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!
Table Of Contents
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.
The FCC has made auctioning off the high-band, or mmWave, 5G 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 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.
While mid-band 5G isn't widely available right now, T-Mobile is about to be the first major carrier to make it accessible. By the end of 2020, T-Mobile customers with select plans will have access to mid-band 5G in cities all over the country.
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.
- Mid-band and high-band 5G have less range than 4G.
- 5G has a max speed of 20 Gbps (Gigabits per second), while 4G only can get up to 1 Gbps.
- Latency is much better with 5G compared to 4G, meaning consumers will experience faster connectivity and decreased delay.
- 5G infrastructure in the future will have much higher capacity than 4G has currently because of a surge of connected devices.
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 0.15–0.19 miles. It makes up for its limited range by surpassing 4G in other key areas: data transfer speeds (bandwidth), latency, and capacity.
Whereas 4G promised peak speeds of 1 Gbps, 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 Mbps (megabits per second). Preliminary tests of Verizon’s 5G network in Chicago showed speeds in excess of 500 Mbps.
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, 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.
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 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.
Are Any iPhones 5G Compatible?
In October 2020, Apple released four 5G iPhones. They were the first line of Apple's flagship product to support 5G.
The iPhone 12 is their standard 5G model. It runs on the new A14 processor chip, and has a 6.1 inch Super Retina XDR display. The combination of this new processor and its 5G accessibility makes it one of the fastest cell phones ever released.
The iPhone 12 Mini is a smaller, more affordable alternative to the iPhone 12. The only real difference between this model and the regular iPhone 12 is size, as the iPhone 12 Mini has a 5.4 inch Super Retina XDR display. The 12 Mini houses the same dual wide and ultra wide cameras as its larger counterpart, and comes in the same 64, 128, and 256 GB storage variants.
Apple also announced two iPhone 12 Pro models. The standard iPhone 12 Pro runs on the same A14 processor as the iPhone 12, but comes in a stainless steel case. It has three built-in camera lenses for wide, ultra wide, and telephoto photography. It has a 6.1 inch, edge-to-edge display comprised of Apple's new Ceramic Shield glass.
The iPhone 12 Pro Max is now the most premium iPhone ever made. It has a 6.7 inch, Ceramic Shield display and comes in 4 matte finishes. If you're looking for the absolute top of the line 5G iPhone, its 512 GB storage variant will run you $1399.
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 didn't rush to release a 5G phone.
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:
- The amount of power used to transfer data between a cell tower and smartphone
- 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. That's why the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G has 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?
We wouldn't deter you from buying a phone that supports 5G. However, 5G capability alone isn't a reason to upgrade. If you're happy with your current, non-5G phone, then keep it. 4G LTE is fast enough to download apps, stream video, and do everything else you need to do with your smartphone.
Fortunately, the cost off 5G phones is coming down as carriers continue to expand their networks. For example, you can get a Google Pixel 4a 5G for as little as $499. For the price, this phone is one of our favorites.
The iPhone 12 Mini if you're looking for an affordable 5G iPhone. Its base model can be purchased outright for as little as $699. You may be able to find an even better deal on eBay or Amazon.
Which Carriers Have 5G?
5G is currently available, albeit on a limited scale. The three 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.
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. At the October 2020 Apple Event, Verizon announced they were launching a nationwide, low-band 5G network.
Verizon has a large catalogue of 5G phones that includes flagships from Apple and Samsung.
AT&T has nationwide low-band 5G as well as mid-band and high-hand 5G in select metropolitan areas. Like Verizon, AT&T offers a wide selection of 5G phones.
One important distinction to make is that AT&T advertises their high-speed cellular network as “5G+”. In truth, these networks are simply the high-band 5G networks they own. There's nothing exceptional about them. In fact, a majority of their 5G network is comprised of low-band frequencies.
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.
Check out T-Mobile's website to compare the 5G phones they're currently offering.
The Current State Of Mid-Band 5G
As 5G coverage continues to roll out across the U.S., every carrier is at different points of offering nationwide 5G coverage. Check out the status on some of the major carriers:
- T-Mobile: According to T-Mobile, their mid-band network currently covers 125 million Americans. They're aiming to have 200 million covered by the end of the year.
- Verizon: Verizon has invested $10 billion to expand their mid-band 5G coverage to hundreds of millions of people. These changes are to be implemented over the next three years, so it's unclear how long you could be waiting for 5G access.
- AT&T: AT&T has fallen behind the other two major carriers, but they are planning to deploy mid-band 5G coverage at the end of 2021.
Can 5G Phones Use 4G?
The simple answer? Yes. This is one of the most asked questions about new phones featuring 5G network access. iPhones even have a feature called Smart Data Mode that allows you to automatically switch between the 4G LTE and 5G networks.
Many phones include a system processor that enables 4G access, and 5G has yet to be included in that software. Check out our YouTube video on 5G iPhones for more details!
Can 5G Penetrate Walls?
Currently, high-band 5G cannot penetrate walls. To accommodate for this limitation, the newly released iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro, and iPhone 12 Mini even feature a window to help them connect to mmWave 5G.
On the other hand, mid-band and low-band 5G can penetrate walls.
Can 5G Cause Headaches?
It may seem funny, but many people are actually concerned about health implications as a direct result of 5G network usage. Despite the worry, it's unlikely 5G can cause headaches. Any current health concerns around 5G are unfounded.
If you've been using a 5G phone and are experiencing headaches, it's more likely being caused by staring at your phone for extended periods of time.
Can 5G Be Turned Off?
Yes, 5G can be turned off in the Settings app for both iOS and Android devices.
If you're an iPhone user, follow these steps to turn off 5G:
- Open the Settings app.
- Select Cellular.
- Tap Cellular Data Options.
- Go to Voice & Data and select LTE. This will switch your iPhone back to 4G LTE.
If you use an Android, follow these steps:
- Open the Settings app.
- Select SIM Card & Mobile Data.
- Tap your SIM.
- Select your preferred network type (4G LTE or 5G).
From here, you should be able to access 4G LTE networks exclusively if that's what you'd prefer.
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.
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.