5G Is Available, but Very Confusing
The race to 5G is on. All four major US carriers now have some form of 5G wireless. We’re tracking the rollouts monthly on our Race to 5G page.
But over the past few months, 5G has gotten very confusing. Three major flavors of 5G have come out: low-band, mid-band, and high-band, all of which are incompatible at the moment, and perform very differently from each other. We’ve been testing all of them as they appear. The most widespread version doesn’t perform much better than 4G.
This confusion will shake out over the next two years. 5G is an investment for the next decade, and in previous mobile transitions, we’ve seen most of the big changes happening years after the first announcement. Take 4G, for instance. The first 4G phones in the US appeared in 2010, but the sorts of 4G applications that changed our world didn’t appear until later. Snapchat came in 2012, and Uber became widespread in 2013. Video calls over LTE networks also became widespread in the US around 2013.
So following that plan, while we’re getting a little bit of 5G right now, you should expect the big 5G applications to crop up around 2021 or 2022. Until then, things are going to be confusing as wireless carriers jockey for customers and mindshare.
5G stands for fifth-generation cellular wireless, and the initial standards for it were set at the end of 2017. But a standard doesn’t mean that all 5G will work the same—or that we even know what applications 5G will enable. There will be slow but responsive 5G, and fast 5G with limited coverage. Let us take you down the 5G rabbit hole to give you a picture of what the upcoming 5G world will be like.
1G, 2G, 3G, 4G, 5G
First of all, if you’re hearing about 5G Wi-Fi or AT&T’s “5G E” phones, they aren’t 5G cellular. Here’s a full explainer on 5G vs. 5G E vs. 5GHz: What’s the Difference?
And if you’re hearing that 5G means millimeter-wave towers on every lamppost, that’s not true. That’s only one of the three main forms of 5G we’re seeing right now.
The G in this 5G means it’s a generation of wireless technology. While most generations have technically been defined by their data transmission speeds, each has also been marked by a break in encoding methods, or “air interfaces,” that make it incompatible with the previous generation.
1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second. 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward, and they are now scaling up to hundreds of megabits and even gigabit-level speeds.
5G brings three new aspects to the table: bigger channels (to speed up data), lower latency (to be more responsive), and the ability to connect a lot more devices at once (for sensors and smart devices).
The actual 5G radio system, known as 5G-NR, isn’t the same as 4G. But all 5G devices in the US, for now, need 4G because they’ll lean on it to make initial connections before trading up to 5G where it’s available. That’s technically known as a “non standalone,” or NSA, network. Later this year, our 5G networks will become “standalone,” or SA, not requiring 4G coverage to work.
It turns out that SA 5G is much more important than we thought it was in 2019. Except on Sprint, carriers’ 5G cells are shaped differently than their 4G ones, so they’re losing coverage where the 4G signal cuts out but the 5G one continues. When the networks evolve into standalone mode, we may see a sudden growth in urban coverage.
4G will continue to improve with time, as well. The Qualcomm X24 modem, which is built into most 2019 Android flagship phones, supports 4G speeds up to 2Gbps. The real advantages of 5G will come in massive capacity and low latency, beyond the levels 4G technologies can achieve.
That symbiosis between 4G and 5G has caused AT&T to get a little overenthusiastic about its 4G network. The carrier has started to call its 4G network “5G Evolution,” because it sees improving 4G as a major step to 5G. It’s right, of course. But the phrasing is designed to confuse less-informed consumers into thinking 5G Evolution is 5G, when it isn’t.
Low, Middle, and High
5G gives carriers more options in terms of airwaves than 4G did. Most notably, it opens up “high-band,” short-range airwaves that didn’t work with 4G technology. But 5G can run on any frequency, leading to three very different kinds of 5G experiences—low, middle, and high.
The key thing to understand here is that 5G speeds are directly related to how wide the available channels are, and how many are available. That’s narrow and few in low-band; more in mid-band; and lots in high-band. The huge amount of unused airwaves is the main attraction of high-band, which is otherwise very difficult for carriers to work with.
At the moment, low-band and high-band 5G are incompatible, in that there is no consumer device that can handle both. You have to choose one in your phone. This logjam will probably be broken in February, as we anticipate the Samsung Galaxy S11 will be the first phone to handle all of the different 5G approaches.
Low-band 5G operates in frequencies below 1GHz. These are the oldest cellular and TV frequencies. They go great distances, but there aren’t very wide channels available, and many of those channels are being used for 4G. So low-band 5G is slow—it acts and feels like 4G, for now. The low-band 5G channels our carriers are using average around 10MHz in width. AT&T and T-Mobile currently have low-band.
