The next major development in wireless technology, 5G, has been years in the making, but it is finally making its way into the general public. These days, almost all of the greatest smartphones are 5G ready, and while it's not yet universally available, the likelihood of seeing a 5G symbol lit up on your phone is significantly higher.
That being said, 5G is more than just a flashy new acronym. Because it has various trade-offs for each frequency band than the more traditional 4G/LTE technology, the technology has proven to be significantly more difficult for carriers to implement. Furthermore, it is a considerably more advanced wireless technology that promises the kind of worldwide connectivity that was previously only the stuff of science fiction novels set in the future.
Although the excitement surrounding 5G may have you unsure of what to expect, the good news is that consumers won't find it as complicated as they may have imagined. In the end, choosing the greatest 5G phone, selecting the best 5G cell phone plan, and learning about the 5G service available where you live and work are what matter most.
Nevertheless, a better grasp of how 5G networks operate will assist you in making informed judgements, especially given their potent new capabilities. This is all the information you require about 5G.
What is 5G?
In short, 5G stands for fifth generation mobile networking, which is gradually taking the place of 4G/LTE networks. Additionally, 5G networks have the potential to offer much higher upload and download rates than 4G networks in addition to significantly reduced latency, or the amount of time it takes for devices to connect to wireless networks.
5G networks may support more connections per tower and better speeds per device by nature, making them more efficient overall. It is also intended to operate over a broader spectrum of radio frequencies, or mmWave (millimeter-wave) bands, providing carriers with additional opportunities to extend their network services in the intermediate and extremely high frequency (EHF) mmWave bands. Phones that are limited to 4G are not compatible with the new 5G networks since 5G is a completely new technology that uses different frequencies and systems.
Although the first 5G networks were deployed in 2019, the foundation for the next generation of networks was set years earlier. Every business and individual involved, from the network and consumer sides, could begin producing products that were compliant with the new 5G standard after the 5G standard architecture was developed in 2016.
Although 5G hasn't quite reached full market saturation yet, it is approaching. Establishing a completely new network requires a significant financial outlay. For instance, it took almost three years for 4G/LTE to become widely used after it was first introduced in the United States in 2010. However, because it was less difficult to implement than the more recent 5G technology, 4G/LTE did not have to go through the same growing pains. Each of the main US carriers employed the same 4G/LTE base technology.
Carriers using 5G have had to adopt novel strategies to get past 4G/LTE installations that are already in place while simultaneously pursuing licence acquisition for the higher frequencies required to fulfil the technology's primary promise: extremely fast gigabit speeds. That's taken longer, and there have been some difficulties encountered..
Though it will probably take another year or two for 5G to overtake all other networks globally, especially in the United States, we are unquestionably getting closer. T-Mobile already brags that 260 million people can get its fastest 5G coverage, and by the end of 2023, it expects that number to reach over 300 million, or 90% of the US population. Verizon revealed earlier this month that it had crossed the 200 million milestone, indicating that while T-Mobile had a significant lead over its competitors, the other firms are catching up swiftly.
Furthermore, the figures only apply to the carriers' upgraded 5G networks. Standard low-band 5Galready reaches 85% to 95% of the US population, depending on the provider. These lower-band frequencies can replace 4G/LTE and have additional advantages even though they don't give the same remarkable speeds.
How does 5G network technology work?
Similar to 4G, 5G technology uses a variety of radio spectrum allotments to function, but it can use a greater range than existing networks. Three different frequency ranges that each function differently are used by 5G. Although it was formerly known as Sub-6, the most popular version of 5G has now been split into two subcategories. There is also mmWave, which uses far higher frequencies but has some substantial downsides.
The phrase Sub-6 (Low-Band) refers to all 5G frequencies that function below the 6GHz threshold. It is shorthand for Sub-6GHz. However, in the early stages of 5G, it was virtually exclusively composed of low-band frequencies below 2GHz, which was the same spectrum that 4G/LTE, 3G, and 2G networks had been using for years. Since 5G hardware could share the same towers and airwaves used by 4G/LTE service, most carriers started their 5G deployments using these frequencies because it was the simplest and most affordable way to get started. Additionally, because low-band frequencies can penetrate walls, trees, and other obstructions more easily, carriers didn't need to install a large number of new towers to cover an area with 5G coverage. However, using this low-band spectrum had a drawback: The performance of 5G services did not exhibit a notable improvement over that of 4G/LTE services. In certain situations, it might even be slower because 5G traffic has to give way to older 4G/LTE signals that were using the same frequencies for their digital right-of-way.
