5G: Everything you need to know

Speed test on mid-band 5G with Ultra Mobile
(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

When you see a device that supports 5G, you're more inclined to get that device over one that doesn't. Why? You assume the service has to be better since it went up a number. But before jumping on the 5G bandwagon, there is a lot to consider about what you're getting into with 5G. 

For example, How does 5G affect your battery life compared to 4G? And what type of 5G will you use due to availability? Is it necessary to start using 5G right away, or are you OK with 4G for the time being? Discover what 5G is all about to help you decide.

5G vs. 4G

At its core, 5G is the fifth-generation wireless technology standard, which comes after 3G and 4G. It refers to the technology used to connect your phone, tablet, laptop, or anything with a 5G-compatible chipset. In the U.S., AT&T, Dish Wireless, T-Mobile, UScellular, and Verizon use this new standard.

However, not every upgrade to a carrier’s wireless network counts as a new generation. As with the move from 3G to 4G, a well-developed older network may deliver stronger speeds for a while. This has led to some carriers like AT&T renaming some network connections on LTE to 5G despite not actually having a 5G connection.

The highlight of true 5G can be summed up quickly: It has the potential to be exponentially faster than 4G while also lowering the latency between your phone and whatever it's trying to connect to. It's also coming at a point when carriers are gaining access to new chunks of the spectrum, such as C-band around 6GHz and mmWave around 30GHz.

While most new phones support the tech, 5G can be used for a lot more. Naturally, connected devices like cars and notebook PCs are two examples; 5G also has the capacity to serve as a home internet provider in some areas. Both T-Mobile and Verizon are selling a home internet service based on their 5G networks. 

Data demand

5G spread fast and now covers most Americans in some form, but for many people, it's not quite what they expected. 5G refers to 5G NR (New Radio), which contains many different technologies with different implementations. 5G comes with the promise of better speed and latency, though your mileage may vary depending on exactly what type of 5G coverage and device you have.

There are three main categories of 5G, and they are based on the frequency being used. These connections are low-band, mid-band, and mmWave (millimeter wave). Low-band and mid-band 5G are collectively referred to as Sub-6, indicating that it is below 6GHz. Sub-6 also includes C-band. These 5G terms can get a bit confusing, but the most important thing to remember is that the lower bands have greater coverage while higher bands have greater speed potential.

All major carriers are looking toward combining these different 5G categories to build out a complete network, depending on the density and geographic challenges in each area.

Frequency info

T-Mobile 5G Spectrum

(Image credit: Source: T-Mobile)

T-Mobile uses a combination of low-band n71 and n66 and mid-band n41 spectrum for most of its coverage. Lower frequencies have a greater range, so n71 5G at 600MHz is the backbone for most of T-Mobile's 5G coverage. Band n41 coverage adds greater capacity and speed to T-Mobile's network. While its coverage deficit means n41 will take longer to reach full coverage, T-Mobile has already covered more than 165 million people with this faster 5G. Finally, mmWave is being used to add capacity in the areas that need it most.

T-Mobile calls its C-band spectrum "Ultra Capacity 5G." Its approach to 5G is like a layer cake, with its three main spectrum types making up the tiers. 

AT&T's 5G network started on mmWave and got off to a solid start, with more than dozens of cities getting some amount of coverage. The real gains for AT&T came when it began deploying 5G on its 850MHz sub-6 spectrum. While the speeds weren't too impressive compared to fast LTE results, the rapid growth has been good for early adopters of 5G devices. AT&T has also started building mid-band 5G with a combination of spectrum including C-band.

AT&T was the first carrier to deploy 5G with DSS, or dynamic spectrum sharing. This technology allows the tower equipment to automatically allocate spectrum from 4G to 5G based on load. This technology will likely prove to be key to a smooth transition to 5G.

(Image credit: Verizon)

Verizon started with mmWave, building its Ultra Wideband network in several cities. With the release of the iPhone 12, Verizon opened up its nationwide 5G network with a shared spectrum from its LTE coverage. Verizon used this shared spectrum to quickly deploy a 5G network without needing to construct new towers or even secure a new spectrum. 

More recently, Verizon launched its C-band 5G with 100 million people estimated to be covered at the end of January. Verizon is catching up since it took one giant leap forward in the 5G race, tapering T-Mobile's advantage in consonance with Ookla’s newest market research

mmWave is very fast but coverage is limited.

C-band has been performing admirably so far with speeds around 300Mbps on the low end and as high as 1Gbps in ideal conditions. For the most part, customers will see speeds in the 500Mbps range, which is more than enough for anything you can do on your phone for the next few years. Verizon secured more C-band spectrum than AT&T; however, AT&T still has a solid chunk of mid-band spectrum following more recent FCC auctions.

What is 5G SA?

As the name implies, 5G SA (short for 5G standalone) is a type of 5G network that can exist and operate independently without a legacy network (a network not based on IP (TCP/IP) protocol) supporting it. Why is this important? Because SA lets you connect directly to the fastest network without first connecting to an older network. This can help your connection feel more consistent as you switch towers and move in and out of 5G coverage. 