Mid-band 5G is in the 1-10GHz range. That covers most current cellular and Wi-Fi frequencies, as well as frequencies slightly above those. These networks have decent range from their towers—often about half a mile—so in most other countries, these are the workhorse networks carrying most 5G traffic. Most other countries have offered around 100MHz to each of their carriers for mid-band 5G. Here in the US, only Sprint has the available spectrum for this approach, although there may be a new auction at the end of 2020 that could offer up a lot of airwaves.
Rural networks will likely be a mix of low- and mid-band. One of T-Mobile’s arguments for its merger with Sprint is that the merger will let the new company offer nationwide internet service by greatly expanding its use of mid-band 5G, as low-band alone wouldn’t have the capacity to do so.
High-band 5G, or millimeter-wave, is the really new stuff. So far, this is mostly airwaves in the 20-100GHz range. These airwaves haven’t been used for consumer applications before. They’re very short range; our tests have shown about 800-foot distances from towers. But there’s vast amounts of unused spectrum up there, which means very fast speeds using up to 800MHz at a time. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are all using at least some high-band.
Those bands have been used before for backhaul, connecting base stations to remote internet links. But they haven’t been used for consumer devices before, because the handheld processing power and miniaturized antennas weren’t available. Millimeter-wave signals also drop off faster with distance than lower-frequency signals do, and the massive amount of data they transfer will require more connections to landline internet. So cellular providers will have to use many smaller, lower-power base stations (generally outputting 2-10 watts) rather than fewer, more powerful macrocells (which output 20-40 watts) to offer the multi-gigabit speeds that millimeter-wave networks promise.
Fortunately for them, the carriers have already installed those “small cells” in many major cities, to increase capacity during the 4G era. (From my office window in New York, I can see several small cell sites.) In those cities, they just need to bolt an extra radio onto the existing site to make it 5G. There’s a struggle going on elsewhere, though, where carriers are having trouble convincing towns to let them add small cells to suburban neighborhoods. That’s similar to previous struggles over establishing cellular service at all in many of these towns. For what it’s worth, small cells tend to be much less powerful than the macrocells used for 2G through 4G cellular systems: 2-20 watts as compared with 20-40 watts for macrocells.
This data is from December 4, 2019 and is likely to change. At the time, AT&T and Verizon were high-band networks; Sprint was mid-band; and T-Mobile had both high- and low-band.
How 5G Works
Like other cellular networks, 5G networks use a system of cell sites that divide their territory into sectors and send encoded data through radio waves. Each cell site must be connected to a network backbone, whether through a wired or wireless backhaul connection.
5G networks use a type of encoding called OFDM, which is similar to the encoding that 4G LTE uses. The air interface is designed for much lower latency and greater flexibility than LTE, though.
With the same airwaves as 4G, the 5G radio system can get about 30 percent better speeds thanks to more efficient encoding. The crazy gigabit speeds you hear about are because 5G is designed to use much larger channels than 4G does. While most 4G channels are 20MHz, bonded together into up to 160MHz at a time, 5G channels can be up to 100MHz, with Verizon using as much as 800MHz at a time. That’s a much broader highway, but it also requires larger, clear blocks of airwaves than were available for 4G.
That’s where the higher, short-distance millimeter-wave frequencies come in. While lower frequencies are occupied—by 4G, by TV stations, by satellite firms, or by the military—there had been a huge amount of essentially unused higher frequencies available in the US, so carriers could easily construct wide roads for high speeds.
5G networks need to be much smarter than previous systems, as they’re juggling many more, smaller cells that can change size and shape. But even with existing macro cells, Qualcomm says 5G will be able to boost capacity by four times over current systems by leveraging wider bandwidths and advanced antenna technologies.
The goal is to have far higher speeds available, and far higher capacity per sector, at far lower latency than 4G. The standards bodies involved are aiming at 20Gbps speeds and 1ms latency, at which point very interesting things begin to happen.
Where Is 5G Available?
AT&T currently has a low-band 5G system in 16 cities and a separate, high-band 5G system in 21 cities. Anyone can use the low-band system, but the high-band one is restricted to business customers only. The low-band system works with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G, and the high-band system works with the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the Netgear Nighthawk 5G hotspot. Here are AT&T’s 5G cities.
Sprint now covers 16 million people in 9 metro areas with its mid-band network. Further launches seem to be gummed up by Sprint’s ongoing drama around its potential merger with T-Mobile. The carrier is selling the HTC Hub hotspot, and the LG V50, OnePlus 7 Pro 5G, and Samsung Galaxy S10 5G phones. This page has Sprint’s 5G cities.
T-Mobile has a low-band system available to 200 million people nationwide, with the Samsung Galaxy Note 10+ 5G and OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren phones. It also has a very limited high-band network in six cities, which works only with the Samsung Galaxy S10 phone. T-Mobile now covers too many cities to list, so look up coverage on this map.
