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5G decoded: Here's how to tell real 5G from the marketing fluff

5G comes in a lot of different flavors, and the carriers aren't shy about slapping different labels on them. CNET breaks it down so you don't have to.

5G explained

5G is here, it's time to understand it.


It may have taken some time, but a nationwide 5G network is coming. On Dec. 6, T-Mobile will turn on its wider-coverage 5G service and says it will reach 200 million people with the new, faster wireless network. 

T-Mobile isn't just the latest to expand its 5G footprint, but the first to offer service that covers this many Americans with higher speeds. Next-generation networks from all the major carriers are set to expand in the coming months, laying the foundation for advancements such as replacing home broadband, remote surgery and self-driving cars that are expected to dominate the next decade. 

But with all that activity by competing carriers, there's a myriad of different names for 5G -- some of which aren't actually 5G. 

The carriers have had a history of twisting their stories when it comes to wireless technology. When 4G was just coming around, AT&T and T-Mobile opted to rebrand their 3G networks to take advantage of the hype. Ultimately the industry settled on 4G LTE. One technology, one name.

Differing technologies and approaches for presenting 5G, however, have made this upcoming revolution more confusing than it should be. Here's a guide to help make sense of it all. (And if you're curious, here's what has to happen for cheap 5G phones to come to everyone.)

First: Know the three flavors

When it comes to actual 5G, there are three different versions that you should know about. While all are accepted as 5G -- and Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile have pledged to use multiple flavors going forward for more robust networks -- each will give you different experiences. 

The first flavor is known as millimeter wave (or mmWave). This technology has been deployed over the course of the last year by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, though it's most notable for being the 5G network Verizon is touting across the country


Verizon's early 5G speeds in NYC are impressive, but still in limited locations. 

Eli Blumenthal/CNET

Millimeter wave: High speed, but with a downside

Using a much higher frequency than prior cellular networks, millimeter wave allows for a blazing-fast connection that in some cases reaches well over 1Gbps. The downside? That higher frequency struggles when covering distances and penetrating buildings, glass or even leaves. It also has had some issues with heat

In effect, these coverage areas may be no bigger than an intersection, so think of it as a souped-up Wi-Fi hotspot. One solution is to string more cellular radios, but in many places, that isn't an option.

Low band: Lots of range, but lower speeds

Low-band 5G is what T-Mobile is launching on Dec. 6. While faster than 4G LTE, it won't offer the same crazy speeds that higher-frequency technologies like millimeter wave can provide. The good news, however, is that this network functions similarly to 4G networks in terms of coverage, allowing it to blanket large areas with service. It should also work fine indoors. 

Now playing: Watch this: 5G made simple

T-Mobile plans to cover 200 million people with its December launch, while AT&T plans to launch its own low-band 5G network on its wider-ranging spectrum in 2019 before expanding it nationwide in the "first half of 2020." Verizon similarly plans to cover half the US with 5G across multiple bands next year

Midband: The middle ground of speed and coverage

Sprint 5G

The V50 ThinQ is LG and Sprint's first 5G phone.

Lynn La/CNET

In between the two, midband is the middle area of 5G: faster than the low band, but with more coverage than millimeter wave. This is the technology behind Sprint's early 5G rollout and one of the key reasons T-Mobile says it wants to purchase the struggling carrier. By acquiring Sprint, T-Mobile says that it will be able to offer a network featuring all three flavors of 5G.  w

While T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon have low-band spectrum, midband has been used by the military, making it a scarce resource despite its cellular benefits.

But that could soon change. An upcoming midband FCC auction next year, the first time a significant amount of the spectrum will become available for commercial use, is expected to garner interest from AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. 

It's important to note that no one band of spectrum is inherently better or worse than another. The carriers are hoping to incorporate all three types of spectrum for a more comprehensive network. 

Three flavors, plenty of different names

As you'd expect in an industry used to blanketing the airwaves with commercials, there are several different ways carriers are referring to the different flavors of 5G. 

AT&T is the worst offender, with three flavors: 5GE, 5G and 5G Plus.


AT&T will use a 5G Plus indicator for its millimeter-wave 5G network. 

Logan Moy/CNET

5GE, short for 5G Evolution, isn't actually 5G, so no, your iPhone 11 ($699 at Amazon), Galaxy S10 or Pixel 4 that shows 5GE isn't compatible with the new next-generation network. 

The regular "5G," meanwhile, is real 5G but only on the midband and low-band flavors. The use of "5G Plus" will be for the carriers' millimeter-wave service. 

Verizon calls its current millimeter-wave 5G network "5G Ultra Wideband" or "5G UWB." While it's not as complicated as AT&T's approach, it could run into some confusion thanks to Apple's embrace of the similarly named Ultra Wideband technology in the iPhone 11 Pro and Pro Max. Unlike Verizon's UWB, Apple's version isn't related to cellular, but is a technology used to track find other similarly equipped devices. Apple's version of UWB is rumored to run its long-awaited tracking system

Sprint, which only offers the midband 5G flavor, calls its network True Mobile 5G

T-Mobile, which will have two flavors live after the low-band network is turned on in early December, will keep one name: 5G


T-Mobile's 5G icon.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

"Our customers will see a simple 5G icon when connecting to the next-generation wireless network, regardless of which spectrum they're using," said a T-Mobile spokesman. 

With the expansion of 5G expected to ramp up in 2020 and beyond, here's hoping the new year brings some new clarity.