Calling over 5G is an important step, so phones won't need to rely on 3G or 4G towers. This will also save battery life since phones won't need to keep switching between networks to make and receive calls.

Most new 5G phones support SA out of the box, so there's not much to worry about on your end. As of March of 2023, about 83.6% of all announced devices featuring 5G have support for 5G SA, and the number has likely increased since. Standalone 5G won't prevent your phone from connecting to LTE if 5G coverage is weak either. It's something the end-user should never need to worry about.

What is 5G NSA?

Non-standalone 5G, known primarily as 5G NSA, is not what all carriers aim to use, but it's still part of the 5G structure. It's the stepping stone to 5G SA since it allows 5G to be used using the 4G infrastructure. 5G NSA is of great help in areas where carriers can't offer 5G SA. NSA is faster than 4G but not as fast as 5G SA (standalone). With 5G, NSA carriers can give customers the speed they want without investing in new equipment in the transition. The downside to users is that more battery power is used for the device by being connected to both 4G and 5G.

5G support

The Google Pixel 7a's vibrant, bright display showcasing the home screen with the default coral feathers wallpaper

Most new phones you can get right now come with support for 5G. Whether you're looking for something cheap or want the most advanced flagship around, 5G is probably included. If you buy your phone unlocked, you can take it with you to another carrier as long as that carrier's 5G bands are supported. But, so you won't get stuck with a phone you can't use on your preferred carrier, it's best to research beforehand. The most popular phones, like the Galaxy S24 series, Pixel 8 series, and iPhone 15 series, support all of the major carriers.

AT&T doesn't play as nicely when it comes to 5G support for some 5G-capable phones from other brands. For instance, some compatible OnePlus phones can't access AT&T's 5G network. If you're looking to bring a phone to AT&T 5G, double-check with customer support, or you may get stuck with LTE on your new phone.

AT&T may refuse coverage on a phone because the device does not support high-band 5G and may only be compatible with low-band N5. It's also helpful to remember that early 5G-capable phones could only have antennas compatible with specific carriers, not AT&T.

Sprint's 5G network is completely dead now, so the handful of 5G phones that only worked on Sprint, like the LG V50, won't work on T-Mobile's 5G despite support for band n41. Thankfully, the Galaxy S20 series designed for Sprint 5G has been updated for T-Mobile 5G.

5G internet

Verizon 5G Home router

(Image credit: Samuel Contreras / Android Central)

Verizon was fast out of the gate with its 5G home internet service based on its Ultra Wideband 5G network. This network is capable of fiber-like speeds, with peaks over 1Gbps and averages around 500Mbps. Ping times are also great on Verizon's network. As expected, you'll need to install a rather large antenna in one of your windows, and availability is limited to those with a good connection to the mmWave network.

T-Mobile's home internet service focuses a lot more on rural and suburban areas but continues to grow. T-Mobile's network performance varies quite a bit depending on which of its towers you can connect to. With a good connection on T-Mobile's band n41 5G, you can easily get 300Mbps, with peaks close to 1Gbps. Still, with the best rural 5G coverage, T-Mobile is a great option for those with limited connectivity options.

When can I get 5G?

5G coverage has grown by leaps and bounds and now reaches more than 310 million people on T-Mobile. AT&T and Verizon are neck and neck for positions two and three for nationwide coverage.

T-Mobile's coverage superiority continues into the mid-band, with more than 210 million people now covered by T-Mobile's 2.5GHz band n41 Ultra Capacity 5G. Verizon is catching up with C-band, but there’s a long road ahead, with T-Mobile benefitting from a huge head start thanks to the majority of its mid-band spectrum not getting tied up in regulatory limbo for months.

For now, 5G coverage looks a lot more like LTE coverage. Check carriers' individual maps to see their range, including Ultra Capacity and mmWave coverage. 

Verizon and AT&T have continued to build mmWave in dense urban areas, though coverage is very low. They have focused on the most densely populated areas, including airports and stadiums.

Should you upgrade?

The sheer amount of data that 5G can transfer at high speeds means it can do much more than bring fast downloads to your phone. Many people use the currently available sub-6 5G connections like a robust LTE connection, but the future is much brighter with a combined network and multiple bands of 5G available. If you live in a congested area, the immediate benefits could be greater though.

For home internet, 5G speeds will stay higher than LTE even with a lot of connections, and it will be easier than ever to deliver high-speed internet to people, even when they are in an older building that hasn't been upgraded for fiber. For now, 5G feels like slightly faster LTE, but as the infrastructure gets built, more applications will take advantage of the improved connectivity.

If you're buying a new phone, it's more than likely going to come with 5G included. And the best cell phone plans come with 5G support. If you're wondering if it's worth getting an upgrade specifically for 5G, it's probably not. LTE is still fast enough for most of what we do online, and until the C-band gets fully built, that's not likely to change for a while.

Samuel Contreras

When Samuel is not writing about networking or 5G at Android Central, he spends most of his time researching computer components and obsessing over what CPU goes into the ultimate Windows 98 computer. It's the Pentium 3.

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