September 29, 2020

What is 5G, and what can we expect from it?

Around the world, companies and governments are working to bring 5G mobile data to the masses. But what is 5G exactly?

5G networks are now available in much of the world, promising faster data speeds and lower latency to consumers. Smartphones are some of the first devices to support 5G, starting with premium-tier handsets but now quickly reaching less expensive models too.

In addition, this latest networking technology opens up avenues to new industrial applications and is a critical element to build widely connected “smart cities.� 5G is the next step to provide better networking in our increasingly technological world. However, not every country, region, or even national carrier has its 5G network up and running yet. If you’ve been wondering what is 5G, here’s everything you need to know about the current state of the industry and what to expect.

What is 5G?

5G stands for fifth-generation network and is the successor to 4G LTE networks that have been in operation for the last decade. The promise is faster data speeds, low latency connections, and a host of new use cases, from VR jobs to smart cities. To do this, 5G makes requires new high-frequency radio technologies, device modems, and technologies like beamforming.

The 5G standard is the combined effort of companies around with world working in partnership to create a unified technology to be used around the world. The official 5G specifications are published by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The ITU’s IMT-2020 preparations and 3GPP Release 15 specification lay the foundations for early 5G technology and rollouts.

There are quite a few new components to 5G, so here’s a breakdown of some of the key phrases:

  • mmWave – very high-frequency spectrum between 17 and 100GHz and high bandwidth for fast data. Most carriers are targeting use in the 18-24GHz range. Reasonably short-range technology that will be used in densely populated areas.
  • Sub-6GHz – spectrum operating in WiFi-like frequencies between 3 and 6GHz. Can be deployed in small cell hubs for indoor use or more powerful outdoor base stations to cover medium range much like existing 4G LTE. Most 5G spectrum will be found here.
  • Low-band – very low frequencies below 800MHz. Covers very long distances and is omnidirectional to provide blanket backbone coverage.
  • Beamforming – used in mmWave and sub-6GHz base stations to direct waveforms towards consumer devices, such as bouncing waves off buildings. A key technology in overcoming the range and direction limitations of high-frequency waveforms.
  • Massive MIMO – multiple antennas on base stations serve multiple end-user devices at once. Designed to make high-frequency networks much more efficient and can be combined with beamforming.

High-frequency mmWave base stations, sub-6GHz WiFi-esque small and medium cells, beamforming, and massive multiple-input and multiple-output (MIMO) are all used to build faster 5G networks. But there are also major changes to data encoding and infrastructure network slicing that are seldom talked about. These are all new technological introductions compared to today’s 4G LTE networks.

In addition, the 5G standard is split into two key parts – Non-Standalone (NSA) and New Radio (NR). Today’s first 5G networks will be based on NSA, and are planned to eventually transition over to SA once that part of the specification is finalized in the coming years. But more on that later.

5G vs 4G – differences explained

The big difference between 5G and 4G is the new technologies used by the former. These include radio frequencies, spectrum sharing carriers, and bandwidth block sizes. But these lead to practical improvements, such as faster data speeds and lower latency for 5G versus 4G customers.

For example, 5G users should experience data speeds above 50Mbps, while 4G LTE-A customers may average around 20Mbps. Likewise, 5G boasts sub-10ms latency while 4G customers regularly experience 50ms or much more. However, the exact speeds and latency on any given network has a lot of variables, including the type of 5G or 4G network deployed by your carrier. The table below details some of the more technical differences between 5G and 4G.

  5G New Radio
(Release 15)
LTE-Advanced Pro
(Release 13 & 14)
LTE-Advanced
(Release 10 to 12)
Ideal Data Rate > 10 Gbps > 3 Gbps > 1 Gbps
Ideal Latency > 1ms > 2ms ~10 ms
Frequency Support Up to 40 GHz Up to 6 GHz Up to 6 GHz
Channel Bandwidth Up to 500 MHz Up to 20 MHz Up to 20 MHz
Max carriers 16 (LTE + NR) 32 5
Max Bandwidth 1000 MHz 640 MHz 100 MHz
MIMO antennas 64 to 256 32 8
Spectrum Sharing mmWave & NR
Dual Connectivity
NR-based LAA+
NR MulteFire
LTE-U
LAA / eLAA
LWA
MulteFire
CBRS / LSA
LTE-U
LTE-U (Rel. 12)

The bottom line is that 5G is faster than 4G LTE and will offer lower latency too, which is important for real-time applications, such as gaming. Because of the new radio technologies involves, receiving 5G’s benefits requires new hardware. 5G smartphones still run just fine on 4G LTE networks, but a 4G phone cannot make use of a 5G networks’ faster data speeds.

