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 will start making appearances in cities around the U.S. in 2019, with much more comprehensive rollouts expected in 2020.

Right now it seems like there are more questions about 5G than there are answers. 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’s 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 an 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, they 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 10 Gbps and has very low latency. The major drawback of high-band is that it has low coverage area and building penetration is poor.

Both AT&T and Verizon are rolling out on high-band spectrum. 5G coverage for both carriers will piggyback off LTE while they work to build out nationwide networks. Since high-band spectrum trades off 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 use cases

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 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 provide 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 street lights 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? That question is a little more difficult to answer than you’d expect. 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.

It’s also worth noting 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.

America’s largest carrier plans to roll out standards-based mobile 5G in 2019; it’s 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.

As for hardware, Verizon has already announced two mobile 5G devices. In December 2018, Samsung and Verizon announced they would partner to release a 5G phone in the first half of 2019. The carrier also announced it will release a 5G Moto Mod for the Moto Z3 in the coming months. And we can’t forget the Inseego Mi-Fi 5G hotspot, featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chip, which is scheduled for 2019.

Keep up with Verizon’s 5G rollout

AT&T

Racing to be the first carrier to offer standards-based 5G service, AT&T says it will roll out 5G in 12 cities by the end of 2018. The first cities to get AT&T 5G will be Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Waco. In early 2019, AT&T will deploy 5G to parts of Orlando, Las Vegas, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose.

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.”

In December 2018, AT&T said it would work with Samsung to release a 5G handset in the spring of 2019. 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 more reliable service with more coverage area. In early 2018, T-Mobile announced it was building out its 5G network in 30 cities. Expect to see T-Mobile 5G in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas in early 2019. The carrier plans to offer 5G nationwide by 2020.

T-Mobile’s 5G deployment strategy is completely different than that of AT&T or Verizon. Instead of using mmWave for its initial rollout, it is using low-band spectrum (600MHz). For customers, that means a more reliable, but slower 5G network with fairly low-latency. That said, T-Mobile is also aggressively building out its 5G network on 28GHz and mid-band spectrum to provide additional speed and capacity.

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 nations fourth largest in-home ISP.

Since T-Mobile CEO John Legere has publicly lambasted AT&T and Verizon for launching its 5G with mobile hotspots, it’s a pretty safe bet the carrier doesn’t plan to release its own hotspot. Instead, we anticipate that a T-Mobile-compatible 5G smartphone will be announced in early 2019.

Keep up with T-Mobile’s 5G rollout

Sprint

Like T-Mobile, Sprint is not racing to be first in the 5G race. The carrier announced it will deploy 5G in early 2019 in New York City, Phoenix, Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. 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. The carrier announced in August 2018 that it would partner with LG to release a 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019. In November, it announced plans to release a 5G Mobile Smart Hub with HTC at the beginning of 2019. And in December, Sprint said a Samsung 5G smartphone was in the works for 2019 as well.

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 DOJ review, there’s a small chance these agencies may take issue with SoftBank since it has significant ties with Chinese telecom companies.

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