We're now entering our second year of 5G coverage in the U.S., but it may not seem like we're closer to learning when 5G is going to make a difference in our lives. Networks are up and running, 5G devices including iPhones are widely available, but widespread coverage and super-fast speeds remain a work in progress.
If you're wondering when 5G is coming to your area, the simple answer is that it may already have. All three wireless carriers in the U.S. offer nationwide 5G networks, though those speeds don't match the hype. At least not yet.
- Best family cell phone plan: Which ones include 5G coverage?
- iPhone 12 and 5G: Here are the best networks to date for 5G coverage
If you can get a 5G signal where you're at, you'll likely see improved performance over LTE (aka 4G) networks — provided you've got one of the best 5G phones. But even with an uptick in speed, the 5G experience isn't all that different from LTE at this point.
The 5G landscape is constantly shifting and will continue to do so throughout 2021. Here's a status report on where we are now, how we got here and what's ahead for 5G as the new networking standard blankets more of the country with faster speeds and lower latency.
5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication standards, following previous iteration of wireless networking. It was the arrival of 3G nearly 20 years ago that made it possible to surf the internet on a smartphone, while 4G delivered speeds that enabled video streaming and an entire economy of apps that need sustained, reliable connectivity.
In 2017, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project—the group that creates the rules for wireless connectivity—issued the non-stand-alone standard for 5G, which allows 5G to coexist alongside 4G. The standard for stand-alone 5G got finalized a year later. In the two years since, infrastructure developers such as Ericsson and Nokia have worked with the four major wireless carriers in the U.S. to build out 5G networks and test them with devices equipped with 5G radios that comply with the new standard.
That means your existing smartphone won't be able to receive a 5G signal (unless, of course, you've already upgraded to a 5G device in the past year-and-a-half). The new standard requires a new device that may hit download speeds of 1 Gbps (but only on a high-band 5G network) and theoretically hit a peak of 10 Gbps.
In theory, that would let you download full-length movies in seconds. More significantly, it opens up a world of possibilities we can't even imagine yet.
When is 5G coming: U.S. network cheat sheet
|Current 5G cities||38 (5G Plus service); 14,000 (low-band 5G service)||61 (Ultra Wideband); 2,700 cites via lower-band coverage||8,300 via sub-600Ghz network, with high-speed service in parts of 7 cities|
|Initial 5G technology||Millimeter wave in 5G Plus cities; low-band spectrum elsewhere||Millimeter wave in Ultra Wideband cities; DSS elsewhere||Millimeter wave in half-a-dozen cities, 600 MHz for nationwide network|
|Required plan||Unlimited Prepaid ($60/month); Unlimited Starter ($65/month); Unlimited Extra ($75/month); Unlimited Elite ($85/month)||Do More or Play More ($80/month) or Get More ($90/month); Unlimited prepaid ($75/month)||Essentials ($60/month); Magenta ($70/month); T-Mobile Connect ($15/month)|
|Major supported devices||Galaxy S21; Galaxy Note 20; iPhone 12; LG Velvet; Galaxy A71 5G; LG V60 ThinQ; Galaxy Z Fold 2; Galaxy Z Flip 5G; LG Wing; Pixel 4a 5G and 5; Motorola One 5G; Motorola Razr 5G||Pixel 5; Galaxy S21; Galaxy Note 20; Galaxy A715G; Motorola Edge Plus; OnePlus 8; LG V60 ThinQ; LG Velvet; Galaxy Z Fold 2; LG Wing; TCL 10 5G; iPhone 12||Galaxy S21; Galaxy Note 20; OnePlus 8 and 8T; Galaxy A71 5G; Galaxy A51 5G; Galaxy Z Flip 5G; LG V60 ThinQ; LG Velvet; Motorola Razr 5G; Revvl 5G; iPhone 12|
5G technologies affecting when 5G is coming
The backbone of the 5G standard is comprised of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum. 5G networks operate on different frequencies with sub-6 GHz and millimeter-wave (20-60 GHz) at the low and high ends of the spectrum.
Carriers were already using sub-6 spectrum for existing LTE networks, and now they need more of it to build out 5G. Millimeter-wave frequency was previously unused, and the advent of 5G has given carriers access to the spectrum that will enable the faster speeds we expect with the new standard.
But mmWave has a few drawbacks: Because it's so high-frequency, the waves don't travel long distances. In fact, they can't even travel through windows or buildings. That means a device operating on an mmWave-based network — primarily Verizon's at this point, though T-Mobile and AT&T also use mmWaver to some extent — will need to be extremely close to a 5G node to catch a signal.
That's fine in a dense metropolitan area, where you can stick a 5G node every few hundred feet. But in rural areas where there are few buildings or cell towers, mmWave won't work.
That's why both sub-6 bands are necessary to make 5G signals more widespread. Indeed, new Qualcomm CEO Christian Amon has long insisted that real 5G will be a combination of the low, mid, and high-band frequencies.
