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The 5G wireless revolution, explained

The next-generation wireless technology is expected to change your life. Just not yet.

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5G will change our lives... eventually. 

James Martin/CNET

After years of hype, carriers have spent the last several months turning on their 5G networks. It's supposed to change your life with its revolutionary speed, but for now, the deployments remain limited, so don't be surprised if you're nowhere near the service. For 5G, as with any technology, give it some time. 

Between the end of 2018 through the first few months of this year, the carriers were racing to claim some sort of "first." Verizon and AT&T launched their mobile 5G networks, while KT said a robot in South Korea was its first 5G customer. Sprint turned on its network in June, followed shortly thereafter by T-Mobile. UK carrier EE was the first in its country to turn on 5G. 

Sounds great, right?

But it's a virtual certainty that you aren't a 5G customer of any of these carriers. AT&T's network is live in 21 cities, including Atlanta, Dallas and New Orleans, but the customers are all small businesses and the carrier has refused to talk about where the coverage is actually located. Verizon, which launched a 5G home service last fall, has targeted 30 cities this year, with 15 cities online, but the coverage looks more like a collection of hotspots. 

Back in April, the early tests of its 5G network were a mess, with erratic and inconsistent coverage and only some areas where you could experience 5G's true speeds with the Motorola Z3 and its 5G Moto Mod. But a follow-up test in May with the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which had the 5G radio integrated into the phone, proved a much better experience, with speeds above 1 gigabit per second, or faster than Google Fiber. A test of Sprint's 5G network showed less impressive speeds (but still faster than 4G LTE), but better coverage.

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T-Mobile is poised to launch a version of its 5G service that isn't as fast but boasts broader coverage later this year (we'll explain later). It'll launch the service with the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G MacLaren phone. 

All this means 5G is slowly inching from years of promises -- ever since Verizon talked about moving into the area three years ago -- to becoming reality. Beyond a big speed boost, 5G has been referred to as foundational tech that'll supercharge areas like self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality and telemedicine services such as remote surgery.  

But what exactly is 5G? Why are people so excited? The following is a breakdown of why the next generation of wireless technology is more than just a boost in speed, and why you should be excited. 

What is 5G?

It's the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology, and it promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking? Verizon's network showed speeds surging past 1 gigabit per second.

That's 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection, and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (In optimal conditions, you'll be able to download a season's worth of Stranger Things in seconds.)

Is it just about speed?

No! One of the key benefits is something called low latency. You'll hear this term a lot. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, which sends the request up to the network, and when the network responds, delivering you the website or playing your video.

That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. It doesn't seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash on a normal camera

That responsiveness is critical for things like playing an intense video game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco, though latency will still be affected by the ultimate range of the connection. The virtually lag-free connection means self-driving cars have a way to communicate with each other in real time -- assuming there's enough 5G coverage to connect those vehicles. 

How does it work?

5G initially used super-high-frequency spectrum, which has shorter range but higher capacity, to deliver a massive pipe for online access. Think of it as a glorified Wi-Fi hotspot. 

But given the range and interference issues, the carriers are also using lower-frequency spectrum -- the type used in today's networks -- to help ferry 5G across greater distances and through walls and other obstructions. 

Sprint claims it has the biggest 5G network because it's using its 2.5 gigahertz band of spectrum, which offers wider coverage. T-Mobile plans a bigger rollout of its 5G network in the second half thanks to the use of even lower-band spectrum. And AT&T says it plans to offer 5G coverage nationwide over its lower-band Sub-6 spectrum in early 2020.

The result is that the insane speeds companies first promised won't always be there, but we'll still see a big boost from what we get today with 4G LTE

Where do these carriers get the spectrum?

Some of these carriers already control small swaths of high-frequency radio airwaves, but many will have to purchase more from the government. Carriers around the world are working with their respective governments to free up the necessary spectrum. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is holding more auctions for so-called millimeter wave spectrum, which all the carriers are participating in. 

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Motorola's 5G Mod, in prototype form

Juan Garzon/CNET

Are there other benefits?

The 5G network is designed to connect a far greater number of devices than a traditional cellular network does. That internet of things trend you keep hearing about? 5G can power multiple devices around you, whether it's a dog collar or a refrigerator. 

The 5G network was also specifically built to handle equipment used by businesses, such as farm equipment or ATMs. Beyond speed, it's also designed to work differently on connected products that don't need a constant connection, like a sensor for fertilizer. Those kinds of low-power scanners are intended to work on the same battery for 10 years and still be able to periodically send data. 

Sounds great, but when does 5G get here?

Verizon launched the first "5G" service in the world in October, but it's a bit of a technicality. The service, called 5G Home, is a fixed broadband replacement, rather than a mobile service. An installer has to put in special equipment in your house or apartment that can pick up the 5G signals and turn that into a Wi-Fi connection in the home so your other devices can access it. 

There was also some debate about whether the service even qualified as 5G: It didn't use the standards the industry has agreed on. The company wanted to jump out ahead, and used its own proprietary technology. Verizon argued that the speeds, which range from 300 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, qualify the service for 5G designation. Its rivals and other mobile experts dispute that claim. 