Read more: 5G vs Gigabit LTE differences explained

How does 5G work?

There are only two core principles to understand what 5G aims to do and how it does it. The first is to make use of much more wireless spectrum, as more spectrum means more capacity and faster speeds for everyone. To achieve this, 5G turns to new, high-frequency networking technology, such as the often talked about millimeter-wave (mmWave). These are known as 5G New Radio (NR) technologies.

Although lots of carriers like to talk up fancy advancements in New Radio technology, 5G networks actually combine a bit of everything. The various technologies can be thought of in three tiers, which Huawei explains neatly in many of its papers.

Low bands that can be repurposed from radio and TV make up the “coverage layer� at sub 2GHz. This provides wide-area and deep indoor coverage and forms the backbone of the network. There’s the “Super Data Layer� made up of high-frequency spectrum known as mmWave that suits areas requiring extremely high data rates or population coverage. Then the “coverage and capacity layer� sits between 2 and 6 GHz, which offers a good balance between both.

mmWave coverage will likely be limited to dense urban centers, will sub-6GHz and existing 4G LTE bands continue to cater to broader network access. The end result is a network that looks like the image below.

In summary, 5G works by leveraging the benefits of a wide range of wireless spectrum, both old and new. This provides consumers with faster and more reliable coverage not just in densely populated cities, but in rural areas and network edges too.

Take a closer look: How does 5G actually work?

5G mmWave vs sub-6GHz

Given some of the marketing from US carriers, its quite easy to mistake 5G and mmWave as the same thing. However, mmWave isn’t actually used in most initial global 5G deployments. Even where it is used, it’s almost always in conjunction with sub-6GHz spectrum.

These two slices of spectrum are uniquely important. Sub-6GHz occupies WiFi-like signals and just above traditional 4G LTE frequencies. Sub-6GHz typically encompasses the region of 3 to 6GHz, giving it flexibility in terms of range and performance that makes it the backbone of 5G networks. It can be used to expand indoor coverage as unlicensed WiFi or moderate distances outdoors with more powerful base stations.

5G spectrum and technologies, mmWave, sub-6GHz, and LTE

mmWave is the very high-frequency technology that most people think of when 5G is mentioned. mmWave frequencies range from 17 to 100GHz, with around 20GHz typical of current deployments. These high frequencies offer higher speeds but have poor range and line-of-sight requirements compared to sub-6GHz. This limits mmWave’s use cases to densely populated areas that require a bandwidth boost, such as inner cities and large public venues, such as sports arenas.

Because mmWave is a drastic departure to the frequencies previously used in wireless communication, it requires new base-station and user-device hardware. It’s more power-hungry too. As such, it’s more expensive than sub-6GHz and isn’t as widely supported outside of premium-tier smartphones. That’s right, some 5G phones don’t work with mmWave.

Whether you need a mmWave smartphone depends entirely on whether your carrier supports the technology and if you’re in an area that has it. Verizon, for example, sells specific handset variants that work with its mmWave network, while you’d have to consult the spec sheet of a third-party device for compatibility.

Stand-alone vs non-standalone networks

The industry is undergoing a (relatively) smooth transition from 4G LTE into 5G, by appending existing networks with faster 5G New Radio data pipes. In other words, existing 4G LTE infrastructure still handles all the Control Plane, such as verifying your subscription, routing traffic, etc. This is what is known as a non-standalone (NSA) network, as the 5G data pipe still relies on the 4G LTE behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

Eventually, 5G networks will transition over to a standalone (SA) topology, where the 5G Core handles the Control Plane itself. Besides introducing the Control Plane over 5G radio technologies, Standalone supports more flexible Network Slicing and subcarrier encoding.