mmWave: The opposite end of the 5G spectrum is known as millimetre wave, which is an area of EHF spectrum where 5G is now operational between 24GHz and 39GHz, however it is expected to reach even higher frequencies in the future. These frequencies, as their name implies, have a very small wavelength, meaning they can only go a few city blocks at most. The benefit is that, in the right circumstances, 5G can easily achieve 4Gbps download speeds, outperforming mmWave in terms of performance. More importantly, improved coverage is also made possible by this increased capacity in crowded spaces like stadiums, concert halls, and airports. Covering 95% of New York City would require about 60,000 separate mmWave towers. Nevertheless, thousands of tiny network cells are needed to provide an area with this extraordinarily quick coverage. For this reason, Verizon's initial 5G service, which was limited to mmWave, was only accessible in a few large cities' downtown areas.
Sub-6 (midband/C-band): In order to fulfil the expectations of 5G, carriers and regulators had to strike a compromise between the incredibly quick but extremely limited range of mmWave and the lower-band frequencies that gave a wide range but no appreciable speed increase over the 4G/LTE networks that 5G is meant to replace. A (largely) new set of midband frequencies, spanning from the 2.5GHz network of T-Mobile to the 3.7GHz to 3.98GHz C-band spectrum licenced by Verizon and AT&T, was discovered to hold the key. This spectrum has become the sweet spot for 5G, offering substantially better range than mmWave while delivering near-gigabit performance levels that leave 4G/LTE networks in the dust.
Today, the major U.S. carriers have deployed 5G in all three of these spectrums, although they’ve taken slightly different approaches. Verizon began with mmWave in a handful of cities before launching its nationwide low-band 5G network in late 2020 and then rolling out its C-band frequencies in early 2022. T-Mobile started with a very low-band 600MHz network that allowed it to be first to offer nationwide 5G in all 50 U.S. states, and then used the 2.5GHz midband spectrum it acquired from its 2020 merger with Sprint to get a head start on building out its faster 5G network. It deployed faster mmWave only in places like stadiums, where the higher capacity was absolutely necessary. AT&T has trailed slightly behind both its rivals; it has a large low-band 5G network, and like T-Mobile, it uses mmWave transceivers to cover denser areas, but its C-band deployments have only reached about a dozen cities so far.
How fast is 5G?
It's obvious that 5G is quicker than 4G, but by how much? In a nutshell, "it depends." The 3GPP created standards for telecommunications technologies are somewhat complicated, but here's a broad summary of the maximum speeds that 5G can achieve in ideal circumstances:
- Peak data rate: Data rates are substantially quicker with 5G. Per mobile base station, peak data rates can reach up to 10Gbps uplink and 20Gbps downlink. That is the speed shared by all users on the cell, not the speed you would get with 5G (unless you had a dedicated connection). Even yet, it's only a theoretical maximum that indicates the 5G standard's upper bounds.
- Real-world 5G speed: While the peak data rates may sound fantastic, actual speeds will vary greatly depending on a number of factors, including as the frequency on which your signal is travelling and your distance from the closest tower. 50Mbps to more than 3Gbps download rates are typical 5G speeds. Median download speeds across the country are estimated by recent sources to be between 100 and 200 Mbps.
- Latency: Latency refers to the time it takes to establish a network connection before you can begin transmitting data. This has a big impact on activities like surfing and gaming, where smaller amounts of data are regularly sent back and forth. Under ideal circumstances, latency should be under 4 milliseconds (ms), but lower is always better. The best wired fiber-optic networks can offer a latency of 1ms to 2ms.
- Efficiency: Radio interfaces should be energy efficient when in use and drop down to low-energy mode when not in use. Ideally, a radio should be able to switch into a low-energy state within 10 milliseconds when not in use.
- Spectral efficiency: The definition of "spectral efficiency" is "the optimised use of bandwidth or spectrum to allow for the maximum amount of data to be transmitted with the least amount of transmission errors." For instance, at 30 bits/Hz downlink and 15 bits/Hz uplink, 5G should outperform LTE in terms of spectral efficiency.
- Mobility: Base stations should be able to accommodate speeds between 0 and 310 mph with 5G. Thus, despite antenna movements, the base station ought to continue to operate. This is significantly better handled by low-band and midband 5G frequencies than by those in the mmWave range. That won't likely be a practical issue though, as you're more likely to break out of mmWave coverage while you accelerate.
