What is 5G? Well in the simplest of terms, it is the next evolution of the mobile network. Which is being touted as offering faster speeds and lower latency. And will be the future of just about everything.
However, 5G is more than just faster speeds for downloading Netflix shows, and lower latency for playing multiplayer games online. There's a lot more that it entails. In fact, there are two different types of 5G networks right now. So let's explain what exactly 5G is.
What is 5G?
It is the fifth-generation of the mobile network. Following on from 1G, 2G, 3G and 4G. It is essentially a straight upgrade from 4G LTE. Instead of an entirely new system (like 4G LTE was, coming from 3G). Which is going to make the build-out go faster.
There are essentially three aspects that we need to remember. It is going to bring bigger channels that will give you faster data. As well as lower latency so it is more responsive. And it will give users the ability to connect a lot more devices at once, without slowing down the network. Think of smart home devices, sensors, autonomous cars, etc.
Right now, the actual 5G radio system, which is known as 5G-NR, isn't the same as 4G. However, all 5G devices need this, for now, in the US. That is because it needs 4G to make the initial connections, before trading up to 5G where it's available. This is often referred to as "non-standalone" or NSA. Now later this year, carriers will rolling out standalone 5G networks, so that they won't need 4G coverage to work.
However, 5G smartphones will still support 4G LTE networks for the foreseeable future. As 5G is nowhere near available everywhere, and phones will need to fallback onto 4G so you don't lose coverage entirely.
What is the difference between Sub-6 and mmWave 5G?
There are technically three layers of 5G: low-band, mid-band and high-band. But it is commonly referred to just two types. Either Sub-6 or mmWave.
Sub-6 is referring to the use of spectrum that is below 6GHz. That would include mid and low-band spectrum. This is the type of 5G that most carriers around the world are starting off with. However, Verizon is starting with mmWave or millimeter wave, which is short-range, high-frequency network technology.
The main differences between the two is that with Sub-6, you get better coverage and slower "5G speeds". While mmWave gives you a lot less coverage, but blazing fast 5G speeds, we're talking Gigabit per second speeds. Meanwhile Sub-6 is just a bit faster than 4G LTE, depending on the area.
The idea here is to mix both Sub-6 and mmWave networks together. Giving you the coverage that is needed, along with the speed and capacity that is needed. Verizon will likely be the first carrier to do this, as it plans to launch its Sub-6 network in late 2020. However, because Verizon is doing mmWave first, we're seeing more "special" versions of 5G phones made specifically for Verizon. Since others are going with Sub-6 first.
So if you're wondering why T-Mobile 5G is slower than Verizon 5G, that is why. And this is also why T-Mobile covers most of the US, while Verizon is still street corners and some full streets – and it also doesn't work indoors, yet.
What devices run on 5G networks?
The first 5G smartphones started launching in 2019. With Samsung, LG, Motorola and OnePlus being among the first to launch 5G devices. However, in 2020, they have become a lot more prevalent. Mostly because of Qualcomm. Getting a bit off topic here, but Qualcomm's flagship chipset – the Snapdragon 865 – is only available with a 5G modem. Meaning that if smartphone makers want the best silicon available, they need to add 5G support too. This makes carriers happy, but it unnecessarily raises the prices on flagship phones, even more.
In 2020, most smartphones released were capable of running on 5G networks. The only real exception was the Pixel 4a.
Google Pixel 5
The Pixel 5 was released in October (announced on September 30) of 2020. It is the latest and greatest from Google, despite not running on the Snapdragon 865 chipset. It is still a 5G-enabled device, thanks to the Snapdragon 765G. It works on both Sub-6 and mmWave 5G networks.
The OnePlus 8T is another smartphone that was released in the second half of 2020, with 5G support. This one supports Sub-6 5G networks. So it'll support some of Verizon's 5G network. It runs on the Snapdragon 865 chipset, with 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. So it is a pretty powerful device.
What are the benefits of 5G?
The main benefit of 5G is going to be speed and capacity. One of the big issues that some carriers – like Verizon for example – are having with 4G LTE right now, is that they have too many connections on their network. This happens when you are the largest carrier in the country. But with 5G, that won't be an issue. As it will be able to handle more connections without affecting the speed of the network.
But the big selling point for everyone is going to be the speed. We've all seen those speed tests that get over a Gigabit per second download. That's cool and is great for downloading Netflix movies real quick before jumping on a plane. But the real-world applications for 5G won't be around until at least 2022. Similar to the real-world applications for 4G LTE.
With 5G, autonomous cars are going to be able to run entirely off of the network. Instead of needing to have a computer in the car, it can all be done in the cloud. This is due to the latency being almost non-existent. Which means it can send instructions down to the car instantly.
Another big use-case is going to be on-board storage for your smartphone. That could be a thing of the past. And keep all of your data in the cloud. With data being accessed instantly, we may only need enough storage on our phones for the actual operating system. This would take the Nexbit Robin to an all-new level.
