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What is 5G? The Next-Gen Mobile Network Is Here | Digital Trends


It’s been nearly a decade in the making, and 5G is now a reality. Wireless carriers started rolling out 5G several years ago, and mobile 5G internet access is now widely available. But what is 5G exactly?

It may seem as though there are more questions about 5G than there are answers. Some wonder where 5G is available, and if they’ll ever see it in their city, while others are more interested in which 5G phone they should buy. And of course, there is a debate about which carrier has the best 5G phone plan.

You have questions about the latest mobile network, we have answers. Here’s everything you need to know about 5G tech today.

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What is 5G technology?

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 cover throughout this article, but here’s a quick primer.

What is 5G? Simply put, 5G is the 5th generation of mobile broadband that will eventually replace, or at least augment, your 4G LTE connection. With 5G, you get exponentially faster download and upload speeds. Latency, or the time it takes devices to communicate with wireless networks, will also drastically decrease.

5G networks are inherently more efficient, handling more connections per tower and faster speeds per user. 5G is also designed to work across a wider range of radio frequencies (RF), opening up new possibilities in the ultra-high mmWave (millimeter-wave) bands for carriers to expand their network offerings. Because 5G is an entirely new technology that operates on new frequencies and systems, 4G phones are incompatible with the new 5G network.

The evolution of 5G: How we got here

5G networks started to be deployed in earnest in 2019, but the groundwork for the next-generation network was laid many years prior. The architecture of the 5G standard was set forth on 2016, at which point every company and person involved from both the network and consumer side could start making devices that were 5G standard compliant.

Obviously 5G hasn’t yet hit total market saturation, or even represents a majority of mobile traffic yet. But looking back at the history of the 4G rollout we can get an idea for how long it will take. 4G (LTE) was first deployed commercially in 2009, and didn’t go live in the U.S. until the very end of 2010. It took until 2013 for 4G to be truly mainstream in many countries, and become dominant over the old 3G networks.

Following a similar timeline, we’re still waiting for perhaps late 2022 or even 2023 for 5G to be the dominant network in most countries around the world. And it will be for many of the same reasons: 4G faced similar technical hurdles as 5G, operating on new spectrum with new technologies required on both the network and device ends — though it too brought a substantial increase in speeds over the previous-generation network.

How does 5G technology work?

Now that we know what 5G technology is, it’s a good idea to understand how it works since it’s different from traditional 4G LTE. First, let’s talk 5G spectrum.

GSMA / ITU

Just like 4G LTE, 5G technology operates on a wide range of radio spectrum allotments but is capable of running on a wider range than current networks. The most common form of 5G being used is called Sub-6, and there is also mmWave.

Sub-6 refers to 5G that operates at a frequency below 6GHz. All carriers have some form of Sub-6 network, primarily because 4G LTE currently runs on these lower frequencies. For example, T-Mobile has its low-band 600MHz spectrum and its previously Sprint-owned 2.5GHz both in use for 5G.

Sub-6 spectrum is incredibly important in the rollout of 5G, because these lower-frequency radio waves can travel long distances and penetrate walls and obstacles. That means that carriers can deploy much larger networks without having to build a vast number of new cell towers.

Then there’s mmWave (millimeter wave), which refers to the ultra-high-frequency radio waves, between 30Ghz and 300Ghz, that are used to supercharge 5G connections and deliver download speeds of multiple gigabits per second. Early on, Verizon relied exclusively on mmWave for its 5G network, though the carrier has now deployed a Sub-6 network too. While mmWave connections can deliver superfast download speeds, the high-frequency signals can’t travel long distances and can’t really get through obstacles — for the most part, even a window or leaves of a tree can block the connection.

That means to make a robust mmWave network, carriers need thousands of small network cells in every city. Essentially, mmWave network deployment often comes down to having to build little networks around nearly every corner of every building. So why bother? Well, mmWave can handle an incredible amount of data, and an incredible number of users simultaneously. That makes it better for densely populated cities, as well as places like stadiums and arenas. mmWave is also using all-new spectrum that isn’t crowded by other 3G, 4G, and Sub-6 5G networks — so there isn’t a trade-off in resource use.

All of the major carriers are deploying mmWave networks, but to date, those superfast connections are limited to a handful of downtown areas in major cities. It’s expected that mmWave networks will get more robust, but only time will tell how long that actually takes. Until then, Sub-6 is going to offer a vast majority of people 5G a vast majority of the time.

