You’ve been hearing about it for years, and it’s had a rocky inaugural year, but networks are now finally offering 5G. If you buy into the hype, your life will be transformed with faster speeds than you can imagine and responsiveness you’ve only hitherto dreamed about. Before we dissect that hype, we should delve into what exactly 5G is, when you’re going to get your hands on it and why you should want to, and how you can discern excitability with hard facts. 

Over summer 2019, cnet carried out speed tests across international 5G networks, hitting major hubs such as London, Chicago, Seoul, and Sydney. Roger Cheng noted in his article for them that the results had unfathomable speeds, low ranges, and lacked coverage. On the flip side, with more coverage the speed increase was more modest. At the same time as the testing was being carried out, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G was launched. The first tranche of 5G-enabled handsets could hit superfast speeds, but at the time they weren’t worth the money because of the standard teething problems you’d get with early adoption of tech such as compatibility. 

As will all the best things in life – cheese, wine, sex – 5G gets better with age.

And get better they have. The networks are rolling out coverage of 5G into more cities and more and more devices are 5G enabled and available on more carriers. When your life is going to get supercharged still isn’t quite certain. Coronavirus isn’t helping, with a good chunk of the world locked down 5G rollout is taking a backseat and people are less inclined to buy a high-spec new device with stimulus checks spread thin already.

Four and half years ago we had Verizon talking about moving towards 5G, and AT&T were the first to start building out the infrastructure at the end of 2018, whilst T-Mobile was the first to have a nationwide rollout in December just gone. All the talk, the promises, the hopes of tech enthusiasts everywhere, has finally begun to bear fruit. Along with the massive increase in down and upload speed, 5G is touted to be the magic bullet to make self-driving cars a reality, bring virtual and augmented reality into the mainstream, and make telemedicine and remote surgery an everyday occurrence The ambition is to have everything from security cameras to combine harvesters connected to your smartphone.

That’s a lot of hope to place on a new technology, so what is 5G, exactly? What’s getting the world so excited? Here, we’ll go through why you’re getting more than just faster internet with the new network. 

5G – what exactly is it?

We’re currently on the fourth generation of cellular technology and 5G is the next development. With the upgrade, we’re promised enhanced speed, better coverage, and a more responsive wireless connection. What speeds can be achieved? There’s talk from Verizon and AT&T of 1 gigabit per second and more. 

Compared to what you get now, that’s 10 to 100 times faster and it even beats most wired fiber-optic connections at home. Theoretically, a full season of Stranger Things would download in seconds.

So it’s just faster internet on my phone?

Your phone’s internet will indeed be faster, but there’s much more to it. A big benefit is low latency, which is the time it takes from when you click to start a video stream, to then send that request across the network, get a response, and initiate the stream – or download, or whatever internet thing you’re doing.

As the internet stands now, the lag time, or latency, is about 20 milliseconds. Unimportant as it seems, you get a reduction to as little as 1 millisecond with 5G, which is roughly how long your flash goes off for on your camera. 

For high-intensity gaming in a VR world, or for a surgeon carrying out a remote procedure in New York on a patient in Seattle, that improvement is significant. You’ll have noticed that tiny lag when you do your Zoom meeting; 5G will rid the world of “oops, sorry, no, you were saying…?” when people start talking at the same time. That little bit of lag will never completely disappear, particularly with super-long-distance comms because it’s all about how far the data has to travel. 

As the lag becomes nearly non-existent, self-driving cars become able to communicate nearly instantly – as long as there’s plenty of 5G coverage to keep the cars connected. 

What else can it do?

5G networks have the capacity to have a lot more connections than the current cellular network. No doubt you’re familiar with the Internet of Things? 5G makes everything from your lightbulb to your dog’s collar connectable.

Business kit is one of the main things that 5G has been designed to take on. Whether a farm needs to connect its cow milking equipment or a bank wants to connect its ATMs, 5G can handle it. Technology like sensors on farms don’t need to always be online, low powered scanners work off one battery for a decade and can still send data as and when programmed.

How much will it cost me?

Verizon is increasing prices for 5G access. Specifically, you’ll pay an extra $10 per month, but you get the upgrade for free if you use a more expensive, unlimited data plan. 