The launch was extremely limited in select neighborhoods in Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. (Let us know if you're among the lucky few who get it.) In October, Verizon expanded the service to Chicago, and said it had switched to using industry-standard 5G equipment. 

As of the end of December, AT&T turned on its mobile 5G network in a dozen cities, and more specifically in "dense urban and high-traffic areas." Take note, Verizon: AT&T boasted that it's the "first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network." But again, consumers are still waiting for AT&T to launch the service publicly, so it just barely counts too. 

What about this 5G E thing from AT&T?

Sorry, but that's more marketing fluff. AT&T's 5G E stands for 5G Evolution, or its upgraded 4G LTE network that has a path to real 5G. 

But the designation, which showed up on phones early this year, has caused some consumer confusion, with some thinking they already have 5G. To be clear, it's not, with many bashing AT&T for misleading customers. Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T, which, according to an AT&T spokesperson, the companies "amicably settled." AT&T has said it's "proud" that it went with the 5G E name. 

5G E does bring higher speeds, but not the kind of true benefits real 5G would bring. 

What about all the other 5G names?

Yeah, it's super confusing. Beyond the fake 5G E name, there are legit labels like Verizon's UWB (for ultrawide band), which signals the fastest flavor of 5G (using millimeter wave). AT&T is calling its super-fast next-generation network 5G Plus, while using 5G as a label for the service running on lower frequency spectrum. Sprint's True Mobile 5G is just the name for its 5G service. 

Expect more marketing names to pop up.

Can't I just pick up 5G with my existing smartphone?

Sorry, no. 5G technology requires a specific set of antennas to tap into specific bands. For instance, Sprint's LG V50 is specifically tuned for its 5G network. Likewise, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is tuned for Verizon's network and its millimeter wave spectrum. 

Many of the phones will use Qualcomm's X50 modem, which is designed specifically to tap into specific 5G bands. Later phones will use a second-generation chip that picks up more spectrum bands. 

You can expect more 5G phones to launch later this year, with phones able to ride on different networks coming out in mass in 2020. 

Anything I should worry about?

High-frequency spectrum is the key to that massive pickup in capacity and speed, but there are drawbacks. The range isn't great, especially when you have obstructions such as trees or buildings. As a result, carriers will have to deploy a lot more small cellular radios, creatively named small cells, around any areas that get a 5G signal. 

That's going to annoy anyone who doesn't want cellular radios near them. 

What about health risks?

There have long been lingering concerns that cellular signals may cause cancer. Unfortunately, there haven't been a lot of studies to conclusively prove or disprove a health risk. 

That opens the door to concerns about 5G. While some of those networks will run at super-high frequencies, researchers note that it still falls under the category of radiation that isn't supposed to be harmful to our cells

Still, critics say there isn't enough research into this issue and that the studies that have been conducted weren't adequate. The World Health Organization lists cellular signals as a potential carcinogen. But it also notes pickled vegetables and coffee as carcinogens too. 

Still, it's something people are worried about. 

How broadly will 5G be available in 2019?

Here's the other concern: 5G might still be only a theoretical possibility for a lot of people. 

T-Mobile says it's launching in 30 cities this year, AT&T will have 22 cities, while Sprint will have its nine first-half cities. But it's unclear how wide the coverage will be. Globally, China, Japan and South Korea are racing to build out their 5G networks, with Europe turning on its own 5G networks now

Surprisingly, Sprint has the widest 5G footprint by the first half of the year, with more than 1,000 square miles of coverage across nine cities. That's not a huge amount of area.

So don't feel like you need to rush out to buy that first 5G smartphone. Chances are, service won't be widely available until 2020 or beyond. 

Also, while some see 5G helping to improve coverage for everyone, rural areas will likely miss out for a while, since they lack the infrastructure to support all those cell radios. 

Will it cost more?

If you're a Verizon customer, then yes. Its 5G service will cost $10 more a month (the fee is waived for now). Others are likely to follow. 

"5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing," AT&T said. "We expect pricing to be at a premium to what we charge today."

That echoes a comment made back in March by then-Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure, who said he saw 5G as a premium service. New CEO Michel Combes declined to comment on pricing, but there hasn't been a premium added yet. 

There's precedent for holding the line: LTE didn't cost any more when it first came out; you just needed to buy a new phone. But pricing models do change over time. Since 4G launched, carriers have both taken away unlimited plans and brought them back. 

Verizon's home broadband service costs $50 for wireless subscribers, and $70 for everyone else. Those are in line with other broadband costs. (You can find out if you're eligible for the service here.)

AT&T's mobile 5G service will be free for "select" customers for the first 90 days. After that, the company will charge $499 for the hotspot plus $70 per month for a plan with a 15GB data cap.


Our 5G glossary

Want to show off your 5G knowledge to your friends? Or seem like the smartest person at a party? Check out our 5G glossary below. 

5G NR 

The 5G bit is pretty obvious, but the NR stands for New Radio. You don't have to know a lot about this beyond the fact that it's the name of the standard the entire wireless industry is rallying behind, and it just came out in December.

That's important because it means everyone is on the same page when it comes to their mobile 5G networks. Carriers like AT&T and T-Mobile are following 5G NR as they build their networks. But Verizon, which began testing 5G as a broadband replacement service before the standard was approved, isn't using the standard -- yet. The company says it'll eventually adopt 5G NR for its broadband service, and its mobile network runs on the NR standard too.

Millimeter wave

All cellular networks use airwaves to ferry data over the air, with standard networks using spectrum in lower-frequency bands like 700 megahertz. Generally, the higher the band or frequency, the higher the speed you can achieve. The consequence of higher frequency, however, is shorter range.

To achieve those crazy-high 5G speeds, you need really, really high frequency spectrum. The millimeter wave range falls between 24 gigahertz and 100 gigahertz.

The problem with super-high-frequency spectrum, besides the short range, is it's pretty finicky -- a leaf blows the wrong way and you get interference. Forget about obstacles like walls. Companies like Verizon are working on using software and broadcasting tricks to get around these problems and ensure stable connections.

Small cell

Traditional cellular coverage typically stems from gigantic towers littered with different radios and antennas. Those antennas are able to broadcast signals at a great distance, so you don't need a lot of them. Small cells are the opposite: backpack-size radios can be hung up on street lamps, poles, rooftops or other areas. They can broadcast a 5G signal only at a short range, so the idea is to have a large number of them in a densely packed network. 

Some cities have this kind of dense network in place, but if you go outside the metro area, that's where small cells become more of a challenge. 

Sub-6GHz

Given how troublesome really high-band spectrum can be (see the "millimeter wave" section above), there's a movement to embrace spectrum at a much lower frequency, or anything lower than 6GHz. The additional benefit is that carriers can use spectrum they already own to get going on 5G networks. T-Mobile, for instance, has a swath of 600MHz spectrum it plans to use to power its 5G deployment. Prior to sub-6GHz, that would've been impossible.

That's why you're seeing more carriers embrace lower-frequency spectrum.

But lower-frequency spectrum has the opposite problem: While it reaches great distances, it doesn't have the same speed and capacity as millimeter wave spectrum.

The ideal down the line will be for carriers to use a blend of the two.

Gigabit LTE

You're hearing more about Gigabit LTE as a precursor to 5G. Ultimately it's about much higher speeds on the existing LTE network. But the work going toward building a Gigabit LTE network provides the foundation for 5G.

For more on Gigabit LTE, read our explainer here.

MIMO

An abbreviation of "multiple input, multiple output." Basically, it's the idea of shoving more antennas into our phones and on cellular towers. And you can always have more antennas. They feed into the faster Gigabit LTE network, and companies are deploying what's known as 4x4 MIMO, in which four antennas are installed in a phone.

Carrier aggregation 

Wireless carriers can take different bands of radio frequencies and bind them together so phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8 can pick and choose the speediest and least congested one available. Think of it as a three-lane highway so cars can weave in and out depending on which lane has less traffic.

QAM 

This is a term that's so highly technical, I don't even bother to explain the nuance. It stands for quadrature amplitude modulation. See? Don't even worry about it.

What you need to know is that it allows traffic to move quickly in a different way than carrier aggregation or MIMO. Remember that highway analogy? Well, with 256 QAM, you'll have big tractor trailers carrying data instead of tiny cars. MIMO, carrier aggregation and QAM are already going into 4G networks, but they play an important role in 5G too.

Beam forming 

This is a way to direct 5G signals in a specific direction, potentially giving you your own specific connection. Verizon has been using beam forming for millimeter wave spectrum, getting around obstructions like walls or trees.

Unlicensed spectrum 

Cellular networks all rely on what's known as licensed spectrum, which they own and purchased from the government.

But the move to 5G comes with the recognition that there just isn't enough spectrum when it comes to maintaining wide coverage. So the carriers are moving to unlicensed spectrum, similar to the kind of free airwaves that our Wi-Fi networks ride on.

Network slicing

This is the ability to carve out individual slivers of spectrum to offer specific devices the kind of connection they need. For instance, the same cellular tower can offer a lower-power, slower connection to a sensor for a connected water meter in your home while at the same time offering a faster, lower-latency connection to a self-driving car that's navigating in real time.

Are you hearing more 5G-related terms that confuse you? Contact us and we'll update this story with additional terms.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2018, 5 a.m. PT. 
Updates, Sept. 27, Oct. 17 and Nov. 13: Adds new details; Dec. 3 and 4: Includes details about the Qualcomm event; Dec. 18: Adds details about AT&T's 5G launch; April 4, 2019: Adds new details on Verizon's launch; May 17: Includes details about Verizon's follow-up speed test; May 31: Adds information about Sprint and EE launching 5G service; Oct. 25: Includes new details about a T-Mobile phone launch and updated stats. 
Correction, May 18: In October, Verizon launched its disputed 5G service in select neighborhoods of Houston, not Dallas.

5G: Your Next Big Upgrade: CNET's series on the next generation of cellular technology.

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