If you follow phones or technology, you've seen 5G popping up everywhere. New phones are listing 5G as a feature and carriers love to tell you that they have the best 5G, but what does 5G actually mean to a normal customer? For now, 5G means that if you live in just the right area and have just the right phone or hotspot, you can get a faster and more reliable phone connection that won't bog down when the network is congested. Beyond that, it gets a bit more complicated.
The next step for mobile broadband
5G is spreading fast and for many people, it's not quite what they expected. 5G refers to many different technologies with different implementations currently in the works. What a 5G connection actually means varies greatly between carriers but one thing it has in common across the board is the promise for better speed and capacity.
Technically speaking, 5G is the next generation of mobile broadband connections. At first, 5G will live beside and enhance your current 4G service, but soon enough 5G-only networks will be complete and stand-alone 5G devices will be available. There are three main categories of 5G and they are based on the frequency being used. These connections are low-band, mid-band, and millimeter wave.
With any type of 5G connection, you'll see faster network speeds, but the biggest change will come from high-frequency millimeter wave technology. Millimeter wave has great speeds, but the coverage is very limited. Mid-band, also known as sub-6, as well as low-band, have much greater coverage but speeds are more in line with the best of 4G technology.
All of the major carriers are looking towards a combination of these different 5G categories to build out a complete network.
All about the frequency
T-Mobile deployed a low-band 5G network on its 600Mhz spectrum on many of its towers. Since this frequency is good for coverage, T-Mobile was able to leap ahead in 5G coverage without building many new towers. It just had to upgrade the equipment and make sure the towers had a strong fiber backhaul to supply a connection. AT&T has recently launched a similar network on its 850Mhz spectrum though not as thoroughly as T-Mobile has.
Of course, this lower bandwidth isn't available in the vast chunks that higher bands are so speeds aren't as big of an upgrade over 4G. However, when it comes to building a complete 5G network, this lower-band connection is great for filling in the gaps.
AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are all deploying 5G on the high-band or millimeter wave spectrum. Verizon is moving faster than the other two at these frequencies but without any sort of low-band deployment, its coverage area is a lot smaller. On the plus side, this high-band network is capable of delivering blazing-fast speeds in excess of 1 Gbps.
Sprint is working in the middle at 2.5Ghz allowing for higher speeds than low-band or LTE while still offering coverage similar to 4G LTE. The best case for 5G is being able to use a combination of all of these deployments depending on the area and its needs.
- 5G on Verizon: Everything you need to know
- 5G on AT&T: Everything you need to know
- 5G on T-Mobile: Everything you need to know
Faster connections usually don't have much range.
Your home Wi-Fi router is a great example of how this works. 802.11 a/b/g 2.4GHz networks use narrow 20MHz channels to transmit and receive data. 802.11 n 5GHz networks use 40MHz wide channels, and 802.11 ac 5GHz networks use 80MHz wide channels. When you're connected to your wireless access point with a 2.4GHz connection on a much more narrow channel, the speeds are slower than when connecting at 5GHz when you're very close to the router but stay fairly consistent as you move further away. 5GHz connections, especially wireless ac connections, have a much more limited range because the signal strength drops off quickly.
What phones support 5G?
5G phones like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the LG V50 ThinQ 5G have been available the longest but these devices don't have the ability to utilize low-band 5G. Newer 5G devices such as the Galaxy Note 10+ 5G and the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G support the full range of 5G connections available. Of course, each carrier is deploying 5G differently so you will need to check to make sure any 5G phone you buy supports the full network your carrier is building.
When can I get 5G?
Of course, what all that really means is that you will need new devices in order to see any sort of 5G network for yourself. Besides having a compatible phone, you'll just need to wait for your area to be covered by 5G. You can check to see if your city has coverage to know for sure. Even then, cities with coverage will still have pockets where only 4G LTE is available.
We've also seen a few mobile hotspots that can leverage these new 5G networks by Netgear and others. This drives home one very important 5G feature that doesn't get enough attention — it can compete with wired broadband internet. Verizon has actually started offering home internet service with its 5G network.
What this all means right now
The sheer amount of data that can be transferred at high speeds means that 5G will be able to do a lot more than bring fast downloads to your phone. Distance learning, connected devices that work with other connected devices as well as connected municipalities and towns, and many other applications that need high bandwidth and low latency are just a dream today because there isn't a network that can handle them. 5G might just change all of that.
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