- Connection density: More linked devices can be supported by 5G than by 4G/LTE. One million connected devices per square kilometre is what the specification specifies 5G should be able to handle. Considering the multitude of linked gadgets that will fuel the Internet of Things (IoT), that enormous figure is in place. The performance you'll receive from that many linked devices is a different story, although mmWave offers a big benefit in that regard.
In the real world, actual 5G speeds vary widely. You should anticipate speeds of approximately 200Mbps to 400Mbps if you're on a midband/C-band network and less than 100Mbps on low-band 5G services for the time being. Eventually, midband networks will be able to deliver speeds of multiple gigabits per second (Gbps) with technologies like carrier aggregation. Under perfect circumstances, those numbers might be higher. Although we have recorded gigabit speeds on C-band frequencies, those are by no means normal. Normally, you’ll need to be relatively alone near a mmWave transceiver to get those kinds of speeds. Remember that you’re also sharing whatever bandwidth is available with everyone else using that same tower, so your performance will drop during peak times of the day in a busy area.
Your connection is probably no faster than 4G/LTE if you're using low-band 5G. It might even be slower in certain situations. The main cause of this is the continued use of certain frequencies by 4G/LTE traffic. Using a technique called dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), early low-band 5G deployments were "piggybacked" onto 4G/LTE towers. This allows 5G and 4G/LTE traffic to coexist on the same airwaves, but since DSS is a 5G feature, it’s the 5G traffic that has to make room for the 4G/LTE signals. The good news is that low-band 5G performance will improve as more folks move to 5G smartphones, and there’s less 4G/LTE traffic to contend with.
5G UW vs. 5G UC vs. 5GE
Since midband 5G offers much better performance than the lower-band 5G frequencies, each carrier has worked hard to promote these enhanced 5G services with unique brand names and special status bar icons on your phone. This lets customers know when they’re using the best 5G, while also setting them apart from their rivals.
AT&T was actually the first to introduce a special 5G brand, but unfortunately, that initial attempt just muddied the waters as it didn’t even represent a real 5G network. AT&T’s so-called 5G Evolution (5GE) network was little more than a marketing stunt; the carrier rebranded its newly upgraded 4G/LTE Advanced network, claiming it was the first step in the “evolution toward 5G.” In reality, it was the same 4G/LTE network technology that Verizon and T-Mobile already offered, falsely labeled to make people think that AT&T had beaten the others to the punch at rolling out 5G.
After getting rightfully pilloried for that silly move, AT&T got a bit more conservative with its 5G plans. However, it was still the first to introduce a unique name in early 2020 to distinguish its mmWave service from its broader low-band network. AT&T called this “5G Plus” (5G+), and it was initially available in the downtown cores of about 35 cities. In early 2022, AT&T added its new C-band spectrum to the 5G+ network, increasing coverage in about a dozen U.S. cities over the course of that year.
Verizon followed in late 2020 with 5G Ultra Wideband (5G UW). Unlike AT&T, this was a rebranding of what had been its entire 5G network up to that point since Verizon began 5G solely with mmWave. The 5G UW name became necessary safter Verizon’s CEO took the opportunity to get on stage at Apple’s iPhone 12 launch event and announce the carrier’s new 5G Nationwide service — a low-band 5G network that would bring 5G to the rest of the country. As with AT&T, Verizon expanded its 5G Ultra Wideband service to encompass the new C-band frequencies in early 2022, increasing 5G UW coverage to more than 100 million customers practically overnight.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile had been slowly building out a 2.5GHz midband network since it acquired that spectrum from Sprint in 2020. The “Uncarrier” already offered better capacity and speed than its rivals, which had to acquire new C-band spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and battle fears from the aviation industry. However, T-Mobile didn’t fully brand its midband network until 2021, dubbing it 5G Ultra Capacity (5G UC) to distinguish it from its low-band 5G Extended Range network.
Where is 5G coverage available?
So, when should you expect to have 5G available in your neighborhood? If you live in a relatively populated area, at least one — and probably all — of the major carriers already offer 5G. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon have all long since rolled out their “nationwide” networks using low-band 5G. Today these networks collectively cover over 90% of the U.S. population.
