mobile platform with multi-gigabit 5G, A.I., and extended reality (XR) capabilities.

In addition to consumer hardware, Qualcomm is creating network solutions. It created the first 5G NR solution for small cells and remote radio heads, and partnered with Samsung to create commercial small cells.

Expect to see Qualcomm power the bus of consumer 5G technology in 2019 and beyond. As of December 2018, the company was working with nearly two dozen manufacturers and carriers to deliver networks and products around the world.

Huawei

Huawei was once thought to be the initial frontrunner in the 5G race, until it hit some serious obstacles in 2018. The U.S. blocked the Chinese telecoms giant over security concerns, and it has reportedly been lobbying Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan to follow suit.

So far the U.S., India, and Australia have banned Huawei from providing 5G equipment over security concerns. New Zealand also stopped work with the country, though it’s uncertain whether that is due to a security concern or a technical one. And Germany looks like it may be planning a ban as well, though that ban has yet to be confirmed.

Still, Huawei has 22 commercial 5G contracts around the world. The telecoms giant claims its equipment is perfectly safe, and that at least some of the bans are due to political issues as opposed to actual security concerns.

Nokia

Finnish telco giant Nokia is one of the big players in the 5G market. The company is partnering with carriers and countries around the world to provide 5G network equipment.

Nokia is paving the way with some massive 5G partnerships. In 2018 Nokia partnered with U.K. carrier O2 to create two Massive MIMO trials in London. Earlier in the year, T-Mobile signed a $3.5 billion deal with Nokia to build out its nationwide 5G network on its 600MHz and 28GHz spectrum. And it began 2018 with a bang, announcing it would supply Tokyo with 5G networks for the 2020 Olympic Games.

Ericsson

Swedish telecom Ericsson is also looking to get into 5G. While the carrier doesn’t have as big of a footprint in the U.S. as other 5G providers, it is working with major Chinese carriers on field trials.

In addition, Ericsson is partnering up with the automotive industry. In 2018, the company signed a five-year partnership with Volvo to collaborate on a series of 5G-connected vehicle initiatives.

Samsung

When people think of 5G and Samsung, smartphones may come to mind, but the company provides network solutions for carriers as well. In 2018, Samsung was tapped by Verizon to provide fixed 5G network solutions for the carrier’s first commercial rollout. The South Korean tech giant was also chosen by AT&T in 2018 to supply AT&T with 5G-ready equipment on the CBRS network.

In addition to U.S. carriers, Samsung is making some pretty big 5G waves around the world. In late 2018, the company announced it had been selected by South Korea Telecom to supply the company with 5G solutions. Samsung also, of course, has the Galaxy S10 5G, which will be available from Verizon in the first half of 2019, and to other carriers in the second half.

ZTE

Chinese telecom ZTE wants to become one of the big names in 5G as well. In 2018 the company worked with the Chinese government in mid-band and core 5G testing. The company also inked a deal with Qatari-based carrier Ooredoo Group to provide consumer solutions for its 164 million customers.

What exactly is 5G? A brief history

5G is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications. It will ultimately replace 4G LTE to provide faster and more reliable service with lower latency. But who decides what 5G will look like?

The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is a specialized agency at the United Nations that develops technical standards for communication technologies, and it sets the rules for radio spectrum usage and telecommunications interoperability. In 2012, the ITU created a program called “IMT for 2020 and beyond” (IMT-2020) to research and establish minimum requirements for 5G. After years of work, the agency created a draft report with 13 minimum requirements for 5G in 2017.

Once the ITU set the minimum requirements for 5G, the 3rd Generation Partnership Group (3GPP), a collaboration of telecommunications standards organizations, began work on creating standards for 5G. In December 2017, 3GPP completed its Non-Standalone (NSA) specifications, and in June 2018 it followed up with its standalone specifications (SA).

5G Goals and standards

In short, the ITU developed three usage scenarios for 5G:

    Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB): This scenario primarily deals with consumer use. With eMBB users will have access to faster and more reliable mobile broadband for more demanding tasks like HD video and augmented reality/virtual reality. It also handles heavy traffic more efficiently and guarantees at least a 100Mbps data transmission rate when the signal is weak.
    Ultra Reliable and Low Latency Communications (URLLC): URLLC was created to provide real-time services that require extremely low latency (or delay). Its primary use is for mission-critical tasks like remote surgery, autonomous vehicle interaction, and industry automation.  URLLC provides ultra-reliable data coverage with a theoretical latency of less than 1 millisecond.
    Massive Machine-Type Communications (mMTC): The ITU defines this use scenario best. It states, “This use case is characterized by a very large number of connected devices typically transmitting a relatively low volume of non-delay-sensitive data. Devices are required to be low cost, and have a very long battery life.”

Both NSA and SA standards share the same specifications, but NSA uses existing LTE networks for rollout while SA will use a next-generation core network. Carriers are starting with the NSA specification, which means you will fall back on 4G LTE in a non-5G environment.

The standards set by 3GPP closely correspond with IMT-2020 performance targets and are somewhat complex, but here’s a general rundown:

  • Peak data rate: 5G will offer significantly faster data speeds. Peak data rates can hit 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station. Mind you, that’s not the speed you’d experience with 5G (unless you have a dedicated connection), it’s the speed shared by all users on the cell.
  • Real-world speeds: While the peak data rates for 5G sound pretty impressive, actual speeds won’t be the same. The spec calls for user download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps.
  • Latency: Latency, the time it takes data to travel from one point to another, should be at 4 milliseconds in ideal circumstances, and at 1 millisecond for URLLC.
  • Efficiency: Radio interfaces should be energy efficient when in use, and drop into low-energy mode when not in use. Ideally, a radio should be able to switch into a low-energy state within 10 milliseconds when no longer in use.
  • Spectral efficiency: Spectral efficiency is “the optimized use of spectrum or bandwidth so that the maximum amount of data can be transmitted with the fewest transmission errors.” 5G should have a slightly improved spectral efficiency over LTE, coming in at 30bits/Hz downlink, and 15 bits/Hz uplink.
  • Mobility: With 5G, base stations should support movement from 0 to 310 mph. This basically means the base station should work across a range of antenna movements — even on a high-speed train. While it’s easily done on LTE networks, such mobility can be a challenge on new millimeter wave networks.
  • Connection density: 5G should be able to support many more connected devices than LTE. The standard states 5G should be able to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometer. That’s a huge number, which takes into account the slew of devices that will power the Internet of Things (IoT).

Should you buy a 5G smartphone?

Although 5G will undoubtedly change the way we interact with each other and consume media, the change won’t happen overnight. It will be a few years before 5G is up and running smoothly across the U.S. While it’s ultimately a personal decision, it may be wise to hold off on buying a 5G handset in 2019, especially considering the fact that a slew of manufacturers are expected to release 5G-capable handsets in 2020. In addition to the fact that coverage will likely be very spotty, the hardware will also be first-gen. With the exception of a phone AT&T plans to release at the end of 2019, most of the 5G smartphones that will come in early 2019 will likely have single-band 5G support.

Telecom giant Ericsson makes a good argument for waiting on a 5G smartphone. It reports a second generation of 5G chipsets will be announced by the end of 2019, featuring enhanced architecture and lower power consumption. You can keep tabs on which smartphones support 5G in our guide here.

Updated August 20, 2019: Revised article to reflect recent carrier changes and 5G announcements.

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