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

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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

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, 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.

AT&T is initially limiting its 5G service to a select group of businesses and consumers. 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. When the service is available to the general public in early 2019, it will initially be available as hot spot service, coming in at $70 a month for 15GB of data.

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 hot spots, it’s a pretty safe bet the carrier doesn’t plan to release its own hot spot. 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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