After a period of what seems like nearly endless hype, 5G communications are available nationwide, and anyone who wants to can use it. However, there are caveats.
First, what’s really here is that T-Mobile has implemented nationwide 5G coverage that’s available to an estimated 200 million people in 5000 cities and nearby rural areas. T-Mobile’s 5G signals use the 600 megahertz band, which is a low radio frequency for cell phone use. T-Mobile also has millimeter wave service in six cities.
The low-frequency service provides several advantages to T-Mobile. First the low-frequencies allow T-Mobile’s signals to travel much farther than traditional cell phone signals, and in addition, it allows the signals to pass through walls and penetrate buildings. Those “low band” frequencies were instrumental in allowing T-Mobile to offer nationwide service because it means the carrier can build relatively few cell sites to offer 5G service.
AT&T has begun offering similar low band service in the 850 MHz band in a plan similar to what T-Mobile is doing. However, AT&T is only offering that 5G service in ten cities so far. Prior to this, AT&T has been offering millimeter wave 5G, but only to business partners, not to the public.
Verizon is offering 5G service, but only in a few cities and in NFL stadiums. The coverage in those cities is best described as spotty.
The 5G Promise
By now you’ve heard no end of hype about 5G. It’s going to provide multi-gigabit speeds, near zero latency and will provide ubiquitous connectivity everywhere. It will, according to the hype, enable autonomous cars, full rate 4K movies, and endless support for the Internet of Things.
We want to deliver 5G for all rather than 5G for some
Most of that isn’t here yet. The 5G networks that are now coming online will be somewhat faster than the 4G LTE networks they’re replacing, the connections will be more reliable, and there will be less latency. But the vast transformational changes predicted in the hype are years away, and in most areas of the US, may never happen. The reason is because the lower frequencies required to cover the spaces in the US can’t also provide the vast bandwidth required for multi-gigabit wireless.
“It is a bit of a misconception, or heightened expectation,” explained Karri Kuoppamaki, vice president of network technology development and strategy at T-Mobile. “We want to deliver 5G for all rather than 5G for some.”
AT&T is working on a similar plan, but according to the carrier’s announcement, won’t be nationwide for about a year.
The only way to find a 5G signal is to use a 5G cell phone and a coverage map. A tour through the Washington, DC, suburbs, where 5G has been broadly implemented, will give you an idea of what 5G is like right now. You’ll find places with strong 5G signals, but you’ll also find spots where the only signals are 4G LTE. Right now, broad coverage isn’t the same thing as ubiquitous.
Because T-Mobile uses a technology called non-standalone 5G, the spotty coverage is less of a problem than it might be. Your phone will simply switch seamlessly between 5G and 4G LTE and you won’t hear any difference. Voice quality may seem slightly better on the phone when you’re using 5G, but face it, you’re still using a cell phone.
Currently, T-Mobile has two phones that work with 5G, one is a Samsung Galaxy Note 5G and the other is the 5G McLaren from OnePlus. The company says it will have about 15 models by mid-2020, but there’s no word whether there will be an iPhone among them. T-Mobile also has a separate phone, a Samsung Galaxy 5G, that supports its millimeter wave network.
AT&T is offering a Samsung Galaxy Note 5G for its new low band network that appears to be very similar to the T-Mobile device, which would make sense.
What about millimeter wave?
The hype you’ve been hearing about 5G is based on communications using frequencies between 30 and 100 gigahertz. The radio wavelengths at these frequencies range from 3 to 10 millimeters long. That’s slightly over an inch to slightly under 4 inches. At these frequencies, radio waves act a lot like infrared light.
On one hand, you can pack a lot of data into the bandwidth offered by millimeter wave signals. On the other hand, because it’s similar to infrared, millimeter wave radio signals won’t pass through most walls, most windows used in commercial buildings won’t let them through, and reflections become a significant issue.
Because these signals usually won’t pass through walls or windows, you’ll need to have cell sites inside building, or you’ll need to offload those signals to WiFi. In fact, WiFi is so essential to the success of 5G that the Federal Communications Commission is already working to greatly expand the frequencies available to WiFi.
There is millimeter wave 5G available in several cities, but you’ll need to look at each carrier’s coverage maps to see exactly where it is. When you do find it, you’ll see that coverage only covers a block or two at a time.
What’s next for 5G
T-Mobile is already working to expand its 5G footprint in the 600 MHz band, and AT&T is planning to expand its 850 MHz 5G. If T-Mobile is successful in its plans to acquire Sprint, then the company plans to start expanding what it calls its mid-band frequencies, which operate above 2 GHz, not far from the WiFi bands. AT&T has the ability to expand in the same area, and will be building out 5G there as it grows that service.
However, while 5G technology is in fact available, the 5G of the hype world mostly is not. Perhaps more important, for many it may be a distant dream that’s limited to densely urban or industrial areas. For everyone else, it may take decades to arrive if it ever does.