From the first mobile phone to 4G LTE, the telecommunications industry has changed plenty in just a few decades. We've jumped four G's, or generations, very quickly. Now the market is poised to break into the fifth generation, which promises 100 to 1,000 times the speed of 4G LTE. That means you might be able to download a full-length movie in a matter of seconds. More important, 5G will enable a new wave of ultra-efficient, Internet-connected devices.
But what is 5G really, what kind of benefits will it provide, and how long will we have to wait for its high-speed arrival?
Maybe not as long as one might hope. The 5G standard has been finalized, and carriers have acquired the spectrum they need for next-gen speeds. After interviews with numerous experts in the field and representatives of device and component makers, we have a good idea of what to expect, and when.
Here's everything you need to know about 5G.
The Latest News (September 2018)
What is 5G?
The term 5G stands for fifth generation. A generation refers to a set of requirements that determine what devices and networks qualify for the standard and will be compatible with each other. It also describes the technologies that power the new types of communication.
Second generation, or 2G, launched in 1991 as a set of standards that governed wireless telephone technology, without much concern for data transmission or the mobile Web. Third generation, 3G, focused on applications in voice telephony, mobile Internet, video calls and mobile TV. And 4G was designed to better support IP telephony (voice over IP), video conferencing and cloud computing, as well as video streaming and online gaming.
The finished 5G specification covers the 600 and 700 MHz bands, which carriers have invested in for 5G speeds.
Will 5G Be Capable of?
"You'll be able to download a full-length feature movie in a matter of seconds as 5G evolves," said Ted Rappaport, director of NYU Wireless, a research center at NYU's Polytechnic School of Engineering. According to Rappaport, the fifth generation could offer speeds of up to 1,000 times that of 4G. In fact, we could see speeds of "10 gigabits per second or more, with one to several hundred of megabits per second at the edge of the cell (site)," Rappaport said.
Besides faster movie downloads, expect the higher speeds of 5G networking to provide the kind of low latency needed to run demanding virtual reality apps on standalone headsets. You'll also have quicker access to documents, photos and files in the cloud.
But let's not get too excited. Before 4G LTE was actually realized, the industry feverishly proclaimed speeds of up to 300 Mbps. When LTE launched, real-world speeds averaged only about 5 to 12 Mbps for downloads and 2 to 5 Mbps for uploads. According to Paul Carter, CEO of Global Wireless Solutions, a company that conducts network testing and analysis for carriers and operators worldwide, LTE speeds realistically range between 5 and 8 Mbps across a city.
What Will 5G Impact Beyond Smartphones?
While you can expect faster throughput on your mobile device — once you have a 5G-capable phone connected to a network delivering data at faster speeds — equipment makers and network operators seem even more excited about 5G's potential in other areas. For instance, 5G is expected to enable more efficient communications between different devices, said Asha Keddy, vice president of standards and advanced technology at Intel.
Take connected devices. A 5G-enabled smart-home hub pinging a sensor for status updates wouldn't need huge throughput or for the signal to travel a long distance, but it will need a speedy response. Devices that are 5G-capable will be able to tap the right frequencies to send signals based on what kind of message is being sent.
Qualcomm recently hosted the press at its headquarters in San Diego to show off 5G uses, and two of the more compelling demos had little to do with smartphones. In one, Qualcomm reps showed off a major city could add millions of connected devices — everything from location-tracking wearables to smart street lights — without seeing any negative impact on network speeds. In another demo, connected cars were able to send signals to each other about an accident and an approaching ambulance, adjusting how they drove in the process — something that figures to have major implications for self-driving automobiles.
Qualcomm demonstrated those use cases at Mobile World Congress in February.
How Will 5G Work?
Two words: millimeter waves, or high frequencies above 24 gigahertz.
Think of the bands of radio waves available to us as a triangular beaker filled with some water. Today's telecommunications mostly takes place in the lower bands, toward the base of that beaker. Virtually no traffic (represented by the water in the beaker) is taking place above the 24-GHz mark right now, because those waves tended to have shorter ranges and worked within shorter distances. For example, AT&T’s 4G LTE network currently operates in the 700 MHz, 850 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.1 GHz bands.
Developments over the last few years have changed all that, though. NYU researchers shook things up in May 2013 when they published a paper in IEEE Access, showing that it's possible to use millimeter waves for long-distance transmissions. And in October 2014, Samsung demonstrated its ability to achieve a data transmission rate of 7.5 Gbps by tapping into a 28-GHz network. That rate translates to a 940 MB download in a second, although that’s under ideal conditions.
Qualcomm developed the first millimeter-wave modules small enough to fit inside a smartphone. The QTM052 mmWave antenna module family and the QPM56xx sub-6 GHz RF module are the first fully integrated 5G NR millimeter-wave and sub-6 GHz RF component for mobile, and they're tiny enough that up to four modules can fit inside one phone. Qualcomm in July made the modules available to smartphone makers, which means 5G-ready phones are just around the corner.
