It has been nearly a decade in the making, but 5G is finally becoming a reality. Carriers started rolling out fixed 5G to select cities in 2018, and mobile 5G will start making appearances in cities around the U.S. in 2019.
So what is 5G and what changes can you expect once it is widely available? Here’s everything you need to know.
What is 5G? A brief history
5G is the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications. It will ultimately replace 4G LTE to provide faster and more reliable service with lower latency. But who decides what 5G will look like?
The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is the United Nations’ specialized agency that develops technical standards for communication technologies, and it sets the rules for radio spectrum usage and telecommunications interoperability. In 2012, the ITU created a program called “IMT for 2020 and beyond” (IMT-2020) to research and establish minimum requirements for 5G. After years of work, the agency created a draft report with 13 minimum requirements for 5G in 2017.
Once the ITU set the minimum requirements for 5G, the 3rd Generation Partnership Group (3GPP), a collaboration of telecommunications standards organizations, began work on creating standards for 5G. In December 2017, 3GPP completed its Non-Standalone (NSA) specifications, and in June 2018 it followed up with its standalone specifications (SA).
Both NSA and SA share the same specifications, however NSA uses existing LTE networks for rollout while SA will use a next-generation core network. Carriers are starting with the NSA specification, which means you will fall back on 4G LTE if you are in a non-5G environment.
The standards set by 3GPP closely correspond with IMT-2020 performance targets and are somewhat complex, but here’s a general rundown:
- Peak data rate: 5G will offer significantly faster data speeds. Peak data rates can 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station. Mind you, that’s not the speed you’d experience with 5G (unless you have a dedicated connection), its the speed shared by all users on the cell.
- Real-world speeds: While the peak data rates for 5G sound pretty impressive, actual speeds won’t be the same. The spec calls for a user download speeds of 100Mbps and upload speeds of 50Mbps.
- Latency: Latency, the time it takes data to travel from one point to another, should be at 4 milliseconds in ideal circumstances, and at 1 millisecond for URLLC.
- Efficiency: Radio interfaces should be energy efficient when in use, and drop into low-energy mode when not in use. Ideally, a radio should be able to switch into a low-energy state within 10 milliseconds when no longer in use.
- Spectral efficiency: Spectral efficiency is is “the optimized use of spectrum or bandwidth so that the maximum amount of data can be transmitted with the fewest transmission errors.” 5G should a slightly improved spectral efficiency over LTE, coming in at 30bits/Hz downlink, and 15 bits/Hz uplink.
- Mobility: With 5G, base stations should be able to support movement speeds from 0mph to 310mph. This basically means the base station should be able to support a range of antenna movements from a device from absolutely none to that of a high speed train. While it’s easily done on LTE networks, such mobility can be a challenge on mmWave.
- Connection density: 5G should be able to support many more connected devices than LTE. The standard states 5G should be able to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometer. That’s a huge number, however it takes into account mMTC devices that will power the Internet of Things (IoT).
How 5G works
Now that we know what 5G is, it’s a good idea to understand how it works since it’s different than traditional 4G LTE. From spectrum bands to small cells, here’s everything you need to know about the inner workings of 5G.
Unlike LTE, 5G operates on three different spectrum bands. While this may not seem important, it will have a dramatic effect on your everyday use.
Low-band spectrum can also be described as sub 1GHz spectrum. It is primarily the spectrum band used by carriers in the U.S. for LTE, and is quickly becoming depleted. While low-band spectrum offers great coverage area and penetration, there is a big drawback: Peak data speeds will top out around 100Mbps.
T-Mobile is the key player when it comes to low-band spectrum. The carrier picked up a massive amount of 600MHz spectrum at an FCC auction in 2017 and is quickly building out its nationwide 5G network.
Mid-band spectrum provides faster coverage and better latency than you’ll find on low-band. It does, however, fail to penetrate buildings as well as low-band spectrum. Expect peak speeds up 1Gbps on mid-band spectrum.
