What is 5G? The Complete Guide to When, Why, and How

The future depends on it on connectivity. From artificial intelligence and self-driving cars to telemedicine and mixed reality to technologies yet to be dreamed of, all the things that we hope will make our lives easier, safer and healthier require always-on, high-speed internet connections. To keep up with demand, the wireless industry adopted 5G — so-called because it’s the fifth generation of wireless networking technology.

5G brings faster speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) to your phone. That’s fast enough to download a 4K movie in 25 seconds. But 5G is not just about faster connections. It also offers lower latency and allows more devices to be connected at the same time.

What is 5G?

As the fifth generation of cellular networks, 5G is a global wireless standard. All cellular networks send encrypted data over radio waves. Radio waves have different frequencies and are divided into bands. Previous generations, like 4G, operated at low and medium frequencies, but 5G can operate at low, medium and high frequencies (aka millimeter waves). Lower frequencies can travel farther and penetrate obstacles but offer relatively slow speeds, while higher frequencies are much faster but have limited range and have trouble penetrating objects.

While 5G opens up a swath of unused radio spectrum at the high end of the spectrum, it also includes new technologies and techniques for combining chunks of spectrum that are already in use. At the low end, 5G looks and feels very similar to 4G.

The 5G rollout

Network operators have been building their 5G networks for a number of years, but are taking different approaches. All carriers began building 5G on top of their existing networks, which offered plenty of connectivity but not the high speeds associated with 5G. More recently, they have started building new high-band 5G networks, but these are largely limited to cities or specific venues within cities. Get a broad overview with Ookla’s 5G map.

Verizon offers low-band 5G nationwide, labeled as 5G Nationwide on its coverage map. Verizon offers mid-band 5G in many urban areas and high-band 5G in many cities, but the mid- and high-band coverage are lumped together and referred to as 5G Ultra Wideband or 5G UW.

AT&T also offers low-band 5G coverage across much of the country and mid-band coverage in some cities, both of which are labeled simply as 5G on its coverage map. AT&T’s high-band 5G is currently limited to a selection of venues, such as stadiums, and is referred to as 5G+. Early in its 5G effort, AT&T marketed its souped-up LTE network as “5G E” and was reprimanded by the National Advertising Review Board for misleading customers.

T-Mobile offers low-band 5G nationwide, labeled as 5G Extended Range on its coverage map. Its mid and high band 5G is called 5G Ultra Capacity.

Ultimately, 5G availability and speeds are variable as 5G service is offered in three bands. Low-band, which generally operates below 1 GHz, can reach speeds of 250 Mbps. The trade-off for low-band’s comparatively slower speeds is long range, meaning carriers with this type of gear can leave more space between towers.

Analysts call the mid-band of the 5G spectrum the sweet spot because it has a wide geographic range and is faster than the low-band. Mid-band operates between 1 and 6 GHz and can reach speeds of up to 1 Gbps.

However, to achieve the top speeds associated with 5G, network operators will need millimeter wave (or mmWave) technology, which uses the higher end of the wireless spectrum and operates at 20 GHz and higher. mmWave can enable multi-gig speeds, but millimeter wave signals are less reliable over long distances and are easily disrupted by obstacles such as trees, people, and even rain. To make it viable for mobile use, network operators must deploy a large number of small access points in cities instead of relying on a few large cell towers as they do today.

Figuring out if 5G is available to you and in what form takes a little detective work, but you also need a device that can handle a 5G signal.

5G smartphones

If you want to use these new 5G networks, you need a powerful device. Most major phone manufacturers now offer 5G handsets, but as we’ve seen, 5G is an umbrella term. All 5G phones offer low- and mid-band support (often referred to as “sub-6” because they operate on frequencies of 6 GHz and below), but not all 5G phones are capable of high-band connections. If you’re looking for a smartphone that can use high-band (mmWave) networks, look for mmWave support.

You’ll find mmWave support in high-end phones like Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro, Google Pixel 7 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy S22 in the US. It is worth noting that in other countries the same models are often sold without mmWave support.

What does 5G mean for me?

Much of the excitement surrounding 5G focuses on its potential. With smartphones connected to 4G LTE already capable of streaming high-quality video, you might be wondering what 5G brings to the table for regular folks. Aside from faster download speeds, multiplayer and cloud gaming benefit from lower latency by increasing responsiveness. And 5G’s increased capacity to easily connect multiple devices also helps keep us all connected when we’re part of a crowd, whether it’s at a packed concert or a football game.

The stability and speed of 5G also promise improvements for driverless cars, remote-controlled drones, and anywhere else where response time is critical. While the tangible benefits are limited today, there is tremendous potential for more cloud computing services, augmented reality experiences, and whatever comes next. But a true killer 5G consumer app remains elusive.

The race for 5G dominance

The US was keen to claim a leadership role in global 5G rollout, but so far it hasn’t fully succeeded. China-based Huawei is the world’s leading maker of 5G network equipment, and while its equipment is widely available, the company has come under scrutiny and even banning from Western nations for its alleged ties to the Chinese government. Other companies making 5G devices, such as Nokia, Ericsson and Samsung – none of which in particular are headquartered in the US – may have benefited from the bans.

In terms of speed, the US does not appear in the top 15 nations, according to British research firm Opensignal, which found South Korea had the highest 5G download speed at 432.7 Mbps, followed by Malaysia, Sweden, Bulgaria, and the United Arab Emirates. Where the US did Highly scoring 5G availability was 25.2 percent, meaning users spent over a quarter of their time with an active 5G connection — an impressive result for a country the size of the US and a sign that the Rollout is progressing pace.

https://www.wired.com/story/wired-guide-5g/ What is 5G? The Complete Guide to When, Why, and How

Zack Zwiezen

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