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What is 5G? The next-gen wireless standard explained

Galaxy S20 Ultra
Galaxy S20 Ultra (Image credit: Andrew Martonik / Android Central)

Just about every new phone comes with 5G support, so it can be a bit confusing that each carrier seems to have a different idea about what exactly 5G is. While all major carriers have been building a nationwide 5G network on low-band spectrum, the speed of deployment and the available spectrum can differ greatly. 5G will even serve as the foundation of a new network with Dish Wireless going full steam ahead with its own fully 5G network. There's a lot to keep straight, but like 4G and 3G before it, coverage matters most with 5G.

How is 5G different from 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 are supporting 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. 

5G networks: More data demand than ever

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.

5G is all about the frequency

T-Mobile 5G Spectrum

Source: T-Mobile (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 band n41, mmWave, and C-band spectrum 5G 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.

Source: Verizon (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.

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.

Standalone 5G: What you need to know about 5G SA

5G SA is short for 5G standalone. As the name implies, this type of 5G network can exist and operate independently without a legacy network 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. 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.

Which phones support 5G?

Google Pixel 5a Rear 2

Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central The affordable Pixel 5a supports 5G on most carriers. (Image credit: Source: Ara Wagoner / Android Central)

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 carriers' 5G bands are supported. The most popular phones like the Galaxy S22 Series, Pixel 6 and 6 Pro, and iPhone 13 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, 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.

A few older 5G phones designed for carriers may not be compatible with other carriers. 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 home internet

Verizon 5G Home router

Source: Samuel Contreras / Android Central (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. 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 to 5G?

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](/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 C-band gets fully built, that's not likely to change for a while.

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.