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

You’re starting on page 4 of this, click here to start at the beginning.

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).

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), its 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 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 early 2019. 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 December 17, 2018: AT&T is the first U.S. carrier to offer standards-based 5G service. 

Mobile

Verizon wants you to lobby the government for 5G deployment

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.
Mobile

Sprint’s 5G rollout: Everything you need to know about it

Sprint is building its next-gen 5G network in preparation for a 2019 rollout, but it's taking a decidedly different approach than some of its competitors, including Verizon and AT&T. Here's everything you need to know.
Mobile

T-Mobile says Sprint merger will boost 5G speeds by up to 6 times

2019 will be a huge year for T-Mobile. Not only is a merger with Sprint likely, but T-Mobile is also in the midst of building out its next-generation mobile service. Here's everything you need to know about the T-Mobile 5G rollout.
Mobile

AT&T adds Minneapolis and Chicago to its mobile 5G road map for 2019

Ready to experience a radical transformation in mobile communication? AT&T is launching mobile 5G in cities across the country over the next few months. Here's everything you need to know about the AT&T 5G rollout.
Wearables

Galaxy Watch Active isn't official yet, but you can see it in Samsung's own app

Samsung may be about to resurrect its Sport line of smartwatches under a new name: The Galaxy Watch Sport Active. Leaks and rumors are building our picture of the device at the moment.
Mobile

Stop buying old tablets, says Samsung, buy the new Galaxy Tab S5e instead

Samsung has launched the Galaxy Tab S5e -- the E is for Essential -- a reasonably priced tablet that includes many of the features we like from the Tab A 10.5, and the Tab S4. Here's what you need to know.
Wearables

Focals succeed where Google Glass fumbled (but do we really need smartglasses?)

It’s been seven years since Google took the wraps off Google Glass. Now, we’re finally getting a modern-day equivalent we want to wear. North’s Focals combine subtle style with an intuitive interface to craft smartglasses you’ll…
Mobile

Bag yourself a bargain with the best budget tablets under $200

The battle for your budget tablet affections is really ramping up. Which tablet, costing less than $200, should be commanding your attention? We take a look at some different options for the budget-conscious.
Computing

What is Wi-Fi 6? Here's a look at the next evolution of the wireless standard

We're exploring the new naming convention for wireless standards, how it affects the devices you buy, and what the upcoming Wi-Fi generation is changing for the better.
Home Theater

Samsung accidentally leaks its new Galaxy Buds ahead of launch

It's been all but certain that Samsung would launch a successor to its Gear IconX wireless earbuds soon, but a newly leaked photo and recent FCC certification document seems to indicate that the debut is very close.
Home Theater

Hi-res streaming audio service Qobuz arrives in U.S., threatens Tidal’s monopoly

For several years, Tidal enjoyed a monopoly on hi-res music streaming in the U.S. Now, French company Qobuz is here to offer some competition with a variety of monthly plans starting at $10 a month.
Mobile

These 13 gadgets walk a fine line between ingenious and insane

The annual avalanche of devices and gadgets is astounding, but how many will succeed? A few are destined to spark new trends, while the majority fade deservedly into obscurity. We look at some gadgets on the border of brilliant and bonkers.
Mobile

OnePlus 6T vs. Honor View 20: We compare the cameras in these ‘flagship killers’

For less than $600, you can buy either the OnePlus 6T or the Honor View 20, two extremely capable smartphones with plenty of exciting features. But which one has the best camera? We found out on a recent trip to France.
Mobile

Save space on your iPhone by turning off Live Photos in the camera app

If you want to save storage space on your iPhone or reduce the size of your backup for iCloud, then you should think about turning off Live Photos in the camera app. Find out exactly how to do it with our easy guide.
4 of 4