At AT&T, you need to get on to a premium tier plan to get 5G access. 

“5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing,” said AT&T. “We expect pricing to be at a premium to what we charge today.”

Over at AT&T Communications – suppliers of wireless, broadband, and video subscriptions – the CEO Jeff McElfresh suggested that 5G will end up becoming more affordable. 

“You should not assume that 5G is an exclusive capability for the most expensive handsets and found only in the most expensive rate plans,” he said in an interview in May. “The speed at which the technology is beginning to make its way into the network is unparalleled.”

History has lessons for us in this realm. When LTE came out it wasn’t priced higher, all you needed was a new handset. But time will always see new pricing models come about; after 4G became the norm unlimited plans were restricted but they’ve since made a comeback. 

For home broadband from Verizon, you pay $50 as a wireless subscriber, and if you’re not the price is $70, and that broadly matches the cost of other broadband packages. 

T-Mobile is including 5G automatically in with all of its price plans.  

What’s the mechanics of 5G?

At the beginning of the development of 5G, it used super high-frequencies that were short in range but high in capacity, with the aim of making a huge pipeline for getting online. It was akin to a very big WiFi hotspot. 

With issues surrounding range and interference with the signal, carriers have also chosen to use lower parts of the frequency spectrum – the area that is used at the moment – to get 5G working over long distances and to get it through walls and past other obstructions. 

In 2019, Sprint, now absorbed into T-Mobile, laid claim to the biggest 5G network because it was broadcasting over the 2.5 gigahertz spectrum band, which allows for much wider coverage. Then, December saw T-Mobile use even lower frequencies to achieve even better coverage. The company plans to take advantage of the Sprint 2.5 GHz capabilities to get its network running even faster. Lower bands have also been used by AT&T for its 5G network as of last year and their plan is to reach nationwide coverage as of summer 2020. 

This means the crazy speeds initially promised many not quite be there to start, but it’ll be noticeably faster than what you get with today’s 4G LTE.  

Not all 5G is created equal?

Not to get too confusing, but yes. Frequencies at the lower end of the spectrum, where 4G and 3G are currently broadcast, are what allow much wider coverage for the carriers. The speed is compromised for a better reach, sometimes you might barely notice a difference at all. But range is important to give access to as much of the population as possible.

In the middle of the range, there’s Sprint’s 25GHz, this is where most of the world is putting its 5G spectrum. 

Where does this spectrum come from?

A few of the carriers have control over some of the high-frequency waves already, but a lot of them will need to buy access to the radio waves from the government. There are carriers the world over who are negotiating to get their hands on the spectrum space that they need. In the US, auctions are held by the Federal Communications Commission where it sells off millimeter wave spectrum and all the carriers in the country will be bidding.  

What was the launch like?

From the end of 2018 until the opening months of last year, every carrier was looking for a “first” to lay claim to. AT&T and Verizon both got their mobile 5G networks up and running, whilst in South Korea, KT claimed its first 5G customer was a robot. Back in the States, Sprint got its network going in June and T-Mobile wasn’t far behind. In the UK, EE took the prize of being the first carrier to switch on 5G. 

It all sounds wonderful…

Although Verizon say that it launched the world’s first 5G network in October 2018, it only won the moniker on a technicality. What it called 5G Home was a replacement for fixed broadband and not quite what you’d call a mobile network. You needed to get an installer out to your home and put in a special receiver to get 5G signal and convert it over to WiFi to be used in your home and across other devices. 

 Was this really 5G? It didn’t match up to the pre-agreed industry standard for the term. However, the company wanted to get in there first and used proprietary technology it had developed. For their part, Verizon says that the speeds of 5G Home, 300 megabits per second up to 1 gigabit per second, did meet the standard set for calling it 5G. Not everyone agrees; mainly rivals and other mobile experts.

Added to the speed dispute, the service was only available to a very select few people, those who lived in a few neighborhoods in Indianapolis, Houston, and Sacramento and LA in California. October saw an expansion of the Verizon service when it hit Chicago and the company said it had switched to used 5G equipment that had previously been agreed by the industry. 

