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What Is 5G? Here’s The Truth About 5G Speed, Smartphones, & More!

If you're like most people, you're curious about 5G and want to learn more about it. But what really is 5G? In this article, we'll take a deep dive into what 5G is, which carriers have 5G networks and phones, and what practical uses consumers can expect to get out of 5G!

What 5G Is

5G is the fifth generation of mobile network technology, and it's promising to bring much faster speeds than 4G LTE. There are three different kinds of 5G coverage: high-band, mid-band, and low-band. Each band refers to a set of frequencies, and they all have strengths and weaknesses. 5G is designed to make a “mesh” network by combining them all, delivering ultra-fast speeds in densely populated areas with high-band, and coverage over long distances with low-band.

5G phones support adaptive beam switching, meaning that they can constantly check the signal quality of each band and hop between bands, depending on what's available.

High-band 5G

The FCC has made auctioning off high-band spectrum a priority. They concluded their first 5G spectrum auction this year in the 28 GHz band, and their auction of the 24 GHz spectrum is taking place right now.

In 2020, the FCC will auction off the upper 37 GHz, 39 GHz, and 47 GHz bands. With these auctions, the FCC will release almost 5 gigahertz of 5G spectrum into the market — a wider range of frequencies than all other bands combined.

Mid-band 5G

Mid-band spectrum has become a target for 5G buildout due to its balance between coverage and available capacity. Between the 2.5 GHz, 3.5 GHz, and 3.7-4.2 GHz bands, the FCC could make up to 844 megahertz (MHz) available for 5G deployments.

Low-band 5G

Low-band: The FCC is acting to improve its use of low-band spectrum (useful for wider coverage) for 5G services by changing the way the 600 MHz, 800 MHz, and 900 MHz band are used. Up until a few years ago, the 600 MHz was reserved for analog television tower transmissions. Remember rabbit ears? That was 600 MHz technology.

4G vs. 5G: The Differences

5G truly is forward-thinking technology. At this point, we really need to engage our imaginations to appreciate what it can do for us. 4G LTE was about connecting people with other people. 5G is about people too, but it’s also designed to connect people with the plethora of new “smart” devices on the market, and devices with other devices, like drones or wireless cars.

In the near future, an unprecedented number of devices will communicate with each other in real time. 4G isn’t designed to handle that kind of communication. 5G is, and there are several key differences.

Range

4G and 5G signals have vastly different ranges. On flat terrain, 4G cell phone towers have a maximum range of between 30 and 45 miles. In hilly terrain, that distance decreases to between 3 and 5 miles.

The reason we see so many cell towers in densely populated areas isn’t due to their range — it’s due to the maximum number of devices each 4G tower can support at a given time.

5G base stations use millimeter waves that are extremely limited in range. Each 5G base station has a range of between 800–1000 feet, or .15–.19 miles. It makes up for its limited range by surpassing 4G in other key areas: data transfer speeds (bandwidth), latency, and capacity.

Speed

Whereas 4G promised peak speeds of 1 Gbps (gigabits per second), 5G’s max speed is set at 20 Gbps. But those aren’t real-world numbers.

According to a Tom’s Guide article, Verizon’s average download speed in 2019 is 53.3 megabits per second. Preliminary tests of Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago showed speeds in excess of 500 Mbps (megabits per second).

A ten-fold speed increase won’t make much of a difference to someone checking the weather, but users who stream or watch live video will notice a difference. There won’t be any buffering, and there won’t be any lag.

Latency

Latency, or lag, is the amount of time it takes to transfer data between devices. In the real world, it’s the amount of time between tapping the play button on a YouTube video and when the video actually begins to play.

4G is low latency, but the delay is still perceptible. 5G aims to make latency entirely imperceptible by providing latency of 1ms, 20x better than 4G’s best.

The implications for extremely low latency, however, reach far beyond YouTube. Driverless cars will react faster, surgeons will be able to operate from the other side of the world, and streaming video will be as smooth as real life.

