What is 5G? Speeds, coverage, comparisons, and more

After seemingly endless buildup, 5G — the fifth generation of mobile network technology — is very much a reality. Wireless carriers started rolling out 5G several years ago, and today mobile 5G internet access is widely available. But what is 5G exactly? The answer often raises even more questions. Some wonder where 5G is available, and if they’ll ever see it in their city. Others are more interested in which 5G phone they should buy. And there’s the perennial debate about which carrier has the best 5G phone plan.

You have questions about 5G networks, and we have the answers. Here’s everything you need to know about 5G.

What is 5G technology?

aerial view of city at sunset illustrating 5g and wi-fi connectivity between buildings.
Mavenir

Simply put, 5G is the 5th generation of mobile networking that runs alongside — and eventually will replace — your 4G LTE connection. With 5G, you get dramatically faster download and upload speeds than 4G networks. Latency — the time it takes devices to communicate with wireless networks — is also considerably lower.

5G networks are inherently more efficient, handling more connections per tower and at faster speeds per device. 5G is also designed to work across a wider range of radio frequencies (aka spectrum), opening up new possibilities in the ultra-high mmWave (millimeter-wave) bands for carriers to expand their network offerings. Because 5G is an entirely new technology that operates on new frequencies and systems, 4G-only phones are incompatible with the new 5G networks.

5G networks commenced deployment in 2019, but the groundwork for the next-generation network was laid years earlier. The 5G standard architecture was created in 2016, at which point every company and person involved from both the network and consumer side could start making devices that were 5G standard compliant.

But 5G hasn’t yet hit total market saturation, as it takes a considerable amount of investment to build an entirely new network. But looking back at the history of the 4G rollout we can get an idea of how long it could take. 4G (LTE) was first deployed commercially in 2009, and didn’t go live in the U.S. until the end of 2010. It took until 2013 for 4G to hit mainstream status in many countries, and become dominant over older 3G networks.

Following a similar timeline, we’re still a few years away from 5G emerging as the dominant network worldwide, and for many of the same reasons. 4G faced similar technical hurdles as 5G, operating on the new spectrum with new technologies required on both the network and device ends — though it too brought a substantial increase in speeds over the previous-generation network. For the U.S., 5G deployments lagged behind many countries but has caught up aggressively recently.

How does 5G network technology work?

worker in crane basket installing 5g antenna on building.
O-RAN Alliance

Like 4G, 5G technology operates on a wide range of radio spectrum allotments, but is capable of running on a wider range than current networks. With 5G, there are two distinct frequency ranges that work in different ways. The most common form of 5G is called Sub-6, and there is also mmWave.

Sub-6: This refers to 5G that operates at a frequency below 6GHz. All carriers have some form of Sub-6 network, primarily because 4G LTE currently runs on these lower frequencies. The Sub-6 spectrum is critical to the rollout of 5G, because these lower-frequency radio waves can travel long distances and penetrate walls and obstacles. That means carriers can deploy much larger networks without having to build a vast number of new cell towers. Sub-6GHz low band, in short, offers more blanket coverage and a stronger signal.

mmWave: Millimeter wave refers to the ultra-high-frequency radio waves — between 24GHz and 100GHz — which have a very short wavelength. These are used to supercharge 5G connections and data transfer to deliver download speeds of multiple gigabits per second. While mmWave connections can deliver speedy downloads, the high-frequency signals can’t travel long distances and can’t penetrate obstacles for the most part — even a window or leaves of a tree can block a connection.

Thus, to make a robust mmWave network, carriers need thousands of small network cells in every city. Essentially, mmWave network deployment comes down to building little networks around nearly every corner of every building. So why bother? Well, mmWave can handle an incredible amount of data, and an incredible number of users simultaneously. That makes it better for densely populated cities, as well as places like stadiums and arenas. mmWave is also using an all-new spectrum that isn’t crowded by other 3G, 4G, and Sub-6 5G networks — so there’s no trade-off in resource use.