When Can I Expect 5G?
We're starting to see some real movement when it comes to 5G deployment, though we're still a ways out from taking advantage of the high speeds promised.
In December 2017, the telecommunications companies who make up the 3rd Generation Partnership Project agreed on the first standard for 5G. The Non-Standalone 5G New Radio specification covers 600 and 700 MHz bands and the 50 GHz millimeter-wave end of the spectrum. In June, the group finalized the Standalone 5G NR specification.
Now that a standard has been agreed upon, carriers and hardware makers are building out networks and devices optimized for 5G speeds. Last October, Qualcomm successfully tested a 5G connection on a smartphone over the 28 GHz millimeter wave frequency. The company unveiled a smartphone reference design for other hardware manufacturers to build on, though Qualcomm won't be bringing its own phone to market.
The Japanese government has also declared its intention to show off 5G capability for practical mobile phone use at the Tokyo Summer Olympics in 2020.
So when can the rest of us expect to see 5G? When we talked to Eduardo Esteves, vice president of product management at Qualcomm in 2015, he told us deployment was a few years out. "Early 2020 or 2021 is really when we're going to start seeing initial commercial deployment of 5G," he said at the time — a timeframe that looks to be on schedule a year later.
AT&T plans to introduce mobile 5G service for both consumers and businesses in 12 cities later in 2018, though those trials will be conducted with a puck-like hotspot and not a phone. On Sept. 10, AT&T expanded its 2018 5G rollout to Houston, Jacksonville, Louisville, New Orleans and San Antonio, after initially confirming service for Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Indianapolis, Oklahoma City, Raleigh and Waco.
That will give AT&T a leg up on Verizon in terms of mobile reach. Big Red is launching 5G residential broadband to five cities, starting with Sacramento, Calif., this year.
As for T-Mobile, it announced at the 2018 Mobile World Congress trade show that it was building out 5G in 30 cities, with New York, Dallas, Los Angeles and Las Vegas the first to support 5G smartphones next year. The Uncarrier just inked a second $3.5 billion deal with Ericsson as its 5G equipment supplier. For its part, Sprint is promising that customers in six cities — Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Houston and Washington D.C. — will begin to experience "5G-like capabilities" in advance of a rollout next year.
Meanwhile, phone makers are beginning to tease early 5G -compatible handsets. Huawei's Honor brand has confirmed its first 5G device will drop in 2019, while LG and Sprint are partnering on an exclusive phone that is expected to launch in the first half of the year. There's also Verizon's Moto Z3, which will receive a 5G-enabling Moto Mod around the same time.
What Will Happen to 4G?
Just as 3G continues to exist today in our 4G-rich landscape, 4G will hang around as 5G takes over and even see continued development. While the industry works on bringing 5G to the masses, carriers and other players will continue to develop existing 4G LTE networks on a parallel track.
Mark McDiarmid, T-Mobile's vice president for engineering, who's also part of the Wi-Fi Alliance, said, "Whatever we develop for 5G, it will certainly incorporate all of what we've done for 4G, and work seamlessly with 4G."
But beyond 4G, older technologies like 3G and 2G will start to go away and won't be compatible with 5G.
3GPP's current definition of LTE states that the highest theoretical peak data rate the technology can achieve is 75 Mbps up and 300 Mbps down. LTE-Advanced sees that rate increased to 1.5 Gbps up and 3 Gbps down, using carrier aggregation (CA), a method of increasing data speeds and capacity by combining bands of spectrum to form wider channels.
Some carriers are working to reach 4G's promise as a stop-gap between current speeds and 5G. AT&T is bringing its 5G Evolution network to 20 cities around the U.S., but that branding is a misnomer. AT&T's network is not actually 5G, but offers LTE Advanced features to AT&T customers with specific smartphones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S8 and Note 8, LG's V30 and the Moto Z2 Force Edition.
Where Will I Be Able to Get 5G?
In addition to Korea and Japan, countries such as Germany and the U.K. have promised to bring 5G to their residents. Finland's already building a 5G test network in the city of Oulu. The U.S. is also expected to be part of the first wave of countries to deploy next-gen mobile broadband, given the carrier plans outlined above.
While standards have been similar globally in the past, spectrums and bands used by each nation have been different. For 4G LTE alone, some European operators used 2.6 GHz for their networks, while China used 2.5 GHz and Japan rides on 2.1 GHz. Many Southeast Asian markets are using 1.8 GHz. This means your 4G LTE phone won't necessarily support LTE networks worldwide.
That will hopefully be different with 5G. Kris Rinne, chairwoman for the board of governors of 4G Americas, told us that alliances such as 3GPP and 4G Americas are working on standardizing the spectrums and standards across international borders for easier global access.