For years, we’ve heard how 5G will be the Next Big Thing. 5G was supposed to alter our lives in ways we couldn’t imagine. And after all the hype and a few false starts, 5G has finally landed. Or, at least it’s really close to it.
So far, based on tests and limited availability, we’ve seen mixed results. We’ve witnessed 5G with incredibly fast speed that was accompanied by limited range and inconsistent coverage. We’ve experienced 5G that increased coverage and delivered a slight increase in speed. Of course, at this stage of 5G evolution, there are the usual compatibility issues with devices. Like with every new technology, 5G has some growing up to do.
But things are on the upswing. Carriers keep expanding their 5G coverage into cities of all sizes. Manufactures are rolling out devices compatible with an array of networks. But one can only guess how those developments will change life for consumers on a large scale. The coronavirus pandemic, which has completely shifted the workplace, home-life, and retail landscape, has certainly curtailed 5G rollouts and the consumer enthusiasm that would normally accompany them.
So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that 5G won’t reach its potential as soon as many had predicted. Remember, Verizon was supposed to have 5G readily available in 2017. AT&T and T-Mobile had similar aspirations for nationwide rollouts. Everyone’s been anticipating this technology — one that will support self-driving cars, tele-medicine, remote surgery, and generally connect every service in your life to your smartphone.
Although 5G is often discussed in the context of higher speed, we all will benefit from low latency as well. Latency is the response time between, for example, the click of a link to streaming video and when video actually plays. Currently, that time is approximately 20 milliseconds. With 5G, the time drops to as little as 1 millisecond. Improved latency enhances entertainment (better video game experiences in virtual environments) and can deliver faster, more accurate outcomes when performing remote surgery. On top of better speed and latency, a 5G network will also connect many more devices than a traditional network.
When it first hit the market, 5G used a very high-frequency spectrum. But with its range and interference issues, carriers are also using lower-frequency spectrum to aid 5G in traveling farther, and to get through walls and other obstructions. In 2019, Sprint announced that the company had the biggest 5G network, due to the fact that they employ a 2.5 gigahertz band of spectrum. But soon afterward, T-Mobile launched a nationwide network using an even lower-frequency spectrum.
Carriers get the spectrum by partnering with their respective governments. Although some carriers already control small portions of high-frequency radio airwaves, other carries must purchase spectrum from the government. Between the end of 2018 through the beginning of 2019, carriers competed to claim some of the first in the 5G spectrum. Verizon launched the first 5G network in the world in October 2018, with service initially only available in Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
By now, you might think 5G is available mostly everywhere, but unfortunately that’s not the case. If you can get it depends much on your carrier, region, and the type of 5G you have in mind. T-Mobile is currently the only carrier boasting that they offer nationwide coverage. That might be technically true, but they actually use something on the lower-frequency spectrum that’s closer to a 4G signal. AT&T also has a low-band network, and wants to make it available throughout the country by September. Much of the 5G story can be confusing from a pure technology standpoint. It can get even more complicated when it comes to the names of the services. Verizon’s service is called 5G UW (“UW” being Ultra Wideband). AT&T has named their service 5G Plus.
Of course, most people aren’t so interested in latency or spectrums. We all really want to know if we can access 5G with our existing smartphones. The answer is no. 5G technology requires a specific set of antennas to tap into specific bands. The 2019 version of the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is tuned for Verizon’s network. The 2020 version of the Samsung Galaxy S20 5G is compatible with more networks. The good news is that many more 5G phones will launch soon.