What Is 5G? The Definitive Guide to 5G Networking

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 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 have already begun, with all four major carriers planning to launch the service in several cities early this year. Phones are also coming soon: Check out every 5G smartphone that's been announced.

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 (June 2019)

  • A reputable Apple analyst says the company will release two 5G iPhones, a 6.7-inch and 5.4-inch model, in 2020.
  • Both Sprint and AT&T will soon offer the Galaxy S10 5G this month. (Sprint will only sell the phone in cities where its 5G network is live, while AT&T is restricting sales to corporate customers.) Previously the 5G-ready phone was only available through Verizon.
  • We've also reviewed the LG V50 ThinQ, available on Sprint's 5G network, which we tested in Dallas.

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)

(Image credit: 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 Does 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.

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 in full swing, we're seeing some real movement when it comes to 5G deployment. Verizon and Sprint have already launched their mobile 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.

In October 2018, Verizon rolled out its Verizon Home 5G service in a handful of cities, including Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Verizon has since launched its 5G network in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis. The first compatible phone was the Moto Z3, which isn't 5G-capable out of the box but can be retrofitted with 5G connectivity with a 5G Moto Mod. Since then, new phones have arrived.

Samsung released a 5G version of its S10 flagship on Verizon's 5G network in May. The device will sport a 6.7-inch display and six camera lenses, including two with depth-sensing time-of-flight sensors for improved augmented reality experiences.

Meanwhile, Sprint launched its 5G network in May and is now selling the LG V50 ThinQ 5G. Sprint has since started taking pre-orders on the Galaxy S10 5G.

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AT&T flipped the switch on 5G wireless service in 12 cities — Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis,  Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio and Waco — in Dec. 2018. Later this year, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose will see 5G service turned on, and AT&T just announced that Chicago and Minneapolis will join the slate of cities getting 5G soon.

But AT&T is making waves by pushing a "5G E" logo to phones on its LTE Advanced network, which is decidedly not 5G. The "E" stands for evolution, but the marketing is murky enough that Sprint sued the carrier, claiming the label is deceptive to consumers. The two settled their legal spat, and AT&T's 5G E branding lives on.

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 and Caitlin McGarry contributed to this updated version.