What Is 5G? The Definitive Guide to the 5G Network Rollout

Credit: David Becker/Getty

(Image credit: David Becker/Getty)

After years of hype about gigabit speeds that will let you download full-length movies in mere seconds, 5G is a reality.

All four wireless carriers have flipped the switch on 5G in the U.S., and you can buy 5G phones that can take advantage of faster speeds on those networks.

But 5G hasn't realized its full potential yet. Here's where we are now, and what we can expect from 5G when it blankets the country with faster speeds and lower latency.

Latest news & updates (August 2019)

  • Video-streaming is expected to be the killer use case for 5G — at least to start. According to an IHS Markit, 78% of people surveyed expect to increase their video-streaming habit once 5G is available.
  • In mid-July, T-Mobile tested the first 5G data session over low-band 600 MHz spectrum, which is the spectrum the Uncarrier is using to round out its 5G network (alongside millimeter-wave).
  • We tested AT&T's 5G network in Las Vegas, where we saw superfast speeds but didn't crack 1 Gbps.
  • We also tested T-Mobile's newly launched 5G network in New York City, where we saw slower download speeds than from AT&T or Verizon, but more consistent coverage.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless communication standards. 

First there was 2G, a set of standards governing wireless telephone calls. The mobile web did not yet exist. Then 3G arrived, making it possible to surf the internet on a smartphone. 4G delivered speeds that enabled video streaming and an entire economy of apps that need sustained, reliable connectivity.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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. In June 2018, the 3GPP finalized the standard for stand-alone 5G. In the two years since, infrastructure developers like 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. 

MORE: 5G Is Coming, It's Exciting, and I'm Sitting It Out for Now

That means your existing smartphone won't catch a 5G signal. The new standard requires a new device. That new device may hit download speeds of 1 Gbps, and theoretically hit a peak of 10 Gbps. That means you'll be able to download full-length movies in seconds, but it will also open up a world of possibilities we can't even imagine yet. We're already seeing 5G phones capable of gigabit speeds in our real-world testing, but it varies by carrier and by city.

5G Coverage: U.S. Cheat Sheet

AT&TSprintVerizonT-Mobile
Current 5G cities20Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Kansas CityChicago, Denver, Minneapolis, ProvidenceNew York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, Cleveland, Atlanta
Targeted number of cities by end of 20193093030
Initial 5G technologyMillimeter waveMassive MIMO (2.5-GHz)Millimeter waveMillimeter wave, 600 MHz later
Required planTBDUnlimited Premium ($80/month)Beyond Unlimited ($85/month) or Above Unlimited ($95/month) plus $10 5G charge per month (free for a limited time)Magenta ($70/month)
Supported devicesGalaxy S10 5G, Netgear Nighthawk 5G hotspotLG V50 ThinQ 5G, Galaxy S10 5G, HTC 5G HubLG V50 ThinQ 5G, Galaxy S10 5G, Motorola Moto Z4 and Z3 (with Moto Mod)Galaxy S10 5G

5G technology: How does 5G work?

The backbone of the 5G standard is comprised of low-, mid- and high-band spectrum. There are two frequencies that 5G networks can operate on: sub-6 GHz and millimeter-wave (20-60 GHz).

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, like Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T's 5G networks, will need to be extremely close to a 5G node to catch a signal.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

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 and mmWave are necessary to make 5G widespread and high speed. Sprint is using its existing midband (2.5 GHz) spectrum to build out its 5G network. At 2.5 GHz, a signal can travel farther but not as fast as with mmWave. We've seen that play out in our testing of Sprint’s network, which doesn't deliver the 1 Gbps speeds that mmWave-based networks from its rivals do, but does allow you to catch a signal more reliably.

T-Mobile launched its 5G network using mmWave, but is also now testing its low-band (600 MHz) spectrum to build out its 5G network.

Rollout: When can I expect 5G?

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, T-Mobile and Sprint have all launched their 5G networks, but there are caveats. First, there are only two 5G-compatible smartphones on the market: Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G and LG's V50 ThinQ 5G. (More on those in a minute.) And the carriers have launched service only in some parts of certain cities, with little overlap.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

But 1 in 3 Americans think they already have 5G, according to a recent study. The results showed that 47% of AT&T subscribers who own iPhones think their device is 5G-capable.

Don't confuse AT&T's 5G plans with the 5GE logo that is now appearing on AT&T customers' phones. That logo translates to "5G Evolution," AT&T's expanded service with advanced LTE technologies, such as 4X4 MIMO, which doesn't hit the speeds we expect from 5G (or even match Verizon's current 4G service, in our testing). 

AT&T is sticking by its decision: "We've been talking about 5G Evolution for a while now. We were pretty public about what we were doing and what we were deploying," Igal Elbaz, senior vice president for wireless technology at AT&T, told us at CES earlier this year.

5G phones

There are currently three 5G-capable smartphones on the market: Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G, LG's V50 ThinQ 5G and the Moto Z3 for Verizon with 5G Moto Mod. Only early adopters should consider buying these handsets at the moment, for a few reasons.

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The $1,299 Galaxy S10 5G is available on Verizon and T-Mobile. AT&T is also carrying the phone, but only for business customers and developers. The $1,152 V50 ThinQ is currently available only on Sprint, but will land on Verizon shelves later this summer.

The Moto Z3 is a tough sell because it requires snapping on a bulky accessory.

Other 5G devices are coming in 2019 — but don't expect to see a 5G iPhone this year. Apple is reportedly waiting until next year to embrace 5G.

OnePlus, Huawei and ZTE also have 5G phones in the works that are due out this year (or on sale in other countries). Samsung will also release another 5G phone this year.

5G 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 5G's 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 last year’s 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 about to change.

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. 

Credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty

(Image credit: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg/Getty)

MORE: 5 Ways 5G Will Change Your Life

5G could transform schools by enabling virtual- and augmented-reality experiences that will bring concepts out of textbooks and into real life for kids in classrooms. 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.

This isn't going to happen overnight, but expect major shifts thanks to 5G in the next five years.

What will happen to 4G?

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.

This will be especially useful in areas of the country where 5G networks will take longer to get off the ground.

And the improvements carriers are making to their networks to prepare for a nationwide 5G rollout will make 4G better, too. When I tested AT&T's 5G network in Las Vegas, I hit 900 Mbps over 5G. LTE can't compare, but I clocked over 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.

Here's how 4G and 5G speeds compare.

The dangers of 5G

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 recent 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.

Outlook

5G is here, but so far, it's a little underwhelming. But that should change as more cities come online and more 5G devices become available.

Overall, 2019 is the year that 5G starts to take off, but 2020 is when next-generation networks will have a meaningful impact on the masses. Next year is not only when we expect the first 5G iPhone, it's also when networks will offer nationwide coverage. That's when we'll begin to see the full potential of 5G.