Capacity

4G’s limits on capacity are largely invisible to us, but wireless carriers see a problem on the horizon. New IoT (internet of things) devices like light switches, cars, refrigerators, and other day-to-day items with wireless connectivity are constantly being released. Current cell towers do not have the ability to support them all.

Current cell towers that cover ranges of several miles can support around 60-100 simultaneous 4G connections. A 5G metro cell, which operates over distances of just a few hundred meters, will support over 250 devices.

Hundreds of 5G base stations will need to be installed to cover the area of a single cell phone tower. Even if just 100 base stations were required, 5G’s would support at least 25,000 devices to 4G’s 100.

5G Smartphones

5G smartphones are being released all the time. Below, we'll talk about the 5G phones currently on the market and help you decide if you should get one.

Which Phones Support 5G?

Motorola kicked off the 5G phone revolution with the Moto Z3. Although this phone didn't support 5G on its own, you could attach the 5G Moto Mod and connect to 5G networks. It wasn't very intuitive. Since then, a few other manufacturers have developed 5G phones of their own.

Most notably, Samsung released a 5G variant of the Galaxy S10 and Galaxy Note10+.

If you're looking for a “discount” 5G phone, there aren't many options. LG's V50 ThinQ costs $600 from Sprint and $999 from Verizon. You can lease the V50 ThinQ from Sprint, however, for just $12.50 / month.

The OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren is another relatively affordable 5G phone. It costs about $900 outright, or you can pay $37.50 / month for 24 months. Unfortunately, it's only available on T-Mobile.

Where's The 5G iPhone?

Apple still hasn't released a 5G iPhone, and they won't be doing so until September 2020 at the earliest. They haven't added a 5G iPhone to their product line because it simply isn't necessary at the moment.

Consider what requires the most bandwidth on an iPhone: streaming video and downloading large files. 4G speeds are more than enough for streaming Netflix in 1080p.

5G is capable of  downloading large files like software updates and games faster than 4G, but those are infrequent occurrences. Many people in 5G-enabled areas will continue to use Wi-Fi for large downloads due to data caps on their cell phone plans.

5G networks are still in their infancy. The vast majority of Americans can't access 5G speeds, even with a 5G-enabled smartphone.

Does 5G Use More Battery Than LTE?

Yes, 5G utilizes more battery than battery than LTE — for now. In five years, that probably won't be the case. This is another reason why Apple hasn't released a 5G iPhone yet. The battery technology simply isn't there yet.

Before diving in too deep, we want to be clear that we wouldn’t shy away from a 5G-enabled smartphone out of a concern over battery life. Except in rare cases where extremely high bandwidth is required for extended periods of time, most people probably won't notice a difference.

In order to fully answer the battery usage question, we need to consider two main factors:

  1. The amount of power used to transfer data between a cell tower and smartphone
  2. The efficiency of the hardware components inside the smartphone

The amount of power used while transferring data between a cell tower and smartphone is largely a function of time. The longer a data transfer takes, the more power is used. 5G promises much faster data transfer speeds than 4G LTE.

If a data transfer that takes 100 milliseconds (ms) using 4G LTE now takes only 1ms on 5G, the amount of time the antenna is active is reduced by 100 times. This is significant because transferring data between a smartphone and a cell tower uses a relatively high amount of power compared to processing that happens on the device itself.

If all other things were equal, then 5G would use less battery life than LTE. Unfortunately, 5G hardware is still in its infancy, especially compared to the highly efficient 4G LTE chips that reside in current smartphones. This brings us to the second point.

The State Of 5G Hardware

New technology is often bigger, bulkier, and more power hungry than later iterations. 5G hardware is no exception.

Current smartphones often use a “system on a chip” (SOC) hardware that combines the processor, cellular modem and antennas, security, and a slew of other components and functions into a single chip. Single chip design offers reduced costs and improved power efficiency, and that translates into longer battery life.

