According to mobile carriers, it’s the latest, greatest thing: 5G, a fifth-generation wireless standard that is said to rival home internet speeds under ideal circumstances. Just how fast is it—and does it live up to the hype? We’ll take a look.
What Is 5G?
5G is an industry term for a new wireless cellular network that supersedes the previous 4G LTE standard, just as 4G supplanted 3G. 5G stands for “fifth generation”—it’s the fifth major version of mobile phone technology since the origin of cellular phone networks in the early 1980s.
Under ideal conditions, 5G is designed to be much faster than 4G LTE technology for devices such as smartphones. But mobile carriers also aim for 5G to provide fast mobile internet for other devices, such as connected cars, smarthome gadgets, and Internet of Things (IoT) devices. It might even replace your wired home internet connection.
To use 5G, you need a device (such as a smartphone) that supports it with special hardware inside. Unless existing 4G or LTE devices contain 5G-compatible radio hardware, they cannot upgrade to 5G with a software update.
How Fast Is 5G?
While 4G tops out at a theoretical 100 megabits per second (Mbps), 5G tops out at 10 gigabits per second (Gbps). That means 5G could potentially be a hundred times faster than the current 4G technology—at its theoretical maximum speed, anyway.
It’s not just throughput, either. 5G promises to significantly reduce latency, which means faster load times and improved responsiveness when doing just about anything on the internet. Specifically, the specification promises a maximum latency of 4ms on 5G versus 20ms on 4G LTE.
But while firms have promised a lot from 5G, the real-world results have been mixed. In 2020, Verizon touted nearly 1 Gigabit/second 5G rates in Chicago that would allow someone to download a 600 MB video in about 34 seconds, versus 2.3 minutes at LTE speeds. But those Verizon numbers are much higher than actual data on the ground. According to Ookla’s analytics gathered from Speedtest.net, the average 5G speeds among three major cell carriers in the US ranged from about 68 to 192 Mbps in the first quarter of 2022.
If 5G were to consistently reach 1 gigabit speeds and higher, it would beat typical American home cable internet connections, making it more comparable to fiber. Landline internet companies like Comcast, Cox, and others may face serious competition—especially when they’re the only option for speedy home internet in a certain area. Wireless carriers could deliver an alternative without laying down physical wires to every home.
There’s a big snag, though: It turns out that those very high speeds are dependent on almost line-of-sight connections to 5G-enabled cell towers (or smaller base stations placed throughout a city) with almost no obstructions between them. To achieve those speeds, 5G devices must use a special radio band called millimeter wave (mmWave), which is highly subject to interference. With many people using cell phones in a home or car, they’re almost guaranteed never to reach the theoretical limits of 5G speeds.
There are some other real-world hiccups as well. For example, many internet service providers impose data caps. Even if your wireless carrier gave you a 100 GB data cap (which is much larger than most plans today), you could blow through that in a minute and 20 seconds at the maximum theoretical speed of 10 Gbps—if 5G ever gets that fast.
How Does 5G Work?
5G takes advantage of a lot of technology in an attempt to achieve these fast speeds. There isn’t just one innovation at play, and the innovations promised with 5G will roll out over time. IEEE Spectrum magazine does a good job of explaining a lot of the technical details in more depth, but here’s a quick summary.
The new standard utilizes a whole new band of radio spectrum from 4G in addition to the conventional cellular radio spectrum. To achieve very high speeds (the theoretical ones we mentioned), 5G takes advantage of “millimeter waves,” broadcast at frequencies between 30 and 300 GHz versus the bands below 6 GHz that were used in the past. These were previously only used for communication between satellites and radar systems.
But as mentioned above, millimeter waves can’t easily travel through buildings or other solid objects, so 5G will also have to take advantage of “small cells”—miniature base stations that can be placed about every 250 meters throughout dense urban areas. These provide much better coverage in such locations.
These base stations also use “massive MIMO.” MIMO stands for “multiple-input multiple-output.” You might even have a home wireless router with MIMO technology, which means it has multiple antennas it can use to talk to multiple different wireless devices at once rather than quickly switching between them. Massive MIMO uses dozens of antennas on a single base station. They also take advantage of beamforming to better direct those signals, directing the wireless signal in a beam pointing at the device and reducing interference for other devices.
There are also future plans to make 5G base stations run at full duplex, which means they will be able to transmit and receive at the same time, on the same frequency. Today, they have to switch between transmitting and listening modes, slowing things down. That’s just a snapshot of some of the technology being incorporated to make 5G faster than any previous wireless standard.
And yes, the available evidence points toward 5G being safe.
When Will It Be Available?
As of April 2022, 5G coverage is available in many areas of the United States from AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile (In 2020, Sprint merged with T-Mobile). Using each carrier’s website, you can view 5G coverage maps to see if it’s available in your area (coverage maps: AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile).
Outside the US, 5G availability varies widely by country. Check the websites of local wireless providers in your area to see if you’re covered.
To use 5G, you need a smartphone, cellular modem, or mobile hotspot that supports the new technologies in the 5G standard. Most high-end Android phones support 5G, and iPhone 12 and up support 5G as well.
You’ll be hearing a lot more about 5G over the next few years as the technology continues to roll out, and the underlying infrastructure needed to make it work improves in capability. 5G won’t be a static thing: While it’s good to take speed promises with a grain of salt now, they are likely to improve consistently in American urban centers over the next decade as investments in the new technology increase. Wireless internet is poised to get a whole lot faster.
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