Sprint has the majority of unused mid-band spectrum in the U.S. The carrier is using Massive MIMO to improve penetration and coverage area on the mid-band. Massive MIMO groups multiple antennas onto a single box, and at a single cell tower, they create multiple simultaneous beams to different users. Sprint will also use Beamforming to improve 5G service on the mid-band. Beamforming sends a single focused signal to each and every user in the cell and can monitor each user to make sure they have consistent signal.
High-band spectrum is what most people think of when they think of 5G. It is often referred to as mmWave. High-band spectrum can offer peak speeds up to 10 Gbps and has very low latency. The major drawback of high-band is that it has low coverage area and building penetration is poor.
Both AT&T and Verizon are rolling out on high-band spectrum. 5G coverage for both carriers will piggyback off LTE while they work to build out their nationwide networks. Since high-band spectrum trades off penetration and user area for high speed and coverage area, the will rely on small cells.
Small cells are low power base stations that cover small geographic areas. With small cells, carriers using mmWave for 5G can improve overall coverage area for its users. Combined with Beamforming, small cells can deliver very extremely fast coverage with low latency.
5G use cases
The shift to 5G will undoubtedly change the way we interact with technology on a day-to-day basis, but is also has a serious purpose. It’s an absolutely necessity if we want to continue using mobile broadband.
Carriers are running out of LTE capacity in many major metropolitan areas. In some cities, users are already experiencing slow downs during busy times of day. 5G adds huge amounts of spectrum in bands that have not been used for commercial broadband traffic.
Expect to see autonomous vehicles really take off once 5G is deployed across the U.S. In the future, your vehicle will be able to communicate with other vehicles on the road, provide information to other cars about road conditions, and provide performance information to drivers and automakers. If a car brakes quickly up ahead, yours may learn about it immediately and preemptively brake as well, preventing a collision.
Public safety and infrastructure
5G will allow cities and other municipalities to operate more efficiently. Utility companies will be able easily track usage remotely, sensors can notify public works departments when drains flood or street lights go out, while 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 risk in hazardous environments, it will also allow technicians will specialized skills to control machinery from anywhere in the world.
The ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G will fundamentally change health care. Since URLLC reduces 5G latency even further than what you’ll see with enhanced mobile broadband, a world of new possibilities opens up. Expect to see improvements in telemedicine, remote recovery and physical therapy via AR, precision surgery, and even remote surgery in the coming years.
mMTC will also play a key role in health care. 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 carrier’s LTE data capacity.
With 5G, the IoT will be powered by massive machine-type communications (mMTC). Compared to current smart devices on the market, mMTC devices will require fewer resources since a huge numbers of these devices can connect to a single base station, making them much more efficient.
When will we see 5G?
So when should you expect to see 5G in your neighborhood? That question is a little more difficult to answer than you’d expect. All of the major U.S. carriers are working furiously to build out their 5G networks however, 5G deployment across the entire country will take several years.
It’s also worth noting each carrier has a different 5G rollout strategy. This means your 5G experience may vary greatly depending on your carrier. Here are all the details we currently have concerning each carrier’s deployment plans. If you’re looking specifically for phones, check out our guide to the 5G phones that are coming, and when.
In its quest to be the first carrier to provide 5G, Verizon began offering pre-standard fixed 5G in homes in October 2018. Verizon’s fixed 5G service is currently available in portions of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, and Sacramento.
America’s largest carrier plans to roll out standards-based mobile 5G in 2019. The carrier is rolling out 5G on higher frequency spectrum known as mmWave (28-39GHz). That means that while Verizon’s 5G will offer blazing fast speeds when available, it will piggyback off its LTE spectrum for years to come.