The Qualcomm 855 is an example of a popular SOC used by Samsung in the Galaxy S10. The 855 includes an integrated Qualcomm X24 4G LTE modem.

Although Qualcomm makes a 5G modem, the X50, it isn’t integrated into any SOC designs. Therefore, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G includes a separate chip for its 5G modem, the Exynos 5100. The chip itself is about the same size as the entire Qualcomm 855 SOC, which is also present. It’s likely that additional 5G antennas are also present inside the Galaxy S10 5G.

More hardware components to power means more power consumption. When SOCs are released with integrated 5G modems, then the reduced data transfer times afforded by 5G technology will improve smartphone battery life drastically. Until that happens, 5G smartphones will likely use more power than phones without the extra hardware.

All that said, owners of 5G-compatible smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G probably won’t see much of a difference in battery life compared to the LTE-only version. In fact, S10 5G owners will likely see a significant increase in battery life — but that has nothing to do with 5G.

The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G has a 12.5% larger battery than the S10+. The phone’s 5G antenna itself will only be active for very short periods of time, during high-bandwidth data transfers and only in 5G-enabled coverage areas.

So, Should I Get A 5G Cell Phone?

No, we don't recommend getting a 5G phone — at least not yet. 5G isn't widely available, and it can't do anything that 4G LTE can't already do. 4G LTE is fast enough to download apps, stream video, and do everything else you need to do with your smartphone. We can't justify paying hundreds more for a phone that doesn't offer any improvements in the way we use the phone itself.

Which Carriers Have 5G?

5G is currently available, albeit on a limited scale. The four major wireless carriers have implemented mid-band and high-band 5G in dozens of cities across the country. Due to its limited range, however, coverage in cities will be spotty. T-Mobile recently rolled out low-band 5G coverage on a nationwide scale, but the speeds aren't much faster than 4G LTE. In some cases, they're actually slower.

Verizon 5G

Verizon currently delivers mid-band and high-band 5G to more than a dozen cities. The carrier has plans to continue rolling out 5G in many other metropolitan areas.

You can currently purchase the following 5G phones from Verizon: Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5GLG V50 ThinQ 5GSamsung Galaxy S10 5G; Motorola Moto Z4.

AT&T 5G

AT&T currently delivers mid-band and high-band 5G to nearly two dozen cities. The carrier has promised to continue with “much more comprehensive” 5G rollouts in 2020. Currently, the only 5G phone you can buy directly from AT&T is the Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G.

T-Mobile 5G

T-Mobile made waves by implementing the first “nationwide” 5G network. Theirs is a 600 MHz network. It's the slowest, bottom-of-the-barrel form of 5G.

T-Mobile's 5G network is an improvement over their current service, but it's not a game-changer. Some speed tests found that Verizon's 4G is faster than T-Mobile's 5G. T-Mobile has also implemented mid-band and high-band 5G in select metropolitan areas.

You can purchase two 5G-enabled phones directly from T-Mobile: OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and Samsung Galaxy Note S10+ 5G.

Sprint 5G

Sprint currently delivers mid-band and high-band 5G coverage to more than half a dozen metropolitan areas in the United States. You can currently purchase the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, and OnePlus 7 Pro 5G directly from Sprint.

Is 5G Available Anywhere Right Now?

5G is planned to initially break through in major American cities. It is already available in some, albeit on a trial basis.

Verizon started out with pockets of 5G service in downtown Chicago. However, the coverage is fairly limited. Customers can also use it about 300 feet from the nearest cell tower. Current Verizon customers can get a 5G plan for $50 / month.

Sprint plans to launch its four 5G cities in May 2019. They've already released preliminary coverage maps. Sprint's roll-out plan will start in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, and Kansas City, covering significant portions of each.

T-Mobile’s plan is less specific, but the carrier is aiming to have nationwide coverage by 2020.

