5G Networking: The Definitive Guide

Updated

From the first mobile phone to 4G LTE, the telecommunications industry has changed plenty in just a few decades. We've jumped four G's, or generations, very quickly. Now, heading into 2019, the market is poised to break into the fifth generation, which promises 100 to 1,000 times the speed of 4G LTE. That means you might be able to download a full-length movie in a matter of seconds. More important, 5G will enable a new wave of ultra-efficient, Internet-connected devices.

But what is 5G really, what kind of benefits will it provide, and when will it actually arrive?

Sooner than you might think. The 5G standard has been finalized, and carriers have acquired the spectrum they need for next-gen speeds. Rollouts of 5G networks begin in 2019, with all four major carriers expected to launch the service in some cities. We're even starting to hear about phone makers' plans for 5G-ready devices.

After interviews with numerous experts in the field and representatives of device and component makers over the years, we have a good idea of what to expect, and when. Here's everything you need to know about 5G.

The Latest News (December 2018)

  • Qualcomm has unveiled the Snapdragon 855 mobile processing platform. Due out next year, it supports 5G networking through its included X50 5G modem. OnePlus says it will launch a 5G phone powered by the Snapdragon 855, while other phone makers and wireless carriers (Samsung with both AT&T and Verizon, and LG with Sprint) have promised 5G phones in early 2019.
  • At the same event where it previewed the Snapdragon 855, Qualcomm also showed off the potential of 5G on networks set up by AT&T and Verizon. While the demo networks didn't deliver full 5G speeds, they did illustrate some of the things you'll be able to do on the improved network, such as faster downloads and streaming volumetric video.
  • Verizon has launched a 5G-based home broadband service in five cities, a step in that carrier's 5G launch plans.

What is 5G?

The term 5G stands for fifth generation. A generation refers to a set of requirements that determine what devices and networks qualify for the standard and will be compatible with each other. It also describes the technologies that power the new types of communication.

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Second generation, or 2G, launched in 1991 as a set of standards that governed wireless telephone technology, without much concern for data transmission or the mobile Web. Third generation, 3G, focused on applications in voice telephony, mobile Internet, video calls and mobile TV. And 4G was designed to better support IP telephony (voice over IP), video conferencing and cloud computing, as well as video streaming and online gaming.

The finished 5G specification covers the 600 and 700 MHz bands, which carriers have invested in for 5G speeds.

What Will 5G Be Capable of?

"You'll be able to download a full-length feature movie in a matter of seconds as 5G evolves," said Ted Rappaport, director of NYU Wireless, a research center at NYU's Polytechnic School of Engineering. According to Rappaport, the fifth generation could offer speeds of up to 1,000 times that of 4G. In fact, we could see speeds of "10 gigabits per second or more, with one to several hundred of megabits per second at the edge of the cell (site)," Rappaport said.

Besides faster movie downloads, expect the higher speeds of 5G networking to provide the kind of low latency needed to run demanding virtual reality apps on standalone headsets. You'll also have quicker access to documents, photos and files in the cloud.

But let's not get too excited. Before 4G LTE was actually realized, the industry feverishly proclaimed speeds of up to 300 Mbps. When LTE launched, real-world speeds averaged only about 5 to 12 Mbps for downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps for uploads. Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions, a company that conducts network testing and analysis for carriers and operators worldwide, told us a few years ago that LTE speeds realistically range between 5 and 8 Mbps across a city; things have improved since then, as the average speeds in our latest LTE testing indicates, but you're still not going to see anything approaching that 300 Mbps promise consistently.

What Will 5G Impact Beyond Smartphones?

While you can expect faster throughput on your mobile device — once you have a 5G-capable phone connected to a network delivering data at faster speeds — equipment makers and network operators seem even more excited about 5G's potential in other areas. For instance, 5G is expected to enable more efficient communications between different devices, said Asha Keddy, vice president of standards and advanced technology at Intel.

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Take connected devices. A 5G-enabled smart-home hub pinging a sensor for status updates wouldn't need huge throughput or for the signal to travel a long distance, but it will need a speedy response. Devices that are 5G-capable will be able to tap the right frequencies to send signals based on what kind of message is being sent.

Back in February, Qualcomm hosted the press at its headquarters in San Diego to show off 5G uses, and two of the more compelling demos had little to do with smartphones. In one, Qualcomm reps showed off a major city could add millions of connected devices — everything from location-tracking wearables to smart street lights — without seeing any negative impact on network speeds. In another demo, connected cars were able to send signals to each other about an accident and an approaching ambulance, adjusting how they drove in the process — something that figures to have major implications for self-driving automobiles.

A Qualcomm video shows how seamless cars will be able to communicate with one another. (Credit: Tom's Guide)A Qualcomm video shows how seamless cars will be able to communicate with one another. (Credit: Tom's Guide)More recent demos hosted by Qualcomm highlighted activities like telemedicine and VR streaming. In other words, this is not just about letting you download a movie faster (though you should be able to do that, as 5G networks come online).