How fast is 5G? A Guide to 5G Speeds

Clearly, 5G is faster than 4G, but by how much? The standards for telecommunications technologies, developed by 3GPP, are somewhat complex, but here’s a general rundown of how fast 5G is:

  • 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, and even then, it’s high.
  • Real-world 5G speed: While the peak data rates 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 use cases that demand the utmost speed. Think self-driving car-collision systems.
  • 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.” It’s expected that 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 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 mmWave networks.
  • Connection density: In terms of connection density, 5G should be able to support many more connected devices than 4G 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 connected devices that will power the Internet of Things (IoT).

In the real world, actual 5G speeds will vary widely. Eventually, Sub-6 networks should be able to deliver speeds of multiple hundreds of gigabits per second, but for now, connections can be anywhere from 50Mbps to 400Mbps.

Real-world mmWave speeds are a little harder to pin down, since mmWave is scarcely available in the real world. If you do happen to find yourself on a mmWave network, you may be able to achieve speeds of up to 4Gbps. That’s many times faster than the fastest 4G LTE networks, but again, those connections are sparse, and widespread availability of them is a long way off.

In many areas, 5G internet is just as slow, or sometimes slower, than 4G LTE. That’s usually due to limited spectrum availability, as carriers try to use one chunk of radio waves to support current 4G networks and new 5G networks simultaneously. Those 5G speeds should improve as more devices are moved over to 5G and carriers start to change the allocation. You can use these 5G apps to test your connection.

Where is 5G coverage available now?

So, when should you expect to have a 5G infrastructure in your neighborhood? Well, if you live in a relatively populated area, at least one — and probably all — of the major carriers already offers 5G. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon have all rolled out their so-called “nationwide” networks, using Sub-6 5G.

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 that each 5G 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.

Verizon

The Verizon 5G network is smaller than the likes of AT&T and T-Mobile, due largely to the fact that Verizon spent years building out mmWave before it started work on Sub-6 for 5G deployment. That also means that Verizon offers a large number of mmWave small cells — though still not enough to provide a meaningful and reliable mmWave network that’s widespread.

Verizon 5G coverage map

AT&T

AT&T was in the running as the first to offer any kind of 5G wireless technology in the U.S., but like Verizon, it relied heavily on mmWave in the early days — and as such its recently launched nationwide network is a little smaller than T-Mobile’s. Still, it is large enough to be considered “nationwide,” and the carrier will be expanding its AT&T 5G network over time.

It’s important to note that AT&T really wants you to think you’re always on 5G. If you don’t have a 5G-compatible phone, you may still get a little icon saying that you’re on “5GE,” but that’s not really 5G at all — it’s just AT&T’s new marketing name for 4G.

AT&T 5G coverage map

T-Mobile

T-Mobile took a more measured approach than the other carriers, relying heavily on Sub-6 for its rollout of 5G. The result? The T-Mobile 5G network is the largest right now. The carrier has been using its existing 4G towers to also deploy 5G, so the coverage is almost identical in most areas. T-Mobile has also launched mmWave in a small number of neighborhoods in specific cities, but it’s very much still in the development stages of their 5G service.

T-Mobile 5G coverage map

Best 5G phones available now

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. in a way that you should care about. Because of that, we don’t recommend buying a phone because it has 5G. Rather, if you like a phone for other reasons, and it happens to support 5G, then it will be an added bonus. Most new phones going forward will likely support 5G.

For more, check out our guide on the best 5G phones of 2021. You can also take a look at everything we know about 5G on the iPhone 12.

Can you use 5G for home internet?

With incredible speeds and low latency, 5G would seem like a good potential replacement for home wireless network. Particularly in rural areas, where fast wired internet is tough to come by and the only other alternative is often satellite internet. While the capability is certainly there, 5G home internet isn’t yet a great alternative.

Verizon 5G home internet

Verizon offers 5G home internet, but availability is incredibly limited because it relies solely on mmWave coverage. The direction your home faces, what windows you have available, and even what foliage is outside your window can affect speeds. When you do have a signal, though, Verizon quotes “typical” speeds of 300 mbps. The problem is, chances are anyone who has Verizon mmWave coverage is probably in a dense urban area that also has good wired internet.