Diagram of differences between 5G NSA and SA

5G Standalone implements the 5G Core radio and Control Plane.

Network Slicing is a form of virtual networking architecture enabling greater flexibility to partition, share, and link parts of the back-end network together. This will allow network operators to offer more flexible traffic, applications, and services to their customers. This idea is seen as key to realizing ideas such as autonomous vehicles and smart cities. Network slicing can already be done with 4G networks, but 5G aims to improve on the range of flexibility and standardize support.

The first 5G networks are based on the non-standalone specification, before bigger changes with the full standalone specification after 2021.

The changes to subcarriers are a little harder to explain. Technologies encompassed by this include scalable OFDM and sub-carrier spacing, windowed OFDM, flexible numerology, and scalable Transmission Time Intervals. Put simply, frames that carry data can be bigger and faster when higher throughput at high efficiency is required. Alternatively, these frames can be made smaller in order to achieve much lower latency for real-time applications.

Our take on 5G: is it worth it?

Faster data is obviously great for downloading huge files, but 5G isn’t a huge game-changer for day-to-day mobile use. Most 4G LTE networks are speedy these days, and you don’t need 100Mbps speeds to browse Twitter. Not forgetting that 5G rollouts are still in their early stages, meaning there’s a good chance coverage may be spotty or even non-existent in your area for the time being.

For that reason, we wouldn’t recommend customers go out and buy a new smartphone just for 5G alone. 4G smartphones from the past couple of years are still perfectly serviceable and still represent good bargain purchases. That being said, an increasing majority of new flagship and mid-range phones support 5G networking. If you are in the market for a new handset anyway, a little 5G futureproofing is probably a good idea. That way you’ll be set for when 5G becomes much more widespread over the next year or two.

Is 5G safe?

5G is perfectly safe. Ignore the conspiracy theories, they’re based on a complete lack of understanding of physics and how wireless frequencies work.

Read more: 5G is not going to microwave your brain. All the myths, debunked

To put your mind at ease, 5G radio towers are governed by the same safety regulations and energy limits as existing 4G, WiFi, and other wireless technologies. Sub-6GHz 5G remains in roughly the same region as existing networks anyway, but even higher-frequency mmWave (which operates at far lower frequencies than cancer-causing ionizing radiation) has to abide by existing strict exposure limits too.

Numerous long-term high-quality studies find no link between cellphones and cancer, including ones from the Danish Strategic Research Council, the National Science Council in Taiwan, and Japan’s Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications, amongst others. The wider scientific and journalist communities are constantly welcoming and reviewing new comprehensive research too. If there were legitimate safety concerns about 5G, you’d find them reported much more widely than Facebook.

How fast is 5G?

T-Mobile 5G Review Speed Test Number 4

There’s always a difference between theoretical maximum speeds and those that consumers end up receiving. With 5G, network bandwidth can hit up to 10Gbps but for consumers this likely means speeds in the 50Mbps to 100Mbps region. Although that could certainly go higher in low congestion areas with a nearby mmWave access point. We’ve clocked speeds as high as 500Mbps, but that’s the exception not the rule. We’ve also experienced highly variable 5G speeds on some US networks, due to patchy coverage even over just short distances.

So how much faster is 5G than 4G? That depends on your specific network, signal strength, and even the modem inside your handset. That’s right, different phone modems have different maximum speeds. There are already some very fast 4G LTE networks out there too and 5G mmWave can be very temperamental with line-of-sight. So exact speed comparisons are difficult.

5G vs 4G LTE speeds

Generally speaking though, 5G is anywhere from 5x to 10x faster than current 4G networks. In the future, 5G could end up 20x faster or even higher. Customers on first-generation 4G LTE networks typically see speeds in the 10Mbps region, while more advanced LTE-A and Gigabit LTE networks can see speeds rise to 20Mbps and even 5G rivaling 50Mbps speeds. If you’re already on a very fast 4G network, the jump to 5G might not feel as big as those moving from slower 4G networks.

Where is 5G available?