All of the major carriers are deploying mmWave networks, but to date, those connections are limited to a handful of downtown areas in major cities. We expect mmWave networks will get more robust, but only time will tell how long that will take. Until then, Sub-6 offers a vast majority of people 5G a vast majority of the time.

How fast is 5G?

cellular radio towers on roof of building against sky with clouds.
Jakub Pabis / Unsplash

Clearly, 5G is faster than 4G, but by how much? The standards for telecommunications technologies, developed by 3GPP, are somewhat complex, but here’s a general rundown of how fast 5G is:

  • Peak data rate: 5G offers significantly faster data speeds. Peak data rates can hit 20Gbps downlink and 10Gbps uplink per mobile base station. That’s not the speed you’d experience with 5G (unless you have a dedicated connection) — it’s the speed shared by all users on the cell, and even then, it’s high.
  • Real-world 5G speed: While the peak data rates sound impressive, actual speeds will be considerably lower, and vary widely based on many factors. Typical 5G speeds range from 50Mbps to more than 1Gbps for downloads.
  • Latency: Latency, the time it takes data to travel from one point to another, should be at 4 milliseconds in ideal circumstances, and at 1 millisecond in cases that demand the best speed.
  • Efficiency: Radio interfaces should be energy efficient when in use, and drop down to low-energy mode when not in use. Ideally, a radio should be able to switch into a low-energy state within 10 milliseconds when not in use.
  • Spectral efficiency: Spectral efficiency is “the optimized use of spectrum or bandwidth so that the maximum amount of data can be transmitted with the fewest transmission errors.” 5G should improve spectral efficiency over LTE at 30bits/Hz downlink and 15 bits/Hz uplink.
  • Mobility: With 5G, base stations should support movement from 0 to 310 mph. This means the base station should function despite antenna movements. That’s easy for LTE networks, but more challenging on new mmWave networks.
  • Connection density: 5G should support many more connected devices than 4G LTE. The standard states that 5G should be able to support 1 million connected devices per square kilometer. That huge number takes into account the slew of connected devices that will power the Internet of Things (IoT).

In the real world, actual 5G speeds vary widely. Eventually, Sub-6 networks should be able to deliver speeds of multiple gigabits per second (Gbps), but for now, connections can be anywhere from 50Mbps to 400Mbps.

Real-world mmWave speeds are a little harder to pin down, since mmWave distribution is still fairly sparse. If you do find yourself on a mmWave connection, you may be able to achieve speeds of up to 4Gbps. That’s many times faster than the fastest 4G LTE networks (and even Sub-6 5G) but widespread availability is well off in the future. mmWave faces many complications in deployment, not the last of which being the need for dramatically more cell sites than Sub-6 networks.

In many areas, 5G internet is just as slow, or sometimes slower, than 4G LTE. That’s usually due to limited spectrum availability, as carriers try to use one chunk of radio waves to support current 4G networks and new 5G networks simultaneously. Those 5G speeds should improve as more devices are moved over to 5G and carriers change the allocation. You can use these 5G apps to test your connection.

Where is 5G coverage available now?

verizon 5g node in new york.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

So, when should you expect to have a 5G available in your neighborhood? If you live in a relatively populated area, at least one — and probably all — of the major carriers already offer 5G. T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon have all rolled out their “nationwide” networks using Sub-6 5G.

All of the major U.S. carriers are working to build out 5G networks, yet deployment across the entire country will nonetheless take several years. Each 5G carrier has a different 5G rollout strategy so your experience will vary greatly depending on your carrier. Here are all the details we currently have concerning each carrier’s deployment plans.

Verizon

The Verizon 5G network is technically smaller than AT&T and T-Mobile due largely to the fact that Verizon spent years building out mmWave (which it calls UWB, or Ultra Wide Band) before it started work on Sub-6 for 5G deployment. That also means that Verizon offers a larger number of mmWave small cells — though still not enough to provide a meaningful, reliable, and widespread mmWave network. You can at least expect great speeds when you do get it.