AT&T 5G home internet

AT&T doesn’t yet offer 5G home internet to consumers, but has traditionally offered 4G home internet solutions in the past and it’s expected to do the same for 5G eventually. In September 2020 it launched its first consumer-focused 5G mobile hotspot, which moves a step in that direction.

T-Mobile 5G home internet

Now that T-Mobile offers a robust nationwide network, it has launched in-home 5G internet service. The offering is competitive: $60 per month (with auto pay) gets you unlimited internet with speeds up to 100Mbps. Though because this is based on its Sub-6 network, and can fall back to 4G LTE, we’d expect real-world speeds to be more like 50Mbps. That isn’t giving good cable- or fiber-based internet a run for its money, but it could be a good choice for people in rural areas that don’t have good wired internet options.

Potential Benefits of 5G

There are many 5G use cases to be excited about beyond just mobile communication. In the short term, it is likely to simply boost your speeds for things like downloading videos and apps, or playing games. In the long term, just as 4G did, it could spawn all new industries. Here are some expected future use-cases for 5G connectivity.

Improve home broadband

While 5G is commonly thought of in terms of mobile access, it could also have a significant impact on home broadband and wireless connectivity. Carriers are starting to offer home internet services that rely on 5G connections instead of cable or fiber, and Verizon has already started rolling out a 5G Home service. If this becomes more widespread, it could have a significant impact on the likes of Comcast and Charter, which rely on wired technologies to deliver home internet connections.

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, providing information to them about road conditions, and offer performance information to drivers and automakers. If a car brakes quickly up ahead, yours could 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 and improve road use efficiency.

Public safety and infrastructure

Eventually, 5G will allow cities and other municipalities to operate more efficiently. Utility companies will be able to 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 and low-latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G could fundamentally change health care. Since URLLC reduces 5G latency even further from 4G, a world of new possibilities opens up. Expect to see improvements in telemedicine, remote recovery, and physical therapy via augmented reality, precision surgery, and even remote surgery in the coming years.

Remember massive Machine-Type Communications? Well, MTC 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 4G data capacity.

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

What do 5G towers look like?

You might be wondering where the 5G towers in your town are located, and it kind of depends. For the most part, right now, 5G towers look just like 4G towers — because they are 4G towers. The nationwide coverage that T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T all offer now is built on slightly tweaked 4G towers, so if you see a traditional cell tower and have 5G coverage in your area, chances are it helps support your area’s 5G network. The fact that they were able to reuse these 4G cell towers is partly how all three carriers were able to roll out full, nationwide networks in a short span of time.

As carriers start to roll out midband and high-band (mmWave) spectrum, however, this may change. MmWave frequencies can’t travel as far as the Sub-6 frequencies that nationwide networks rely on — and as such, to get mmWave coverage in a city, there have to be hundreds, or even thousands, of small cells around the city. These are small white nodes that hang on the side of a building or sometimes on their own little pole. Sometimes they’ll be painted a different color to blend in with their environment, but usually they’ll remain white.

More of these small cell towers and nodes are likely to pop up in cities in the near future, especially heavily populated cities. It’s a little less likely that we’ll see these in rural areas, however, considering the fact that mmWave coverage won’t reach many people in those areas. Many of those areas will still, however, get Sub-6 5G coverage, if they don’t have it already.

Is 5G safe?

In short, no, 5G is not dangerous to your health. Concerns around the safety of radio waves have been around for years now, but we have yet to find any evidence suggesting that they’re actually bad for human health despite the 5G conspiracy theories. 5G’s radio waves are not substantially different from those we’ve been living with for decades at this point.

We have yet to find evidence that the types of waves we use for wireless communications are bad for human health. There are two kinds of radio waves: Ionizing, and non-ionizing. Ionizing waves might be dangerous for human health. They’re the types of radio waves that are used in microwaves, for example. These waves are extremely high frequency waves and they could harm your DNA.

But 5G doesn’t use radio waves that are anywhere near ionizing. What’s more, most of the waves used in 5G have been used for lots of different things before. Some of them have been used for 4G, some for television broadcasts, and other communications. In other words, if 5G radio waves were dangerous, we would have found previously that these other wireless technologies caused health issues too. And, the waves that haven’t been used in technologies before, like millimeter waves (mmWave), have been studied, and so far, there’s nothing to suggest that they pose any kind of health threat.

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