Finally, perhaps the use-case that is going to be the most popular is, high-quality video chat. Right now, mobile video chat is still pretty low-resolution. We're taking maybe 720p on most phones. Though the Galaxy S20 range does have 1080p quality. With 5G, you'll be able to do this in 4K, without any sort of buffering at all.
What is 5G for?
Now before you say "why do I need gigabit speeds on my smartphone?" or "4G LTE is already fast enough for me". It's not quite that simple. Don't forget, we said the same thing when 4G LTE was coming out about a decade ago, that 3G was more than fast enough – obviously, hindsight tells us that's not true.
5G is about more than just browsing the internet. 5G is going to enable more bandwidth, which for carriers, means they can sell you more devices on its network, without the network slowing down. A problem Verizon suffered from in the past few years on its 4G LTE network. It's going to be very useful when we can get back to going to sporting events, like the Super Bowl too.
On top of that, 5G is also going to allow for advancement of other technologies like autonomous cars. Where they would be able to get the data to the car, from the cloud in just a second or two. That is because 5G has a very low ping or latency. Meaning that the time between your phone pinging the cloud and getting a response is much shorter. That's going to make autonomous cars really useful with 5G. In fact, Verizon and the University of Michigan are already testing out a 5G-enabled city where everything runs on 5G – from the traffic lights to cars, and everything in between.
There are many other use-cases for 5G too. Like replacing your home internet. Using it for virtual reality, streaming from the cloud in real-time, etc. Just because you don't need 1-2Gbps download speeds right now, doesn't mean that it won't get used. Because trust us, it will.
How do I know if 5G is available in my area?
The easiest way to know if 5G is available in your area is to pop your SIM card into a 5G device. Now obviously, not everyone has a 5G device laying around like I do. So the next bet is to check out the coverage maps for your carrier. But these are not always updated quickly. So 5G might be available in your area, even if the coverage map hasn't been updated yet.
T-Mobile covers the majority of the US with its Sub-6 5G network right now. Sprint has its mid-band network available in about 10 cities and it's being refarmed to work with T-Mobile's network, since their merger has now completed. Verizon and AT&T are a bit more scattered. Verizon, you will really want to take a look at the coverage map. As they do cover a number of markets, but the coverage in those markets are very limited. We're talking just a couple of streets.
Verizon launched its Sub-6 nationwide 5G network in the second half of 2020. So it is currently running two flavors of 5G – mmWave and Sub-6. It's Sub-6 network is sometimes slower than its LTE network. So if you have the option, it's a good idea to turn off 5G on your smartphone. So you can get faster speeds and slightly better battery life.
Is 5G the same as 5G E?
5G E is a marketing term that AT&T is using on its 4G LTE devices, and it means "5G Evolution". It is not 5G. 5G E is simply 4G LTE with a new icon. Which is why you'll see that the speeds on 5G E are still painfully slow.
It's very misleading by AT&T to add this to their smartphones, and they have actually had a few lawsuits brought against them for doing this.
AT&T has actually gotten rid of 5G E. However, it does now offer "5G+" which is a little less confusing. 5G is its Sub-6 network, and 5G+ is its mmWave network. Which is a whole lot faster, so the "plus" makes sense, but it should all just be 5G.
Will 5G affect my health?
While there are many conspiracy theorists running around saying that 5G caused Coronavirus, and will affect your health. There has been no proof of that being the case.
Remember, that it is not using new radio frequencies. In fact the low and mid-band networks are using frequencies that have been used for decades. While low-band uses UHF TV bands, and those have been used since 1952.
But the biggest worries with 5G and your health, is around the high-band, mmWave. This is short-range frequencies that require a lot of small cell sites. It's new, but common sense will tell you that it won't fry your brain cells.
And the reason for that is because mmWave is just too weak. If you have used Verizon's mmWave network, then you know what we mean. If the wind blows the wrong way, you'll be knocked off of the mmWave network. So no, it is nowhere near strong enough to fry your brain cells. And the best thing here is that it's so ironic.
On top of all of this, there have been multiple studies showing that it won't cause any damage to your health. And this is why it's important not to believe everything you read on the internet.
When will I be able to use 5G everywhere?
It'll be a few years before it is available everywhere. If we look at the timeline for 4G LTE, it really wasn't available everywhere until around 2014 or 2015. And even then, many that lived in the middle of nowhere, had trouble finding 4G LTE.
Now, while it is true that the use of more low-band frequencies means that carriers can build this out faster than 4G LTE, it doesn't necessarily mean that it will be built faster in the long run.
If you want to buy a 5G device to be future proof, it is still going to be wise to wait a year or two. As the modems that we currently have are still not that mature. Qualcomm, Intel and others are going to be working to improve the modems, so they use less battery and are more efficient. And since we are in the early stages still, things are going to progress pretty quickly.
The short answer is, don't expect these networks to really be vastly available until at least 2022, if not later. And of course, this still depends on your carrier and where you live.
However, once the 5G dream becomes a reality, we may no longer see traditional ISPs. As the 5G dream is about replacing your home internet. Since 5G is going to be much faster than your traditional WiFi. But that is still many years down the line, still.