Talk about “5G” has been circulating for years now, but the next-generation, super-fast wireless technology has now evolved into a real, tangible thing that people can actually use.
More carriers like Verizon and AT&T and device-makers like Samsung and Google have started rolling out 5G products and services that can deliver blazing internet speeds to your smartphone and to your home. And on Tuesday, Apple unveiled its first iPhones that are compatible with the 5G network. All four phones in the iPhone 12 lineup will be 5G-enabled, signaling a major move by the device making giant toward an expansion of the wireless technology.
Here's everything you need to know about 5G.
What is 5G and how fast is it?
5G is the “evolution” of 4G LTE, which is what currently lets us stream videos, music, browse the web and social media, and use data-intensive apps on our mobile devices.
As an evolution of something that already exists, 5G is set to be better than 4G LTE. It promises incredibly fast wireless communication for mobile devices, and the ability to handle heavier loads of traffic.
5G networks are expected to be at least 10 times faster than 4G LTE, according to the wireless industry trade group GSMA as CNN reported. Other estimates put 5G capability at being 100 times faster than what we have now, according to CNET. What that means for you is more quickly uploading photos and downloading movies and shows, without that dreaded lag, among other things.
In addition to mobile networks, 5G will be used to bring faster internet services directly into your home.
5G is fast enough that it could also become an alternative to cables for transmitting all sorts of data. It won't replace cables entirely, but for some applications and industries, it could replace the need for them. It's also suited for new and experimental innovations, such as providing a continuous stream of speed-sensitive data that's required for many self-driving-car systems.
How can I get 5G and how much will it cost?
Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are three major carriers that now offer 5G mobile to phone customers.
Up until now, Verizon has offered 5G coverage in 36 US cities, including New York, Dallas, and Chicago. But CEO Hans Vestberg made an appearance during Apple's Tuesday iPhone event announcing that the carrier was turning on its 5G nationwide network. It won't cost you extra if you have three of the carrier's unlimited data plans, which range from $80 to $90 a month and includes 5G coverage as Tom's Guide notes. For its $70 a month Start Unlimited Plan, however, you'll need to pay an extra $10 a month for 5G access.
T-Mobile already had a sizable, nationwide reach with a 5G network it had built out, but in early August, it announced it was launching a standalone 5G architecture in the US. That means its 5G coverage expanded much further and to many more people — it now covers 250 million people. 5G coverage is also included in its current data plans as long as you have a 5G-enabled device.
And AT&T's 5G coverage rolled out nationwide in July. The carrier rolled 5G benefits into its wireless plans shortly after, meaning those who pay for AT&T's Unlimited Starter, Extra, and Elite plans don't have to pay extra for 5G.
Samsung has released 5G-ready smartphones, like its Galaxy S20 5G that was priced at $1,000 when it launched earlier this year. So far, 5G devices have been set at premium prices, posing the question of whether or not the next-generation technology could be more affordable to the masses. But with Apple's launch of its iPhone 12 lineup on Tuesday, as well as future rollouts from device makers, that problem may solve itself.
How does 5G work?
For mobile devices like smartphones, 5G service will be transmitted much like 4G LTE is today — with antennas dotted throughout a city (rooftops, utility poles, etc).
For home internet, you'll be able to get 5G service through an antenna installed outside of one of your home's windows, that's connected to a WiFi router inside your home. That antenna will pick up one of 5G's “millimeter wave” wireless signals transmitted from millimeter-wave cell towers.