5G can be found at various stages of deployment around the world. Leading the pack are South Korea, China, and the US, followed by some European countries, including the UK and Germany, along with parts of South East Asia and the Middle East. However, even the most advanced 5G deployments are restricted to cities and other densely populated areas, with very limited or no rural coverage.

Read more: Here are all the US cities with 5G coverage

To help keep track, the list below covers countries with available commercial 5G networks and those with upcoming plans in the future. Accurate at the time of publication.

Countries that already support 5G:

  • Austria
  • Australia
  • Belgium
  • Denmark
  • Canada
  • China
  • Czech Republic
  • Finland
  • Germany
  • Hong Kong
  • Hungary
  • Italy
  • Japan
  • Latvia
  • New Zealand
  • Norway
  • Oman
  • Philippines
  • Poland
  • Romania
  • Saudia Arabia
  • Singapore
  • Slovenia
  • South Korea
  • Spain
  • Sweden
  • Switzerland
  • Thailand
  • The Netherlands
  • United Kingdom

Countries undergoing 5G trials:

  • Albania
  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Bulgaria
  • Cambodia
  • Colombia
  • Croatia
  • Ecuador
  • Egypt
  • France
  • Gabon
  • Greece
  • Iran
  • Kenya
  • Lebanon
  • Lithuania
  • Nigeria
  • North Macedonia
  • Peru
  • Portugal
  • Russia
  • Serbia
  • Sir Lanka
  • Slovakia
  • Uganda
  • Ukraine
  • Uzbekistan
  • Vietnam

Further reading: Best 5G plans

What does 5G cost?

You’d think that faster data would cost a lot more, but 5G is increasingly priced competitive with 4G plans and often doesn’t cost anything extra at all. In the US, for example, T-Mobile bundles 5G data at no extra cost from just $15 per month, but Verizon charges $10 on top of its 4G plans.

Just like availability, prices vary a lot on a country to country basis. For example, the UK Three offers SIM-only 5G starting at £10, while 100GB of 5G data on EE costs £27 per month compared to £23 for 4G-only. Meanwhile, Vodafone charges nothing extra for 5G access in the UK and Germany, and neither does the latter’s Deutsche Telekom. Meanwhile, Australia’s Telstra only offers 5G data with its larger data allowance package, which is another common practice.

Generally speaking, 5G should cost no more than a couple of cups of coffee per month extra compared to your current 4G tariff. The 5G-ready flagship smartphone to go with it is bound to be the bigger expense.

If you’re in the US and looking to move to a new 5G plan, check out our carrier guides below.

Phones with 5G support

Samsung Galaxy Note 20 Ultra display

Credit: Eric Zeman / Android Authority

Virtually all flagship smartphones launched in 2020 now support 5G, with sub-6GHz network support being the most popular. If a phone sports a Qualcomm Snapdragon 865 processor and X55 5G modem, or similar from other manufacturers, then it’s all set for 5G. Examples of 5G flagship handsets include the Samsung Galaxy Note 20, OnePlus 8 Pro, and Oppo Find X2 Pro.

5G technology has also quickly made its way to affordable mid-tier smartphones, thanks to chipsets like the Snapdragon 765G. More affordable 5G phones include the OnePlus Nord, LG Velvet, and the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G.

The best way to check if a phone sports 5G is to look at the spec sheet. Be sure to check that the handset sports the right 5G technologies and bands for your network.

See our list: The best 5G phones you can buy right now

FAQ

Q: Is 5g dangerous?
A: As we talked about earlier in this hub, no, 5G isn’t dangerous. You can read more about this matter in our article discussing the supposed dangers of 5G.

Q: How fast is 5G?
A: In theory, it’s capable of 500Mbps or even greater. In reality, it’s not much faster than latest-gen LTE networks. You’ll typically see speeds in the 50Mbps to 100Mbps range.

Q: What cities have 5g in the United States?
A:
You can find a list that covers this topic, here.

Q: So what does 5G do?
A: Essentially, it is a faster network than LTE, though it’s still in its infancy. In the future, this faster network will allow things like smart cities, traffic lights that can detect cars and change based on traffic patterns, the ability for cars and other Internet of Things devices to communicate, and much more.

More coverage

Looking to learn even more about 5G? You’ll find some other great resources below: