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5G's many names explained: Don't fall for the carrier 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.

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5G explained

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

CNET

It may have taken some time, but 5G is slowly starting to build momentum in the US. All major carriers now have nationwide 5G deployments covering at least 200 million people, with T-Mobile in the lead covering over 270 million people with its low-band network at the end of 2020. Verizon ended the year with a low-band network that covered 230 million, while AT&T's version reached 225 million. 

Next-generation networks from all the major carriers are set to continue 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 are myriad 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. 

Know the three flavors

When it comes to 5G networks, 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 two years by Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, though it's most notable for being the 5G network Verizon has touted across the country

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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, outside of some 5G-equipped stadiums and arenas, these coverage areas may be no bigger than an intersection. One solution is to string more cellular radios, but in many places, that isn't an option. For now, think of it as a souped-up Wi-Fi hotspot. 

Low-band: Lots of range, but lower speeds

Low-band 5G is the foundation for all three providers' nationwide 5G offerings. While at times a bit faster than 4G LTE, these networks don'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. 

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As mentioned, T-Mobile currently blankets over 270 million people with its low-band 5G network, while Verizon reaches over 230 million and AT&T covers over 225 million people with their respective 5G networks. 

Mid-band: 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, mid-band is the middle area of 5G: faster than the low band, but with more coverage than millimeter wave. This was the technology behind Sprint's early 5G rollout and one of the key reasons T-Mobile worked so hard to purchase the struggling carrier.  

The company has worked diligently since closing the deal, quickly deploying its mid-band network across the United States. The company now covers over 100 million people with the faster service, with a goal of reaching 200 million people before the end of 2021. T-Mobile has said that it expects average download speeds over the mid-band network to be between 300 to 400Mbps, with peak speeds of 1Gbps.

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

But that could soon change. A recently concluded Federal Communications Commission auction made a lot more mid-band spectrum available for wireless carriers and all three major operators spent billions acquiring airwaves. Verizon and AT&T were the biggest spenders, and the expectation is that at least one of them should begin deploying 5G over these airwaves as soon as later this year.  

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 that is used to dominating 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.

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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 ($600 at Best Buy), Galaxy S10 or Pixel 4 that shows 5GE isn't compatible with the new next-generation network. 

The National Advertising Review Board previously called for AT&T to stop advertising that it offers "5GE." AT&T still, however, continues to use the icon on its devices. 

The regular "5G," meanwhile, is real 5G but only on the mid-band and low-band flavors. AT&T's use of "5G Plus" will be for the carrier's 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 recent iPhones. 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

In addition to the 5G UWB name, Verizon calls its low-band offering "Nationwide 5G" with devices showing a regular 5G indicator when connected to this network. 

T-Mobile, which is the only carrier currently with a large mid-band network, previously kept things simple with one name: 5G. That changed, however, late last year and it now has two names for the new wireless technology: Ultra Capacity 5G is the name for its faster mid-band and millimeter-wave networks while Extended Range 5G is the name for its low-band network. 

Thankfully even with the name change in marketing and ads, the icons on phones and devices will remain the same. "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.