What is 5G, anyway?
Simply put, 5G is the next major step in mobile wireless technology. A very simplified description of the mobile generations looks like this:
1G was the old analog, voice-only cellular stuff from the ‘80s.
2G gave us SMS texts and MMS pictures, and eventually (as a sort of interim step) some limited data transmission.
3G was the birth of the mobile internet. Speeds were slow, but you could load maps and webpages and make crude video calls. The original iPhone was technically a 3G device, though it was limited to connecting to AT&T’s EDGE network, which most considered “2.5G.” It’s successor, the iPhone 3G, connected to proper 3G HSDPA networks.
4G is the LTE service we have today (though some carriers tried to brand their late-stage 3G service as 4G). It has evolved and improved over the years, offering faster data speeds and better reliability. The iPhone 5 was the first to support 4G LTE, though modern iPhones support newer 4G technologies that greatly improve cellular speed and reliability.
5G is the next step, and is meant to take us through the next decade of wireless service improvements. It should offer vastly improved speed, more reliable connections, and perhaps most importantly, it’s being designed to accommodate a vastly expanded number of connected devices.
Why should I care about 5G?
In the short term, you probably shouldn’t. It’s going to take some time before 5G networks are really available everywhere and nearly any mobile device you want to use can access them.
For the most part, you can expect your first 5G phone to offer real-world download speeds ranging from a hundred megabits per second to over a gigabit per second. Depending on your location, phone, and bunch of other variables, you can realistically expect it to be between 50% and 10 times faster than LTE service.
Over the years, as 5G networks and devices improve and include more parts of the complicated 5G specification, those speeds will go way up. Years from now, we may see multi-gigabit download speeds and upload speeds over one gigabit.
5G networks also promise better management of congestion and much lower latencies (the gap in time between data leaving your device and reaching its destination). It should feel a lot more like being on Wi-Fi than on a cell network.
5G speeds are going to be fast enough, with low enough latency, to serve as your home internet connection, and some providers have plans to do just that. You’d have a fixed antenna on your house or apartment and receive your home internet data transmission over the air.
That’s why 5G is important: It will eventually make it feel like being connected to a very fast Wi-Fi connection everywhere you go, and could provide some much-needed competition in residential internet access.
Isn’t 5G already available?
Yes, but not in a practical sense. All four major carriers offer mobile 5G service, but it comes with a big asterisk. Even in cities where 5G is offered, it is usually only available in very limited areas. In some cases, it’s just a few city blocks here and there, scattered around a single downtown location.
T-Mobile has announced 5G service throughout it’s 600MHz network footprint, which is not nearly as fast as others but extends very far. It claims “nationwide” 5G, which is a bit of a stretch, but it still currently covers more people with real 5G networking than any other carrier.
To use the 5G network even in these very limited locations, you need a 5G phone. There aren’t many available, and they’re quite expensive. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, Note 10 Plus 5G, and the LG V50 THINQ are good examples. The OnePlus 7 Pro 5G is a one of the least-expensive 5G phones at $840.
Most of these early phones are not yet able to work with the entire 5G spectrum, from 600MHz all the way up through millimeter wave. As rare as 5G phones are today in the U.S., a single phone that works with 5G across the entire frequency spectrum is even more rare.
It would be very generous to say that early tests of 5G networks and phones have been “a mixed bag.” Phones overheat and drop back to a 4G connection. Battery life is not as good as you’d expect from phones with such huge batteries. Service, even in the limited locations where 5G is supposed to be live, is spotty. The situation is improving rapidly, however.
When will 5G really be available?
Carriers are rushing to build out 5G networks as quickly as possible, and T-Mobile is desperate to merge with Sprint so they can combine their networks for better 5G coverage. But there are lots of complications getting in the way.
The really fast 5G speeds come from using high-frequency radio waves called millimeter wave, which have never been used in cellular networks before. Higher radio frequencies give faster speeds but also much smaller coverage area from the cell transmitter. A single cell tower can cover dozens of square miles in the 700MHz radio spectrum, but will barely cover a city bock up in the millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum (above 24GHz). What’s more, higher-frequency radio waves do not easily penetrate materials: mmWave is easily blocked by trees, walls, windows, etc.
Mobile network operators will have to build out many thousands of new towers to give us those super-fast mmWave speeds. And all the towers, existing and new, need a lot more “backhaul” (their connection to the internet). After all, they will need to support many more devices all transferring many times more data.
All that stuff takes a lot of time. It’s a lot of construction work and tearing up streets, and that’s after dealing with local permits, easements, access rights, and so on.
Realistically, it will be late 2020 or 2021 before a majority of the people in the U.S. have at least some form of reliable 5G coverage on the carrier of their choice. Expect it to take 3 to 4 years before 5G coverage is on par with today’s 4G coverage (and some would say that’s a very optimistic view).
The dismal selection of 5G phones will rapidly expand throughout 2020 and 5G will be in most high-end phones in 2021, and even more affordable models by 2022.
When will I be able to buy a 5G iPhone?
Nobody ever really knows anything about a new iPhone until Apple gets on stage in September to tell us all about it. That said, the company’s recent settlement with Qualcomm puts it back on track to have a 5G iPhone ready for the fall of 2020.
That should put it on shelves right around the time 5G network coverage gets widespread enough to make a meaningful difference in many parts of the world, including here in the U.S.