As for hardware, Verizon has already announced two mobile 5G devices. In December 2018, Samsung and Verizon announced they would partner to release a 5G phone in the first half of 2019. The carrier also announced it will release a 5G Moto Mod for the Moto Z3 in the coming months. And we can’t forget the Inseego Mi-Fi 5G hotspot, featuring a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 SoC that’s scheduled for 2019 .
In its race to be the first carrier to offer standards-based 5G service, AT&T will rollout 5G in 12 cities by the end of 2018. The first cities to get AT&T 5G will be Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio, and Waco. In early 2019, AT&T will deploy 5G to parts of Orlando, Las Vegas, Nashville, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose.
Like Verizon, AT&T is rolling out its mobile 5G on mmWave spectrum. In an interview with Urgent Communications, Dave Wolter, assistant vice president of radio technology and strategy for AT&T Labs, offered some insight into what you should expect with the carrier’s 5G service initially. He said “If you’re in a downtown urban environment — where it’s going to be pretty much line of sight until you go around a corner—that’s one thing. [….] If you have a street lined with trees, that’s going to be a different environment. If you’re in a heavily treed environment, that’s going to be difficult. All of those things are going to impact the kind of range that we can anticipate.”
In December 2018, AT&T said it would work with Samsung to release a 5G handset in the spring of 2019. The NETGEAR Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot was also announced by the carrier earlier this year.
When it comes to fixed 5G service, it’s going to be a little bit longer. Trade publication SDX Central reports AT&T will rollout fixed LTE service in late 2019 over the Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum and eventually migrate to 5G service.
America’s Un-Carrier is taking a more measured approach. Instead of racing to be first out of the gate, T-Mobile wants to provide more reliable service with more coverage area. In early 2018, T-Mobile announced it was building out its 5G network in 30 cities. Expect to see T-Mobile 5G in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas in early 2019. The carrier plans to offer 5G nationwide by 2020.
T-Mobile’s 5G deployment strategy is completely different than that of AT&T or Verizon. Instead of using mmWave for its initial roll out, it is using low-band spectrum (600MHz). For customers, that means a more reliable, but slower 5G network with fairly low-latency. That said, T-Mobile is also aggressively building out its 5G network on 28GHz and mid-band spectrum to provide additional speed and capacity.
For fixed 5G, it looks like T-Mobile wants to make some serious waves. In a statement submitted to the FCC, T-Mobile said it plans projects more than 1.9 million in-home wireless broadband customers by 2021. By 2024, the carrier wants to provide fixed 5G to more than half the zip codes in the U.S., and be the nations fourth largest in-home ISP.
Since T-Mobile CEO John Legere has publicly lambasted AT&T and Verizon for launching its 5G with mobile hotspots, it’s a pretty safe bet the carrier doesn’t plant to release its own hotspot. Instead we anticipate a T-Mobile compatible 5G smartphone to be announced in early 2019.
Like T-Mobile, Sprint is not racing to be first in the 5G race. The carrier announced it will deploy 5G in early 2019 in New York City, Phoenix, Kansas City, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington D.C. Additional markets will be added in the near future.
Sprint will initially launch its 5G network on its extensive mid-band spectrum (2.5 GHz). That’s the same spectrum the carrier uses for its 4G data network, and it plans to use 128-radio massive MIMO equipment on its towers to create a 4G/5G split. Since Sprint is one of the few carriers with lots of extra 2.5GHz spectrum, it can use the excess mid-band to rollout 5G service quickly and relatively inexpensively in larger cities.
When it comes to hardware, Sprint has actually promised three 5G products for 2019. The carrier announced it would partner with LG to release a 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019 earlier in August. In November, it announced plans to release a 5G Mobile Smart Hub with HTC in the beginning of 2019. And in December, Sprint said a Samsung 5G smartphone was in the works for 2019 as well.
T-Mobile and Sprint merger
So what happens it T-Mobile and Sprint merge? Well, both companies claim the merger would be good for the economy and the country. The companies also claim that together as the New T-Mobile, it would have the assets and spectrum on multiple bands to become the first nationwide 5G carrier.