AT&T got its mobile 5G network up and running as December ended in 2018 and it was immediately available in 12 cities, which they cited as “dense urban and high-traffic areas”. As a jibe at Verizon, AT&T’s carefully worded claim was to be the “first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network”. However, the only customers who could access said network were special business customers. Normal consumers didn’t get a look in through the whole of 2019. 

Where can I access 5G?

It’s not quite a cut and dried answer for this one. It depends on who your carrier is, where you are in the country, and what flavor of 5G you want. 

Internationally, most places have been setting up on the mid-band spectrum that gives a useful mix of range and speed. The coverage across the world has been picking up pace since the tech went online, although there is plenty of space that’s not covered at all. Locally in the USA, things are rather fragmented. 

T-Mobile lay claim to coverage across the country, but only on the lower end of the frequency spectrum that is pretty much 4G with some bells and whistles. When it was launched, speed increases of up to 20% were mooted, which is hard for the average customer to notice or appreciate. On Thursday, the company specified that more than 6,000 towns and cities were covered and that equates to around two-thirds of Americans.

Similarly, AT&T are using lower-end frequencies and should have the whole country covered by summer’s end. Thursday saw a statement saying they were offering 5G in 190 markets with the wide-ranging 5G – that’s the network that’s like T-Mobile; barely noticeably different. 

Over at Verizon, the company says it’s going to use the spectrum space it has from its current 4G to get its 5G across a much wider space by the end of the year. Plans aren’t too specific about how it plans to use its low-band access as yet. The tech being used is called Dynamic Spectrum Sharing, which is like switching lanes skillfully on the freeway between 4 and 5G. 

 To find the super-fast waves being used, the millimeter waves, you need to be looking at Verizon. In 35 markets you can access the company’s 5G UW and it should expand to 60 markets before the end of the year. 

AT&T covers 35 cities with its millimeter-wave network, whilst T-Mobile offers it in areas of seven major cities, including LA, New York, and Dallas. T-Mobile is also taking advantage of the spectrum it took in with the deal to buy Sprint, using the mid-band spectrum to boost its 5G coverage. In 2019, Sprint said that it had the largest 5G network when you took into account its 2.5GHz spectrum, and this is now being used by its new owners in Philadelphia and New York, with other markets imminent. 

What can you tell me about 5G E from AT&T?

It’s marketing speak, nothing more. 5G E means 5G Evolution which refers to the upgrade to its 4G LTE network, which is offering a path to full 5G. 

The name began to show on some phones at the start of 2019 and consumer confusion was rife, with people thinking they’d actually got 5G connectivity already. It’s important to restate that it’s not, in fact, 5G, and lots of commentators weren’t impressed with AT&T’s actions. Sprint took the situation to court and an AT&T spokesperson has since confirmed that the dispute was eventually “amicably settled”. Along with the legal situation, the National Advertising Review Board has made a recommendation that AT&T stop using 5G E in its marketing, but you’ll still see the designation on your device.

For its part, AT&T says it’s “proud” to have made the switch to the name 5G E. There are slight speed increases, but it doesn’t offer all the promise of real 5G.

Any other 5G marketing language to be aware of?

Yup, plenty. Along with the “fake” 5G E from AT&T, there’s Verizon’s 5G UW which is actually legit 5G and stands for Ultra Wideband. This actually offers the best version of 5G, running on millimeter wave spectrum. For the actual 5G from AT&T, it’ll be called 5G Plus when using its super-fast next-generation network, and the lower frequencies will be called simply 5G.

Do I need to buy a new smartphone?

Unfortunately so. There needs to be fancy new-style antennas in your phone to pick up 5G signals. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, launched last year, is set up to be compatible with Verizon’s network as its 5G millimeter wave network. The new Samsung Galaxy S20 5G works over more networks, but if you specifically want the Verizon 5G UW network, you need to buy a specially tuned handset. 

The majority of phones that came out at the start of 2019 were installed with the Qualcomm X50 modem, which is made purposely to harness 5G bandwidth. Anything that came out in 2020 should be fitted with the second-gen chip that can work across a wider spectrum of bands. 

As 2020 progresses, you can expect to see more 5G capable phones coming out. By the end of the year, we should see most phones being able to jump across networks and bands.