All three major U.S. carriers are continuing to build out their midband 5G networks, and while Verizon and T-Mobile now cover a majority of the U.S. population, it’s likely to take several years before we reach ubiquitous 5G coverage. Each 5G carrier also has a slightly different 5G rollout strategy, so your experience will vary greatly depending on your carrier. Here are all the details we currently have concerning each carrier’s deployment plans.
Verizon’s 5G nationwide low-band network is technically smaller than AT&T and T-Mobile’s, as it launched much later. Verizon spent years building out mmWave before it started work on its low-band 5G Nationwide deployment, which only arrived in late 2020. Since it began with mmWave, Verizon offers a much greater number of smaller mmWave cells, covering the downtown cores of over 80 cities. That’s still not enough to provide a meaningful, reliable, and widespread mmWave network, but Verizon has expanded that significantly over the last year with its new C-band coverage. As of March 2023, Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network reaches 200 million people. As the carrier continues to expand to more rural areas, its smaller low-band network will become considerably less relevant.
AT&T has a widespread low-band 5G network, with nationwide coverage of around 285 million people. However, the type of 5G connectivity that you get depends on where you live. Like Verizon, it relied heavily on mmWave in the early days, but it also saw the writing on the wall and transitioned to a low-band 5G rollout much sooner. This means less mmWave coverage than Verizon — the core areas of about 39 cities — but a much more expansive low-band network. AT&T’s 5G+ service began with this handful of mmWave cells, rolling in the C-band spectrum in early 2022. Nevertheless, AT&T is still playing catch-up with its rivals, and so far, it’s only deployed full C-band coverage to about a dozen cities, bringing the total number of cities where 5G+ is offered to around 50.
T-Mobile 5G has been leaving its rivals in the dust with robust nationwide coverage and a midband 5G network that covers over 75% of the U.S. population. This has allowed T-Mobile to boast the fastest median download speeds by a huge margin since far more of its customers are able to access its 5G Ultra Capacity network. T-Mobile was also the first carrier to deploy a nationwide 5G network to all 50 states, although that initial network — now known as 5G Extended Range (5G XR)— relies on the lowest of the low-band frequencies, so it’s not particularly fast. However, with 5G Ultra Capacity already covering 260 million people, and T-Mobile promising to extend that to 300 million by the end of 2023, most customers will rarely encounter the carrier’s low-band 5G XR network.
Best 5G phones available now
It’s tough to find a phone nowadays that doesn’t have 5G, thanks to the carriers’ aggressive network rollouts and development of more affordable mobile chipsets that include 5G radios. So when you’re looking for the best 5G phone, you’re really just asking for the best phone overall.
Right now, that means the iPhone 14 and iPhone 14 Pro, the Samsung Galaxy S23 and S23 Ultra, the Google Pixel 7, and less expensive phones from OnePlus and Motorola. Each of these phones has 5G — though in some cases, on the cheaper end, you may only get Sub-6 and not mmWave. However, that’s nothing to worry about; as we’ve already mentioned, mmWave is more of a “nice to have” than a requirement, and you’re unlikely to even encounter a mmWave signal most of the time, much less need one.
Can you use 5G for home internet?
With incredible speeds and low latency, 5G has good potential as a replacement for home wireless networks. That’s particularly true in rural areas, where fast wired internet is tough to come by and the only other alternative is satellite internet. While the capability is certainly there, 5G home internet is taking a while to roll out in real numbers.
We’re still a few years away from the promise of 5G to bring direct connectivity to every device in our homes, so today’s 5G home internet solutions, also known as Fixed Wireless Access (FWA), merely replace your wired broadband router with a 5G device; Wi-Fi and wired Ethernet connections are still used to link everything up within your home.
Verizon 5G home internet
Verizon offers 5G home internet starting at $25 per month, and the recent addition of C-band spectrum to its 5G Ultra Wideband service means it’s now available in 1,700 cities. Sadly, this still limits access to the service in rural areas where it could be more helpful. Speeds will vary depending on where you live; Verizon has a lookup tool you can use to get an estimate, but don’t expect these to rival broadband services unless you live in an area with mmWave coverage.
AT&T 5G home internet
AT&T doesn’t yet offer 5G home internet to consumers, although its 4G-based fixed wireless access plans are still available for rural areas. This will likely get upgraded to 5G eventually, but there’s not much point in doing so right now as AT&T’s low-band 5G network doesn’t offer any performance improvements, and its 5G Plus (5G+) network doesn’t reach enough places yet.
