What is 5G? The Complete Guide to When, Why, and How

The WIRED Guide to 5G

Here’s everything you need to know about the spectrum, millimeter-wave technology, and what 5G means for you.

Illustration: RADIO

The future depends on connectivity. From artificial intelligence and self-driving cars, to telemedicine and mixed reality, to as yet undreamed technologies, all the things we hope will make our lives easier, safer, and healthier require high-speed, always-on internet connections. To keep up with the demand, the mobile industry introduced 5G—so named because it's the fifth generation of wireless networking technology.

5G brings faster speeds of up to 10 gigabits per second (Gbps) to your phone. That's fast enough to download a 4K movie in 25 seconds. But 5G is not just about faster connections. It also delivers lower latency and allows for more devices to be connected simultaneously.

As the fifth generation of cellular networks, 5G is a global wireless standard. All cellular networks send encoded data through radio waves. Radio waves have different frequencies and are divided into bands. Previous generations, like 4G, operated on low- and mid-band frequencies, but 5G can operate on low-, mid-, and high-band (also known as millimeter wave) frequencies. Lower frequencies can travel farther and penetrate through obstacles but offer relatively low speeds, while higher frequencies are much faster but have a limited range and struggle to pass through objects.

While 5G opens up a swathe of unused radio frequencies at the high end of the spectrum, it also encompasses new technologies and techniques for combining chunks of spectrum that are already in use. At the low end, 5G looks and feels very much like 4G.

Carriers have been building their 5G networks for a few years now, but they have adopted different approaches. All the carriers began by building 5G atop their existing networks, which provided lots of connectivity, but not at the high speeds associated with 5G. More recently, they have started building out new high-band 5G networks, but these are largely confined to cities or specific venues within cities. You can get a broad overview by using Ookla’s 5G map.

Verizon offers low-band 5G across the country, labeled as 5G Nationwide on its coverage map. Verizon offers mid-band 5G in many urban areas and high-band 5G in many cities, but the mid- and high-band coverage are lumped together and labeled 5G Ultra Wideband or 5G UW.

AT&T also offers low-band 5G coverage across much of the country and mid-band coverage in some cities, both labeled simply as 5G on its coverage map. AT&T’s high-band 5G is currently limited to a selection of venues, like stadiums, and is labeled as 5G+. Early in its 5G efforts, AT&T marketed its spiffed-up LTE network as "5G E" and was rebuked by the National Advertising Review Board for misleading customers.

T-Mobile offers low-band 5G across the country, labeled as 5G Extended Range on its coverage map. Its mid- and high-band 5G is labeled as 5G Ultra Capacity.

Ultimately, 5G availability and speeds are variable because 5G service is offered in three bands. Low-band, which generally operates below 1 GHz, can reach speeds of 250 Mbps. The trade-off for low-band’s comparatively slower speeds is a broad reach, which means carriers can leave more distance between towers using this kind of equipment.

Analysts call the mid-band of the 5G spectrum the sweet spot, as it has a broad geographic reach and is faster than low-band. Mid-band operates between 1 and 6 GHz and can achieve speeds up to 1 Gbps.

But to reach the top speeds associated with 5G, carriers need millimeter-wave (or mmWave) technology, which takes advantage of the high end of the wireless spectrum, operating at 20 GHz and up. mmWave can enable multi-gig speeds, but millimeter-wave signals are less reliable over long distances and easily disrupted by obstacles like trees, people, and even rain. To make it practical for mobile use, carriers must deploy huge numbers of small access points in cities, instead of relying on a few big cell towers as they do today.

Figuring out whether 5G is available for you, and in what form, requires a bit of detective work, but you will also need a device capable of handling a 5G signal.

Anyone wishing to take advantage of these new 5G networks needs a capable device. Most major phone makers offer 5G handsets now, but, as we’ve seen, 5G is an umbrella term. All 5G phones have low- and mid-band support (often labeled “sub-6,” as they operate at frequencies of 6 GHz and lower), but not all 5G phones are capable of high-band connections. If you want a smartphone that can take advantage of high-band (mmWave) networks, look for mmWave support.

You can find mmWave support in high-end phones like Apple's iPhone 14 Pro, Google Pixel 7 Pro, and the Samsung Galaxy S22 in the US. It’s worth noting that these same models are often sold without mmWave support in other countries.

Much of the buzz around 5G is focused on its potential. Since smartphones connected to 4G LTE can already stream high-quality video, you may be wondering what 5G brings to the table for regular folks. Aside from faster download speeds, lower latency benefits multiplayer and cloud gaming by boosting responsiveness. And 5G's higher capacity for multiple devices to be connected without issue also helps to keep us all online when we are part of a crowd, whether it’s a packed concert or a football game.

