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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.

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 carsvirtual 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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