The Revolution Is Here: Understanding 5G Mobile Technology

Take a look at your phone’s internet symbol. You probably see ascending bars indicating your internet strength and, unless you’re connected to WiFi, the characters “4G” next to them.

That “4G” symbolizes your phone’s network connectivity, and it’s about to get a major shot of adrenaline. The 5G network is here—but what does that mean for you? Let’s take a look.

What Is 5G?

Simply put, 5G is the latest mobile network technology through which your phone transmits data. These communication standards control how (and consequently how fast) your phone uses its data to connect to a wireless network.

The “G” stands for “generation”; 5G is an upgrade from its predecessor, 4G LTE. Like the other network generations, the 5G network uses radio frequencies to transmit data, including your voice calls, text messages, and internet access. These frequencies are organized by spectrums of “bands.” In addition to low and medium frequency bands, 5G taps into the highest-frequency bands, which use millimeter waves. The result? Lightning-fast speeds, better reliability, and much lower communication lag time (called “latency”).

5G technology is designed to work in tandem with existing 4G infrastructure, with carriers simply adding 5G antennas and radios to their cell towers already in use. If you exit a 5G-enabled area, your phone will transition seamlessly back to 4G without a noticeable coverage drop, because 5G phones can access both networks.

In short, 5G is game-changing mobile technology.

5G vs. 4G: What’s the Difference?

Each generation of mobile network technology has brought speed improvements. In general, 2G, 3G, and 4G have offered speeds within 10 Mbps of one another, with the maximum speed for 4G hovering around 30 Mbps.

With 5G speed, however, 30 Mbps is the slowest you can expect. Remember the bands mentioned above? Where 4G uses only low and mid-band spectrums, 5G taps into that millimeter wave high-frequency band. On average, high-band 5G speeds are over 600 times faster than standard 4G. Millimeter waves are capable of reaching a frequency of 28 GHz, compared to the 700-2500 MHz frequency that 4G typically uses. Depending on your carrier, you could see speeds anywhere from 30 Mbps to 10 Gbps or higher.

5G also offers a higher traffic capacity than 4G—as much as 100 times more. That means significantly more devices can use the 5G network without slowing it down in any way.

Pros & Cons of 5G

Pros

  • Massively faster speeds
  • Increased capacity
  • Seamless network switching

Cons

  • Requires 5G-capable smartphone
  • Currently limited coverage
  • High-speed signal doesn't travel as far

5G’s speeds and capacity are far and away superior to previous generations. This kind of bandwidth means you can potentially use your mobile data plan to power your entire connected environment, replacing separate internet and cable plans for good. Beyond the mobile network, 5G has the potential to support and connect massive systems, including driverless vehicle technology, healthcare networks, cloud computing, and more.

One big downside: In order to use the 5G network, your phone has to be equipped with a 5G radio—and most current devices are not. That means your current smartphone likely won’t support 5G, leaving you to either stick with 4G coverage or upgrade to a potentially pricey 5G phone.

5G signals also travel much shorter distances than previous generations, requiring more antenna locations to receive the same amount of coverage as 4G. Plus, millimeter waves can’t penetrate anything obstructing their path—which means they can’t travel through walls. Poor weather and even your standard garden foliage can get in the way of a 5G signal. Currently, that means 5G access is limited to small hotspots in densely populated areas—like sports stadiums, for example—until the cell companies are able to construct more “home base” stations from which the signal can originate.

How Can I Get 5G?

5G Carriers Compared
CarrierAvailabilityFrequencySpeedPlan Cost (1 line)
VerizonCurrent: Atlanta, Boise, Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Des Moines, Detroit, Greensboro, Hoboken, Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Memphis, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Omaha, Panama City, Phoenix, Providence, Salt Lake City, Sioux Falls, Spokane, St. Paul, Washington, D.C.
Future: Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Kansas City, Little Rock, San Diego
28 and 39 GHz600 – 800 MbpsExtra $10/month on top of unlimited plan cost
(Waived for limited time)
T-Mobile5,000+ cities600 MHz30 – 100 Mbps$60-85/month
SprintAtlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, Washington, D.C.2.5 GHz155 – 255 Mbps$70-$80/month
AT&TBirmingham, Boston, Bridgeport, Buffalo, Indianapolis, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Louiville, Milwaukee, New York, Pittsburgh, Providence, Rochester, San Diego, San Francisco, San JoseTBA2x faster than LTE$40-50/month

Data correct as of 1/06/20.

All of the major carriers have rolled out 5G to some degree. While T-Mobile’s 5G network offers the widest coverage, Verizon’s 5G network takes the cake for fastest speeds (where available). In addition to its 5G-enabled cities, AT&T also offers hyper-fast 5G+ “innovation zones” in specific areas of Orlando, Charlotte, Austin, Houston, and Oklahoma City.

There are no 5G-specific plans from any of the carriers; all they require is a monthly unlimited plan, though they may specify which plans qualify for 5G access. With the exception of Verizon 5G, you’ll pay the same price for an unlimited plan that includes 5G speeds… for now. But early adopters on Verizon will have the extra $10 per month waived for a limited time.

All you need for access is a 5G-capable phone, and you’re off to the races!

5G Phones