Verizon is sticking with high-band, now providing some coverage in 31 cities. While it’s extremely fast if you can find it, it can be hard to find, even using Verizon’s new coverage maps. It’s selling a 5G add-on that fits Moto Z2 Force, Z3, and Z4 phones, as well as the LG V50, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, and Galaxy Note 10+ 5G phones, and the Inseego M1000 hotspot. Verizon’s 5G service plans cost $10 more than its unlimited 4G plans (although that’s been waived so far), for truly unlimited 5G data with no deprioritization. The carrier is mostly using 28GHz spectrum. Here are Verizon’s 5G coverage maps.
Which 5G Phones Are Coming Out?
The first round of 5G phones only support some of the 5G systems being used in the US—and different models support different bands! So if you want the full 5G mix of coverage and speed, you’re going to have to sit out until at least February, when the first all-band 5G phones come out.
Currently, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and Note 10+ 5G (on multiple carriers), the LG V50 (on Sprint and Verizon), the OnePlus 7 Pro 5G (on Sprint), the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren (on T-Mobile), and a Moto Mod for the Moto Z2 Force, Z3, and Z4 (on Verizon) are all that’s out there right now.
Most of those phones focus on the short-range, higher-speed bands. The Note 10+ 5G for AT&T and T-Mobile, and the McLaren, work on the broad-coverage low-speed band, but not the fast high-speed band. It’s annoyingly confusing.
Many other companies, including Huawei, OnePlus, Oppo, Vivo, Xiaomi, and ZTE, made 5G phones in 2019. But none of those phones were destined for the US, and none of them are compatible with US networks. It’s a big world out there.
We think there will be a 5G iPhone in September 2020, but not before.
What’s 5G For?
Most of the real-world 5G demos we’ve seen just involve people downloading Netflix very quickly on their phones. That kind of usage is table stakes, just to get the networks built so more interesting applications can develop in the future.
5G home internet shows one major advantage over 4G: huge capacity. Carriers can’t offer competitively priced 4G home internet because there just isn’t enough capacity on 4G cell sites for the 190GB of monthly usage most homes now expect. This could really increase home internet competition in the US, where, according to a 2016 FCC report, 51 percent of Americans only have one option for 25Mbps or higher home internet service. For its part, Verizon says its 5G service will be truly unlimited.
5G home internet is also much easier for carriers to roll out than house-by-house fiber optic lines. Rather than digging up every street, carriers just have to install fiber optics to a cell site every few blocks, and then give customers wireless modems. Verizon chief network officer Nicki Palmer said the home internet service would eventually be offered wherever Verizon has 5G wireless, which will give it much broader coverage than the carrier’s fiber optic FiOS service.
On a trip to Oulu, Finland, where there’s a 5G development center, we attended a 5G hackathon. The top ideas included a game streaming service; a way to do stroke rehab through VR; smart bandages that track your healing; and a way for parents to interact with babies who are stuck in incubators. All of these ideas need either the high bandwidth, low latency, or low-power-low-cost aspects of 5G.
Last year, we surveyed the 5G startups that Verizon is nurturing in New York. At the carrier’s Open Innovation Lab, we saw high-resolution wireless surveillance cameras, game streaming, and virtual reality physical therapy.
Our columnist Michael Miller thinks that 5G will be most important for industrial uses, like automating seaports and industrial robots.
Driverless cars may need 5G to really kick into action, our editor Oliver Rist explains. The first generation of driverless cars will be self-contained, but future generations will interact with other cars and smart roads to improve safety and manage traffic. Basically, everything on the road will be talking to everything else.
To do this, you need extremely low latencies. While the cars are all exchanging very small packets of information, they need to do so almost instantly. That’s where 5G’s sub-one-millisecond latency comes into play, when a packet of data shoots directly between two cars, or bounces from a car to a small cell on a lamppost to another car. (One light-millisecond is about 186 miles, so most of that 1ms latency is still processing time.)
Another aspect of 5G is that it will connect many more devices. Right now, 4G modules are expensive, power-consuming, and demand complicated service plans, so much of the Internet of Things has stuck with Wi-Fi and other home technologies for consumers, or 2G for businesses. 5G will accept small, inexpensive, low-power devices, so it’ll connect a lot of smaller objects and different kinds of ambient sensors to the internet.
What about phones? The biggest change 5G may bring is in virtual and augmented reality. As phones transform into devices meant to be used with VR headsets, the very low latency and consistent speeds of 5G will give you an internet-augmented world, if and when you want it. The small cell aspects of 5G may also help with in-building coverage, as it encourages every home router to become a cell site.
We’re continuing to track all of the rollouts, testing them city by city, on our Race to 5G page.