While the combined bandwidth of the two companies would almost certainly lead to a faster, and more reliable, nationwide 5G rollout, there are some issues For starters, there would be fewer options in the already anemic U.S. carrier market. And that means less competition for both consumers and mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs).
There’s also the issue of foreign ownership. T-Mobile’s parent company is Deutsche Telekom, and Sprint is owned by SoftBank. While Deutsche Telekom may not raise eyebrows during the FCC or DOJ review, there’s a small chance these agencies may take issue with SoftBank since it has significant ties with Chinese telecom companies.
Who are the major 5G players?
Countries around the world are racing to rollout 5G service. While the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China will likely be the first with commercial 5G service, other countries will not be too far behind.
Large scale deployments require huge investments in infrastructure. There’s currently four major companies providing network products for 5G deployments around the world.
While Huawei was thought to be the initial frontrunner in the 5G race, it has hit some serious obstacles in 2018. After the U.S. blocked the Chinese telecoms giant over security concerns, it has reportedly been lobbying Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan to follow suit.
So far America, India, and Australia have banned Huawei from providing 5G equipment over security concerns. New Zealand also stopped work with the country though its uncertain if its due to a security concern or a technical one. And Germany looks like it may be planning a ban as well.
Still Huawei has 22 commercial 5G contracts around the world. The telecoms giant claims its equipment is perfectly safe, and that at least some of the bans are due to political issues as opposed to actual security concerns.
Finnish telco giant Nokia is one of the big players in the 5G market. The company is partnering with carriers and countries around the world to provide 5G network equipment.
Nokia is paving the way with some massive 5G partnerships. In 2018 Nokia partnered with U.K. carrier O2 to create two Massive MIMO trials in London. Earlier in the year, T-Mobile signed a $3.5 billion deal with Nokia to build out its nationwide 5G network on its 600 MHz and 28GHz spectrum. And it began 2018 with a bang, announcing it would supply Tokyo with 5G networks for the 2020 Olympic Games.
Swedish telecom Ericsson is also looking to get into 5G. While the carrier doesn’t have as big of a footprint in the U.S. as other 5G providers, it is working with major Chinese carriers on field trials.
In addition to working with major carriers, Ericsson is also working with the automotive industry. In 2018, the company signed a five-year partnership with Volvo to collaborate on a series of 5G connected vehicle initiatives.
When people think of 5G and Samsung, smartphones may come to mind, but the company provides network solutions for carriers as well. In 2018, Samsung was tapped by Verizon to provide fixed 5G network solutions for the carriers first commercial rollout. The South Korean tech giant was also chosen by AT&T in 2018 to supply AT&T with 5G-ready equipment on the CBRS network.
In addition to U.S. carriers, Samsung is making some pretty big 5G waves around the world. In late 2019, the company announced it had been selected by South Korea Telecom to supply the company with 5G solutions.
Chinese telecom ZTE wants to become one of the big names in 5G as well. In 2018 the company worked with the Chinese government in mid-band and core 5G testing. The company also inked a deal with Qatari-based carrier Ooredoo Group to provide consumer solutions for its 164 million customers.
Should you buy a 5G smartphone?
Although 5G will undoubtedly change the way we interact with each other and consume media, the change won’t happen overnight. It will be years before 5G is up and running smoothly across the U.S. While it’s ultimately a personal decision, it may be wise to hold off on buying a 5G handset in early 2019. In addition to the fact that coverage will likely be very spotty, the hardware will also be first-gen. With the exception of a phone AT&T plans to release at the end of 2019, most of the 5G smartphones that will come in early 2019 will likely have single-band 5G support.
Telecom giant Ericsson makes a good argument for waiting on a 5G smartphone. It reports a second generation of 5G chipsets will be announced by the end of 2019, featuring enhanced architecture and lower power consumption. You can keep tabs on what smartphones support 5G in our guide here.