5G is almost here — here’s how everyone’s getting ready
On a basic level, 5G is the fifth generation of cellular networking. It’s what comes after our current 4G / LTE networks, much in the same way that LTE was a radical shift forward from 3G. Think of how much the way we used and interacted with our phones shifted when 3G data was first introduced, or how things changed again when high-speed LTE data came around. That’s the kind of change we’re looking at with 5G.
But on a more technical level, “5G” is an agreed upon set of standards defined by the International Telecommunication Union (the ITU) and the 3GPP, who work together with hardware companies and carriers to define what exactly a 5G network actually is.
And over the past few months, we’ve actually reached two general definitions for those: the non-standalone 5G New Radio network, which (as the name implies) is built off of existing LTE networks and hardware, and standalone 5G NR networks, which allows for new deployments of 5G in places that didn’t necessarily have that existing infrastructure.
The non-standalone standard was finished in December 2017, while the standalone standard was finalized in June 2018. Having extra time to work on it and being built on existing infrastructure means that when we do see the first real 5G networks start to roll out in 2019, they’ll likely be based on that first.
From a technical perspective, what makes a 5G network a 5G network is a little more complex than just “it’s faster.” There’s a variety of pieces toward reaching those speeds — use of technologies like carrier aggregation, multiple antenna arrays (MIMO and Massive MIMO, new, higher frequency spectrum bands, and of course, the most talked about aspect: millimeter wave frequencies, which are dramatically higher than the ones that we currently use for cellular data and can offer much faster speeds, but have a far shorter range and ability to pass through walls and buildings.
What all this means is that the 5G specification provides goalposts for carriers to reach with their networks, and a set of standardized technologies and tools to get there. How it reaches you — the consumers — is up to the carriers on how they’ll be implementing 5G, and which of these various technologies and spectrum bands they’ll be using to do it.
That brings us to the most important part of the state of 5G: what the major carriers are actually doing to bring about these next-gen networks. Here’s where everyone stands.
AT&T: AT&T started off its 5G network on the wrong foot with its “5G Evolution” network in 2017 — which wasn’t actually 5G at all, despite the name. But the company did promise in January to roll out real, 3GPP-standard based 5G in a dozen markets by the end of 2018.
So far, AT&T has announced six of the 12:Dallas, Atlanta, Waco, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Oklahoma City. There aren’t a lot of details on what parts of the spectrum AT&T is planning to use beyond the fact that it will utilize both “mmWave to provide mobile 5G first,” followed by additional spectrum bands in the future.
Verizon: Verizon is working on a different angle than most with its 5G rollout, focusing first on a broadband service launching in Indianapolis, Houston, Sacramento, and Los Angeles in 2018, before following that up with a mobile 5G service in 2019.
That gives Verizon an edge in some areas — barring any issues, it’ll be the first 5G service to launch. But the real prize is true mobile 5G, for which Verizon hasn’t shared as much of its plans yet.
That said, Verizon has already announced at least one phone that will work with its mobile 5G network when it does launch: the Motorola Moto Z3, which will get a 5G Moto Mod accessory sometime next year.
T-Mobile: T-Mobile first announced plans in 2017 to begin rolling out its 5G network in 2019, with a full nationwide rollout by 2020. As of February of this year, though, the company has accelerated those plans: it’s already starting to develop its 5G network this year, and plans to be in 30 cities by the end of 2018, including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Las Vegas. The company also recently signed a $3.5 billion deal with Nokia to provide 5G technology, software, and services as it works to build out that network.
From a technological perspective, T-Mobile is planning on utilizing both its 600 MHz chunk of low-band spectrum and 28 GHz millimeter wave portions of the spectrum for its 5G network.
As a separate note: T-Mobile and Sprint are currently in the process of trying to merge, and a big reason the two companies are claiming to do so is that together, they’d be better equipped to create a 5G network. It sounds like a good idea on paper, but neither company has provided a whole lot of detail as to what the benefits of that would be relative to competing in an open market instead to drive innovation, and they are instead more focused on appealing to a specific mindset of individuals who believe that countries like China, Japan, or South Korea are out to defeat the US when it comes to 5G networking.
Sprint: Sprint is also working on its own 5G network, targeting the same late 2019 date as almost every other carrier. Sprint is targeting the 2.5GHz band of spectrum for its network, and it has already started building out Massive MIMO antennas — technology that serves as a precursor to 5G that can be upgraded later on — in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.
Sprint has also made the most noise about actual consumer 5G hardware, promising a 5G phone with LG in the first half of next year and 5G PCs with Intel. All these plans may change though, depending on how the T-Mobile merger shakes out.
When it comes to actual phones with 5G, we’re still pretty early in the game. Most companies are focused on releasing phones that you’ll be able to buy this year, but there are a few developments on the 5G front already — and we’ll likely start to hear even more in 2019 at events like CES and Mobile World Congress at the beginning of next year, so check back here soon for more updates.