T-Mobile provides a good example of this. It launched nationwide 5G coverage in 2019 using sub-6Hz spectrum. That meant lots of coverage — at launch, T-Mobile's 5G reached 5,000 cities — but at speeds that were only 20% faster than 4G on average. Since then, T-Mobile has started incorporating the midband 2.5GHz spectrum it acquired during its merger with Sprint to boost performance in its far-reaching network. In some cities, T-Mobile uses all elements of 5G — mmWave, mid-band and sub-6Hz spectrum — for what it calls a layer cake approach.
When is 5G coming to your area?
5G is already here, but unless the stars of your location, the wireless carrier you subscribe to and the smartphone you own are perfectly aligned, you probably can't use it yet.
AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile offer 5G coverage, but there are caveats. First, the number of 5G phones have grown. But you still have to make sure you have a 5G-capable device in your hand. Coverage is now reaching wider areas — Verizon has joined AT&T and T-Mobile in offering nationwide coverage — though speeds aren't anywhere near the 1 Gbps download speeds you've been hearing about.
What's more, it's evident many smartphone users aren't sure what 5G is. In fact, one in three Americans think they already have 5G, according to one study from 2019. The results showed that 47% of AT&T subscribers who own iPhones think their device is 5G-capable. AT&T's misleading 5G Evolution logo (5GE) to describe service that's really just advanced LTE, probably aided that confusion.
When is 5G coming to more areas and how will it perform?
The current state of 5G looks like this: Verizon has high-speed 5G in parts of 61 cities, along with mmWave towers in many stadiums, arenas and airports. To mark the arrival of the iPhone 12, Verizon launched nationwide coverage, which now reaches 230 million people. That service isn't as fast as Ultra Wideband and uses lower-band spectrum coupled with dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology that repurposes LTE for 5G coverage.
Verizon is the last carrier to launch nationwide coverage. T-Mobile was first, and its 5G service now reaches 8,300 cities and towns, with mid-band coverage giving a speed boost to customers in more than 1,000 cities. At the end of 2020, T-Mobile says its 5G network reached more than 280 million people.
AT&T has launched its own nationwide network, too, reaching 14,000 cities and towns with low-band coverage and high-speed mmWave service in 38 of those cities.
A 2020 report by OpenSignal detailing 5G performance illustrates what impact the different 5G technologies can have on networks. Verizon, which had relied exclusively on mmWave in its initial 5G launch, boasted the best speeds by far at 506.1 Mbps. Other carriers are using mid- to low-band 5G, and their average download speeds — 114.2 Mbps for Sprint, 62.7 Mbps for AT&T and 47 Mbps for T-Mobile reflect that. (This survey was conducted prior to T-Mobile's efforts to fold Sprint's network into its 5G service.)
But take a look at 5G availability. The same carriers who have slower speeds because of mid- to low-band-based 5G can boast a wider reach. Verizon and its mmWave-based 5G network has the lowest percentage of availability of all, with users able to get a 5G connection less than 1% of the time.
Who has the best 5G network right now depends on who's doing the counting. Ookla, which relies on crowd-sourced testing, gives the crown to AT&T for fastest 5G network as of the end of 2020, after Verizon's average speed tumbled thanks to the introduction of slower nationwide coverage.
RootMetrics praised T-Mobile for having the largest 5G footprint and best 5G availability in its report on wireless network performance for the second half of 2020, while AT&T's 5G network continues to grow. Verizon has the fastest 5G speeds, at least in places where Ultra Wideband coverage is available.
Meanwhile, Opensignal declares T-Mobile to have the best 5G network at the moment thanks to top download and upload speeds. Verizon has the better video experience over 5G.
When is 5G coming to more phones?
We entered last year with half-a-dozen 5G-capable smartphones on the market. These days, it seems like every major new release offers 5G capability, highlighted by the recent debuts of the iPhone 12 (Apple's first 5G phones) and the Galaxy S21, the third 5G capable-release in Samsung's Galaxy S family.
In addition to those devices, major flagships from OnePlus, LG, Google and Motorola all offer 5G connectivity. More importantly, midrange and budget phones are starting to support 5G as well, thanks to less expensive chipsets like Qualcomm's Snapdragon 765G. 5G phones under $500 include the Pixel 4a 5G, Motorola One 5G Ace and TCL 10 5G UW. The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is just about the cheapest 5G device we've seen at $299.
Expect the 5G devices to keep coming in 2021, particularly at the high end. Qualcomm has introduced the Snapdragon 888 and Snapdragon 870 5G for flagship phones; both new chipsets include 5G modems, and you'll see them powering most frontline Android devices this year.
When is 5G coming to the iPhone?
It's already here. Last fall, Apple went all in on 5G, introducing four models that support 5G, including Verizon's Ultra Wideband coverage. Ultimately, that could be the boost 5G needs.
With the iPhone 12 mini, iPhone 12, iPhone 12 Pro and iPhone 12 Pro Max now out and ranging in price from $699 to $1,099, don't expect Apple to look back. iPhone 13 rumors suggest that 5G will be a part of this fall's phone updates, too.
When is 5G coming to devices beyond phones?
People equate the G's — 2G, 3G, 4G and now 5G — with smartphones, because that’s always been the place where we've been able to see an indicator of what kind of connectivity we're getting. But that's only part of what 5G is — the faster speeds will mean so much more than just higher-quality streaming and lightning quick downloads.
"5G will be the post-smartphone era," Robert J. Topol, Intel's general manager for 5G business and technology, said during an interview at the 2019 Mobile World Congress. "Phones are the first place to launch because [they're] such an anchor in our lives from a connectivity standpoint."
That’s in the process of changing.
Lower latency will make augmented reality and virtual reality more useful — and eliminate nausea — because there won't be any lag. AR glasses and VR headsets haven't yet cracked the mainstream, but tech companies are betting that these devices will eventually replace our smartphones. With 5G, that could actually happen.
"Connected PCs, connected IoT products, connected AR/VR, connected gaming consoles, things like that — we see all of those on the horizon," said Ryan Sullivan, Sprint's vice president of product engineering when we spoke to him in December 2019 before he became vice president of devices and technology at the new T-Mobile. "They may not all be a 2020 thing, but you start to see some of those new use cases and new product categories emerge."
To that end, Qualcomm ended 2019 by releasing its XR2 mixed reality processor with 5G connectivity. That chipset powers the Oculus Quest 2, which came out last year. Qualcomm is also pushing 5G to always-connected laptops, with its Snapdragon 8cx Gen 2 platform coming to 5G-capable devices from both Acer and HP among others.
Among the ways 5G could change your life, schools could take advantage of virtual- and augmented-reality experiences that will bring concepts out of textbooks and into real life for students. Faster connectivity and no latency could also revolutionize hospitals, enabling holograph-assisted surgeries. On the roads, 5G could make self-driving cars safer, because communication between vehicles and infrastructure will become instantaneous.
"It's not just speed and latency, it's so many other things," Verizon chief product development officer Nicki Palmer said during the December 2019 Qualcomm tech summit on 5G. "This transition from 4G to 5G is even bigger and frankly much more revolutionary."
This isn't going to happen overnight, but expect major shifts thanks to 5G in the next five years. Qualcomm's Amon predicts there will be 2.8 billion 5G connections by 2025. (That's not just phones, but rather connected devices, too.)
What will happen to 4G now that 5G is here?
Unlike past generations of connectivity, 4G and 5G will coexist. When your device drops a 5G signal, it will fall back on LTE. The hand-off should be imperceptible—aside from the fact that your upload and download speeds will decrease.
This will be especially useful in areas of the country where 5G networks will take longer to get off the ground.
Existing 4G networks will also play a role in carriers building out their 5G coverage, as technologies like dynamic spectrum sharing will allow carriers to share their spectrum between 4G and 5G uses.
And the improvements carriers are making to their networks to prepare for a nationwide 5G rollout will make 4G better, too. When we tested AT&T's 5G Plus network in Las Vegas in 2019, we saw 900 Mbps over 5G. LTE can't compare, but we also clocked more than 200 Mbps on an iPhone running on AT&T's 5G E (advanced LTE) network. That's exponentially better than AT&T's existing LTE network, which averaged download speeds of 32.91 Mbps earlier this year.
We've got a closer look at how 4G and 5G speeds compare.
Is 5G dangerous?
There is no evidence to suggest that 5G is dangerous to your health, and yet people are still concerned. Why?
For years, the belief that radio waves can cause brain cancer in humans has spread, seemingly affirmed by a 2000 scientific study of high-frequency waves and their effect on human cell tissue. A New York Times report examined that study and found it to be based on a misunderstanding of the human body — specifically, the skin’s ability to shield the brain from radio waves.
Our colleagues at Live Science have also looked into the dangers — or lack thereof — that 5G can pose, and found that while there is no reason to be alarmed about the rollout, more studies will (and should) be conducted as 5G becomes more widespread to determine its impact.
The latest conspiracy theories surrounding 5G have claimed the network technology has somehow triggered the coronavirus pandemic — a dubious assertion that some people have taken seriously enough to set fire to 5G towers in the UK last year. The health experts we talked to think 5G coronavirus conspiracy claims are nonsense.
5G is here, but so far, it's a little underwhelming. Still, that should change as more cities come online and more 5G devices become available.
When announcing its quarterly earnings during January, Verizon outlined 5G plans for this year that include adding 20 more Ultra Wideband cities and doubling the amount of UW sites in its network; it also plans to boost low and midband coverage.
For its part, T-Mobile wants to double the area covered by both low and midband spectrum, which the carrier bills as its Ultra Capacity 5G network. Look for service like Voice over 5G calling to emerge as well. AT&T also says it's planning on expanding its 5G coverage in 2021.
If the networks can deliver on their 5G promises, we'll no longer be asking when 5G is coming, but how we ever lived without it.