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5G is real and lightning fast (sometimes): Here’s everything you need to know

More and more carriers are turning on their 5G networks, even if the coverage is still limited.

After years of hype, carriers are finally turning on their 5G networks. But those deployments remain limited, so don’t be surprised if you don’t find yourself near one. For 5G, as with any technology, give it some time.

Both Verizon and AT&T have launched their mobile 5G networks, while KT says a robot in South Korea is its first 5G customer. Sprint turned on its network alongside the launch of the LG V50 ThinQ 5G phone in June. UK carrier EE was the first in its country to turn on 5G.

It’s a virtual certainty, however, that you aren’t a 5G customer of any of these carriers. AT&T’s network is live in 19 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, turned on its network in Chicago and Minneapolis in early April but says the cities will have only pockets of 5G coverage.

Back in April, the early tests of Verizon’s 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 to be 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.

This follows months of companies chipping in some last-minute hype, from Qualcomm talking during its Snapdragon Tech Summit in December about how the technology would evolve this year, to a number of prototype 5G phones shown off at MWC 2019. OnePlus in May unveiled a variant of its OnePlus 7 Pro that runs on UK carrier EE’s new 5G network. The Huawei Mate 20 X 5G also runs on EE.

Confusing things is AT&T’s use of 5G E as a name for its advanced version of 4G LTE. To be clear, it’s NOT 5G.

All of this means 5G is going 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, which 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. 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 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.

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 — a fixed broadband replacement, rather than a mobile service. An installer has to put in special equipment 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’s also some debate about whether the service even qualifies as 5G: It doesn’t use the standards the industry has agreed on. The company wanted to jump out ahead, and used its own proprietary technology. Verizon argues 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.) Verizon has hit pause on the rollout until it can convert things to the globally recognized 5G standard.

As of the end of December, AT&T was turning 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.” It plans to boost its coverage to a total of 22 cities in 2019.

But the network isn’t available to consumers, and it remains a mystery where you can actually get the coverage.

Verizon launched its 5G mobile service in Chicago and Minneapolis, and is the first to offer it to consumers. Likewise, Sprint’s network is available in four cities with its LG V50, with plans to launch in five more cities by the end of the first half.

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.

No 5G phones? Can’t I just pick up 5G with my existing smartphone?

Sorry, no. 5G technology requires a specific set of antennas that aren’t available yet. 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, although it will also work on the other carriers once the exclusivity agreement ends.

Many of the phones will use Qualcomm’s X50 modem, which is designed specifically to tap into 5G spectrum. 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.

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.

 

Source: cnet

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