The stability and speed of 5G also promise improvements for driverless cars, remote-piloting drones, and anywhere else where response time is crucial. While tangible benefits today are limited, there is enormous potential for more cloud computing services, augmented reality experiences, and whatever comes next. But a real killer 5G app for consumers remains elusive.

The US has been keen to claim a leadership role in worldwide 5G deployment, but so far it hasn’t fully succeeded. China-based Huawei is the world’s leading maker of 5G network equipment, and while its equipment is deployed widely, the company has faced scrutiny and even bans from Western nations for its alleged ties to the Chinese government. Other companies that make 5G equipment, like Nokia, Ericsson, and Samsung—none of which, notably, are headquartered in the US—may have benefited from the bans.

From a speed perspective, the US doesn’t appear in the top 15 nations, according to the UK-based research firm Opensignal, which found that South Korea had the top 5G download speed at 432.7 Mbps, followed by Malaysia, Sweden, Bulgaria, and the United Arab Emirates. Where the US did score highly was in 5G availability, with a score of 25.2 percent, meaning users spent over one-quarter of their time with an active 5G connection—an impressive result for a country the size of the US, and a sign that the rollout is gathering pace.

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What is 5G The Complete Guide to When Why and How

The first generation of mobile wireless networks, built in the late 1970s and 1980s, was analog. Voices were carried over radio waves unencrypted, and anyone could listen in on conversations using off-the-shelf components. The second generation, built in the 1990s, was digital—which made it possible to encrypt calls, make more efficient use of the wireless spectrum, and deliver data transfers on par with dialup internet or, later, early DSL services. The third generation gave digital networks a bandwidth boost and ushered in the smartphone revolution.

(The wireless spectrum refers to the entire range of radio wave frequencies, from the lowest frequencies to the highest. The US Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, regulates who can use which ranges, or “bands,” of frequencies and for what purposes, to prevent users from interfering with each other’s signals. Mobile networks have traditionally relied mostly on low- and mid-band frequencies that can easily cover large distances and travel through walls. But those are now so crowded that carriers have turned to the higher end of the radio spectrum.)

The first 3G networks were built in the early 2000s, but they were slow to spread across the US. It's easy to forget that when the original iPhone was released in 2007, it didn't even support full 3G speeds, let alone 4G. At the time, Finnish company Nokia was still the world’s largest handset manufacturer, thanks in large part to Europe’s leadership in the deployment and adoption of 2G. Meanwhile, Japan was well ahead of the US in both 3G coverage and mobile internet use.

But not long after the first 3G-capable iPhones began sliding into pockets in July 2008, the US app economy started in earnest. Apple had just launched the App Store that month, and the first phones using Google's Android operating system started shipping in the US a few months later. Soon smartphones, once seen as luxury items, were considered necessities, as Apple and Google popularized the gadgets and Facebook gave people a reason to stay glued to their devices. Pushed by Apple and Google and apps like Facebook, the US led the way in shifting to 4G, leading to huge job and innovation growth as carriers expanded and upgraded their networks. Meanwhile, Nokia and Japanese handset makers lost market share at home and abroad as US companies set the agenda for the app economy.

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What is 5G The Complete Guide to When Why and How

There's more to 5G than mobile phones; 5G technologies will also serve a great many devices in near real time. That will be crucial as the number of internet-connected cars, environmental sensors, thermostats, and other gadgets accelerates in the coming years.

5G is expected to help autonomous cars communicate not only with one another—a kind of “Hey, on your left!” set of exchanges—but also, someday, with roads, lights, parking meters, and signals. And 5G’s low latency promises to better enable remote surgeries, allowing physicians in one location to manipulate network-connected surgical instruments thousands of miles away (a capability the pandemic has made even more desirable). Medical providers may also be able to rely on 5G to rapidly transmit high-resolution images for use in diagnosis and treatment.

Manufacturers can use 5G networks to monitor production lines remotely and maintain videofeeds of their factory floors, or to feed data to workers wearing augmented reality glasses. Some companies are licensing their own bit of 5G spectrum and are replacing Wi-Fi networks with private 5G networks.

Even though 5G remains far from universally available, the telecom industry is already looking forward to the next big thing: 6G—the technology that will take advantage of areas of the wireless spectrum above 100 GHz.

What is 5G The Complete Guide to When Why and How

Last updated December 2022.

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