While 5G is available in some places, we still have a very long way to go. No network can handle downloading at these speeds yet, and there are still some technical hurdles to make new 5G networks compatible with older versions.

5G Uses Cases

Will 5G Replace Home Internet?

Tyler Cooper, editor-in-chief of BroadbandNow, believes that 5G could become a viable alternative to traditional home internet service relatively soon. However, it won't be an alternative everywhere and the rollout will be gradual. Cooper notes that 5G technology relies on short millimeter wave frequencies, making it more practical for densely populated urban areas than rural communities across the United States.

Mark Rapley, the Director of Operations at KWIC Internet, agrees that 5G could be replace traditional home internet solutions in urban areas, but notes that home configurations are unlikely to change much even with the introduction of 5G-based home internet plans. You'll still have a central router, as well as a mounted 5G antenna that can pick up a signal at levels that our smaller, handheld devices cannot match.

Nikolai Tenev, founder of DigidWorks, pointed out that there are already some 5G routers on the market. Tenev doesn't believe these 5G routers are worth the investment right now, as 5G isn't widely available.

Will 5G Replace Cable?

None of the experts we spoke with believe that 5G will completely replace cable television — at least not in the near future. Cooper noted that internet-based streaming services haven't released cable, and that 5G's limited availability, especially in rural areas, will make it almost impossible for 5G to replace cable at all.

Rapley said that 5G networks aren't really designed to replace linear cable television because “modern cable [television] systems are ‘always on', whereas internet bandwidth management practices use an ‘only when it's needed' approach. He also doesn't believe that 5G will be a major improvement for streaming services, as 5G trades range for speed. Consumers who don't already have fast enough internet to stream video probably won't be helped much by 5G expansion.

Tenev has a different view. He believes that 5G will make “TV on the go” more popular, as the upgrade in network speed will make it easier to stream on-the-go when Wi-Fi isn't available.

Emergency Services

Verizon Wireless started airing 5G ads with a focus on how the fifth generation of wireless technology will help emergency responders do their job. Cooper told us he believes there are many ways in which 5G can help emergency services become “more adaptable and effective in the field.” He says that innovative technology like drones, mixed-reality lenses, and smart-city sensors all rely upon the superior throughputs 5G provides, which could dramatically change the how professionals respond to emergency situations in urban centers.

Rapley agreed that 5G can help emergency responders in dense, metropolitan areas. He added 5G may enable smart-city features like traffic re-routing, automatic lane closures, and predictive congestion reports to help responders arrive on-scene quicker. However, the limited range of 5G makes it not very useful in rural parts of the country.

Another advantage 5G provides for emergency responders is its higher device capacity. Tenev says mobile networks can quickly get overloaded during emergencies because many people are trying to reach emergency services, call relatives, and film and upload videos of what's happening. With 5G, it's less likely that all this activity will slow down the network.

Other Uses For 5G

Tenev believes 5G will have a significant impact on businesses employing Internet of Things (IoT) and automation solutions. IoT devices will especially benefit from 5G, as it'll lead to lower power usage and extended battery life.

Like us, Rapley wants to pump the brakes a little on 5G hype.  The main improvements of 5G networks will come in areas that can actually support the installation of repeaters, which for now are just large cities.

Ahmad Malkawi, the CEO of Global Telecom, believes that 5G might help us bring some elements of science fiction to life. Malkawi says that 5G technology may enable us to communicate more directly and intimately with people around the world, similar to Princess Leia communicating by hologram in the original Star Wars.

Now You're A 5Genius! Or At Least You Understand It A Little Better.

Now you'll know what to say to your friends when they ask, “What the heck is 5G, anyway?” It's a complicated technology to wrap your head around, especially because there aren't many clear real-world uses for it at the current time. Feel free to leave a comment below if you have any other thoughts about 5G. We'd love to hear your thoughts.

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