Verizon 5G coverage map

AT&T

AT&T has a widespread 5G network, with nationwide coverage, and the type of 5G connectivity that you get depends on where you live. Like Verizon, it relied heavily on mmWave in the early days — and as such its recently launched nationwide network is smaller than T-Mobile’s. Depending on your city, its Sub-6 5G may actually be the same speed, or slower, than 4G because AT&T doesn’t have enough spectrum to deploy to both networks in tandem. In some cities, the company is offering mmWave (5G+, as AT&T calls it) with superfast speeds, but that type of 5G service is limited to a few streets in a few major cities. If you don’t have a 5G-compatible phone, you may still get a little icon saying that you’re on “5GE,” but that’s not really 5G at all — it’s just AT&T’s new marketing name for 4G.

AT&T 5G coverage map

T-Mobile

T-Mobile 5G comes in first with robust nationwide coverage. Its 5G signals reach more than 9,000 zip codes in over 3,000 cities, according to WhistleOut, the telecommunications analysis and research company. T-Mobile was the first carrier to deploy a nationwide 5G network, and it relies largely on Sub-6, so it’s not as fast as the mmWave networks. T-Mobile’s strategy focuses on building out Sub-6 5G to the same towers that currently carry 4G, so its network footprint is nearly the same for both. T-Mobile has also launched mmWave in a small number of neighborhoods in specific cities, but it’s very much still in the development stages of its 5G service.

T-Mobile 5G coverage map

Best 5G phones available now

oneplus 9 pro and the samsung galaxy s21 ultra smartphones.
Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s tough to find a phone nowadays that doesn’t have 5G, thanks to the carriers’ aggressive network rollouts and development of cheaper and cheaper mobile chipsets that include 5G radios. So when you’re looking for the best 5G phone, what you’re really asking for the best phone overall. Right now that means the iPhone 13 models, the Galaxy S22 models, the Google Pixel 6, and less expensive phones from OnePlus and Motorola. Each of these phones has 5G — though in some cases, on the cheaper end, you may only get Sub-6 and not mmWave. But that’s nothing to worry about; as we’ve covered in several places here, mmWave is more of a “nice to have” than a requirement.

Can you use 5G for home internet?

t-mobile home internet 5g router in living room.
T-Mobile

With incredible speeds and low latency, 5G has good potential as a replacement for home wireless networks. That’s particularly true in rural areas, where fast wired internet is tough to come by and the only other alternative is satellite internet. While the capability is certainly there, 5G home internet is taking a while to roll out in real numbers.

Verizon 5G home internet

Verizon offers 5G home internet for $25 per month, but availability is limited because it relies solely on mmWave coverage. The direction your home faces, what windows you have available, and even the foliage outside your window can affect speeds. When you do get a signal, though, Verizon quotes typical speeds of 300Mbps. The problem is that anyone who gets Verizon mmWave coverage is probably in a dense urban area that also has good wired internet.

AT&T 5G home internet

AT&T doesn’t yet offer 5G home internet to consumers, but has traditionally offered 4G home internet in the past, so it’s expected to do the same for 5G eventually. In September 2020 it launched its first consumer-focused 5G mobile hotspot, which moves a step in that direction.

T-Mobile 5G home internet

T-Mobile launched in-home 5G internet service in 2021 to augment its nationwide service. for $50 per month (with autopay) you get unlimited internet with speeds up to 100Mbps. Because this is based on its Sub-6 network, and can fall back to 4G LTE, we expect real-world speeds are more like 50Mbps. That isn’t giving good cable- or fiber-based internet a run for its money, but it could be a good choice for people in rural areas that don’t have good wired internet options. Since its introduction, T-Mobile is now celebrating one million home internet customers.

Potential Benefits of 5G

There are many 5G use cases to be excited about beyond just mobile communication. In the short term, it is likely to boost your speeds for things like downloading videos and apps, or playing games. In the long term, just as 4G did, it could spawn brand-new industries. Updated 5G will likely support additional devices and technologies, including virtual reality, augmented reality, vehicles, and online security. Here are some expected future use cases for 5G connectivity.

Improved home broadband

While 5G is commonly perceived as a mobile technology, it could also have a significant impact on home broadband and wireless connectivity. Carriers are now offering home internet services that rely on 5G connections instead of cable or fiber. T-Mobile and Verizon both offer 5G home internet, though it is not yet up to speed in terms of availability, speed, and latency as compared with fiber or cable.

Autonomous vehicles

Expect to see autonomous vehicles emerge at the same rate 5G is deployed across the U.S. In the future, your vehicle will communicate with other vehicles on the road, providing information to them about road conditions, and offering performance information to drivers and automakers. If a car brakes quickly up ahead, yours could learn about it immediately and preemptively brake as well, preventing a collision. This kind of vehicle-to-vehicle communication could ultimately save lives and improve road efficiency.

Public safety and infrastructure

Eventually, 5G will allow cities and municipalities to operate more efficiently. Utility companies will be able to easily track usage remotely, sensors can notify public works departments when drains flood or streetlights go out, and municipalities will be able to quickly and inexpensively install surveillance cameras.

Remote device control

Since 5G has remarkably low latency, remote control of heavy machinery will become a reality. While the primary aim is to reduce risk in hazardous environments, it will also allow technicians with specialized skills to control machinery from anywhere in the world.

Health care

The ultra-reliable and low-latency communications (URLLC) component of 5G could fundamentally change health care. Since URLLC reduces 5G latency even further from 4G, a world of new possibilities opens up. Expect to see improvements in telemedicine, remote recovery, physical therapy via augmented reality, precision surgery, and even remote surgery in the coming years. Hospitals can create massive sensor networks to monitor patients, physicians can prescribe smart pills to track compliance, and insurers can even monitor subscribers to determine appropriate treatments and processes.

IoT

One of the most exciting and crucial aspects of 5G is its effect on the Internet of Things. While we currently have sensors that can communicate with each other, they tend to require a lot of resources and are quickly depleting 4G data capacity. With 5G speeds and dramatically higher capacity limits, the IoT will be powered by communications among sensors and smart devices.

What do 5G towers look like?

lte advanced cell tower

You might be wondering where the 5G towers in your town are located. For the most part, 5G towers look just like 4G towers — because they are 4G towers. The nationwide coverage that T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T all offer now is built on slightly tweaked 4G towers, so if you see a traditional cell tower and have 5G coverage in your area, chances are it helps support your area’s 5G network. The fact that they were able to reuse these 4G cell towers is partly how all three carriers were able to roll out nationwide networks on such a short timeline.

As carriers start to roll out midband and high-band (mmWave) spectrum, however, this may change. mmWave frequencies can’t travel as far as the Sub-6 frequencies that nationwide networks rely on — and as such, to get mmWave coverage in a city, there must be hundreds, or even thousands, of small cells around the city. These are small white nodes that hang on the side of a building or sometimes on their own little pole. Sometimes they’ll be painted a different color to blend in with their environment, but usually, they’ll remain white.

verizon 5g tower

More of these small cell towers and nodes are likely to pop up in cities in the near future, especially heavily populated ones. It’s a little less likely that we’ll see these in rural areas, however, considering that mmWave coverage won’t reach many people in those areas. Many of those areas will still, however, get Sub-6 5G coverage, if they don’t have it already.

Is 5G safe?

man speaking into a smartphone.
Julian Chokkattu/Digital Trends

Yes, 5G is safe — not dangerous to your health. Concerns around the safety of radio waves have been around for years, but we have yet to find any evidence suggesting that they’re actually bad for human health despite the 5G conspiracy theories. 5G’s radio waves are not substantially different from those we’ve been living with for decades.

There are two kinds of radio waves: Ionizing, and non-ionizing. Ionizing waves — the types of radio waves that are used in microwaves — might be dangerous for human health. These waves are extremely high frequency and they could harm your DNA. But 5G doesn’t use radio waves that are anywhere near ionizing. Some have been used for 4G, others for TV broadcasts and other communications. If 5G radio waves are dangerous, we would have found out long ago that these other wireless technologies also caused health issues — but we have not. Moreover, the new mmWaves have been studied, and so far, there’s nothing to suggest that they pose any health threat.

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