How Will 5G Work?

Two words: millimeter waves, or high frequencies above 24 gigahertz.

Think of the bands of radio waves available to us as a triangular beaker filled with some water. Today's telecommunications mostly takes place in the lower bands, toward the base of that beaker. Virtually no traffic (represented by the water in the beaker) is taking place above the 24-GHz mark right now, because those waves tended to have shorter ranges and worked within shorter distances. For example, AT&T’s 4G LTE network currently operates in the 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz bands.

Developments over the last few years have changed all that, though. NYU researchers shook things up in May 2013 when they published a paper in IEEE Access, showing that it's possible to use millimeter waves for long-distance transmissions. And in October 2014, Samsung demonstrated its ability to achieve a data transmission rate of 7.5 Gbps by tapping into a 28-GHz network. That rate translates to a 940 MB download in a second, although that’s under ideal conditions.

Samsung 5G Live Demonstration

Qualcomm developed the first millimeter-wave modules small enough to fit inside a smartphone. The QTM052 mmWave antenna module family and the QPM56xx sub-6 GHz RF module are the first fully integrated 5G NR millimeter-wave and sub-6 GHz RF component for mobile, and they're tiny enough that up to four modules can fit inside one phone. This past summer, Qualcomm made the modules available to smartphone makers, which means 5G-ready phones are just around the corner.

When Can I Expect 5G?

With 2019 just weeks away, we're starting to see some real movement when it comes to 5G deployment. The new year will see carriers launch 5G networks in the U.S., though don't expect the standard to become widespread until 2020.

"I don't have to ask you anymore to imagine 5G," Cristiano Amon, Qualcomm's president, said during the December 2018 Snapdragon Tech Summit." It's here. It's all around us."

With the telecommunications companies who make up the 3rd Generation Partnership Project approving the first standard for 5G roughly a year ago before finalizing the Standalone 5G NR specification in June, the pace of 5G deployment is picking up. Both the U.S. and Europe are expected to have commercial 5G services debuting in 2019, as will South Korea. In China and Japan, pre-commercial 5G rollouts are expected with more to follow in 2020.

"5G is so important, the entire industry is moving at the same pace," said Amon, contrasting 5G's progress to the 4G, which spread around the globe in stages.

As for specific carrier plans in the U.S., AT&T is on track to introduce mobile 5G service for both consumers and businesses in 12 cities by year's end, though  those trials will be conducted with a puck-like hotspot and not a phone. On Sept. 10, AT&T expanded its 2018 5G rollout to Houston, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans and San Antonio, after initially confirming service for Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Raleigh and Waco.

That will give AT&T a leg up on Verizon in terms of mobile reach. Big Red launched 5G residential broadband in five cities back in October; its mobile rollout comes next year.

As for T-Mobile, it announced at the 2018 Mobile World Congress trade show that it was building out 5G in 30 cities, with New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Las Vegas the first to support 5G smartphones next year. The Uncarrier just inked a second $3.5 billion deal with Ericsson as its 5G equipment supplier. For its part, Sprint is promising that customers in six cities — Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and Washington D.C. — will begin to experience "5G-like capabilities" in advance of a rollout next year.

Now that Qualcomm has announced the Snapdragon 855 mobile processor, which includes 5G compatibility among its many features, we're starting to hear from more smartphone makers and their plans for rolling out 5G-ready devices in 2019. OnePlus says it will have a phone that runs on the new processor, though it's also said the 5G-ready phone could cost $200 to $300 more than its current handset.


Verizon and AT&T both plan to team up with Samsung on 5G-capable phones — in AT&T's case, there will be two such devices, with the second phone released in the latter part of 2019 able to access sub-6GHz spectrum along with mmWave. Before those Samsung announcements, LG and Sprint announced plans for a 5G-ready phone in the first half of next year.

What Will Happen to 4G?

Just as 3G continues to exist today in our 4G-rich landscape, 4G will hang around as 5G takes over and even see continued development. While the industry works on bringing 5G to the masses, carriers and other players will continue to develop existing 4G LTE networks on a parallel track. Qualcomm's Snapdragon 855 will even feature an X24 LTE modem along with the X50 5G modem so that phones can still use high-speed 4G networks when 5G isn't available.

Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile's vice president for engineering, who's also part of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said, "Whatever we develop for 5G, it will certainly incorporate all of what we've done for 4G, and work seamlessly with 4G."

But beyond 4G, older technologies like 3G and 2G will start to go away and won't be compatible with 5G.

3GPP's current definition of LTE states that the highest theoretical peak data rate the technology can achieve is 75 Mbps up and 300 Mbps down. LTE-Advanced sees that rate increased to 1.5 Gbps up and 3 Gbps down, using carrier aggregation (CA), a method of increasing data speeds and capacity by combining bands of spectrum to form wider channels.

Editors' Note: The original version of this article was written by Cherlynn Low, and has since been updated to include the latest developments in 5G deployment. Philip Michaels contributed to this updated version.