T-Mobile 5G home internet
T-Mobile launched in-home 5G internet service in 2021 to augment its nationwide service. For as little as $30 per month (if you’re already a T-Mobile Magenta Max subscriber), you can get unlimited internet with speeds that range from 33Mbps to 182 Mbps, depending on where you’re located. Unlike its competitors, though, T-Mobile’s 5G home internet is available on both its 5G Ultra Capacity and 5G Extended Range networks, making it a great choice for customers in rural areas. It’s also the most popular 5G home internet service; since its introduction, T-Mobile is now celebrating 1 million home internet customers.
Potential benefits of 5G
There are many reasons to be excited about 5G beyond mobile communication. While the extra bandwidth and lower latency mean faster performance for downloading, streaming, and gaming, the most promising part of 5G is its ability to deliver wireless connectivity to a much wider range of devices and applications. We’re already seeing private 5G networks that are replacing or supplementing traditional Wi-Fi on university campuses, at resorts, and even in retail operations. The lower latency, higher capacity, and greater range offered by 5G make it ideal for offering expansive “always-on” connectivity in areas where Wi-Fi won’t cut it.
Improved home broadband
While 5G is commonly perceived as mobile technology, it’s also poised to have a significant impact on home broadband and wireless connectivity. As mentioned in the preceding section, carriers are now offering home internet services that rely on 5G connections instead of cable or fiber. While it doesn’t yet provide the speed of fiber or cable, it’s more than adequate for everyday surfing, streaming, and browsing, and better than the wired options available in many rural areas.
More significantly, 5G connectivity could someday replace your home router entirely, with all of the devices in your home connecting directly to the 5G network. There are security and performance issues that will need to be worked out before this happens, but work on it is already underway.
The low latency of 5G makes it ideal for autonomous vehicles, allowing real-time communications with other vehicles on the road, up-to-the-second information about road conditions, and performance feedback to drivers and automakers. For instance, your vehicle can be informed immediately if another car brakes quickly ahead of you and preemptively apply your brakes as well, preventing a collision. This kind of vehicle-to-vehicle communication could ultimately save lives and improve road efficiency.
Public safety and infrastructure
Eventually, 5G will become the backbone of the smart cities of the future, allowing 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 risks in hazardous environments, it will also allow technicians with specialized skills to control machinery from anywhere in the world.
The ultrareliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G could fundamentally change health care. Since URLLC reduces 5G latency even more than 4G, a world of new possibilities opens up. Expect to see improvements in telemedicine, remote recovery, physical therapy via augmented reality, precision surgery, and even remote surgery in the coming years. 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.
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.
What do 5G towers look like?
You might be wondering where the 5G towers in your town are located. For the most part, 5G towers look just like 4G towers — largely 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 that same tower also supports 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 nationwide 5G networks on such a short timeline.
This may alter, though, when carriers begin to roll out high-band (mmWave) and midband (band) spectrum. Since mmWave frequencies are not as long-range as Sub-6 frequencies, which are used by countrywide networks, a city needs hundreds or even thousands of tiny cells to have mmWave coverage. These are little white nodes that occasionally dangle on a little pole or the side of a building. 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, although they’ll likely be limited to heavily populated areas. However, most areas are likely to rely on midband transceivers; these may require new towers for better coverage, but they won’t look that different from the cellular towers you’ve seen before. Rural areas are likely to continue using existing 4G towers with upgraded low-band 5G equipment installed on them.
Is 5G safe?
Yes, 5G is secure; it poses no health risks. Although there have long been worries about the safety of radio waves, despite 5G conspiracy theories, we have not yet seen any data that suggests they are in fact harmful to human health.
There are two kinds of radio waves: Ionizing, and non-ionizing. Ionizing waves — the types of radio waves that are used in radiotherapy and X-ray machines — can definitely be dangerous for human health. However, these waves are typically measured in terahertz (THz) and petahertz (PHz), where the infrared and ultraviolet ranges begin. That’s an order of magnitude beyond even the top of the extremely high frequency 39GHz range used by mmWave 5G.
The radio waves used by 5G are not substantially different from those we’ve already been living with for decades, and almost all of them run on the same frequencies that have been long used for 2G, 3G, 4G, and even TV broadcasts, weather radar, and aircraft communications. Even higher-frequency mmWave signals share spectrum that’s long been used for microwave towers, satellite communications, airport security scanners, and weather and military radar systems — and mmWave operates at substantially lower power levels than any of these other devices.