5G: From Galaxy S21 to new apps, here's what you need to know

With all the marquee phones in the industry getting 5G, the next-generation wireless technology has hit mainstream. This is what it means for you.

Roger Cheng Former Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
Expertise Mobile | 5G | Big Tech | Social Media Credentials
  • SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
Roger Cheng
13 min read

Smartphone companies like Samsung are going big into 5G.

Chris Monroe/CNET

After years of hype and a bumpy first year of launches, carrier 5G networks are here and, most importantly, 5G-compatible phones like the iPhone 12 and Pixel 5. (Samsung's next expected flagship phone, the Galaxy S21, will likely feature 5G too.) The technology is supposed to change your life with its revolutionary speed and responsiveness. But before we get into that, it's important to understand what it is, when and how it will affect you, and how to distinguish between (the still growing) hype and the reality. 

In 2019, CNET held a massive speed test of 5G networks around the world, spanning from Chicago to London to Sydney to Seoul. The results were a mix of ludicrous speeds, but limited range and spotty coverage. Conversely, you would see wider coverage with a modest bump in speed. You also saw devices like the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G roll out. The early generation of 5G phones boasted impressive speeds at times, but we cautioned against buying them because of compatibility issues and other problems that arise with new technology. 

Just like with everything else, you have to give 5G some time to mature. 

And over the course of 2020, things have gotten much better. Carriers continue to expand 5G coverage into more cities, and new devices compatible with multiple networks are coming out, with AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon all now announcing nationwide coverage. But just how quickly that life-changing aspect of 5G will arrive remains up in the air. That's exacerbated by the novel coronavirus, which has locked down millions around the world, slowing down the 5G rollout and dampening consumer enthusiasm for pricey new devices, even with those stimulus checks

All this means 5G is advancing from years of promises -- ever since Verizon talked about moving into the area four and a half years ago to AT&T kicking off the first official mobile network at the end of 2018 and T-Mobile going nationwide in December -- to becoming reality for more consumers. Beyond a big speed boost, 5G has been referred to as foundational tech that'll supercharge areas like self-driving cars, virtual and augmented reality and telemedicine services such as remote surgery. It will eventually connect everything from farming equipment to security cameras and, of course, your smartphone. 

But what exactly is 5G? Why are people so excited? The following is a breakdown of why the next generation of wireless technology is more than just a boost in speed. (If you're really interested, check out our glossary of 5G terms.)

What is 5G?

It's the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology, and it promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking? Carriers like Verizon and AT&T have shown speeds surging past 1 gigabit per second.

That's 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection, and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (In optimal conditions, you'll be able to download a season's worth of Stranger Things in seconds.)

Is it just about speed?

No! One of the key benefits is something called low latency. You'll hear this term a lot. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, which sends the request up to the network, and when the network responds, delivering you the website or playing your video.

That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. It doesn't seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash on a normal camera

That responsiveness is critical for things like playing an intense video game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco. You know that little lag when you're on a Zoom video conference call? 5G will help eliminate some of those awkward, "Sorry, you go ahead" moments after people talk over each other. That lag time won't completely go away, especially if you're communicating with someone halfway around the world. The distance matters, since that info still has to travel there and back. 

But a virtually lag-free connection means self-driving cars have a way to communicate with each other in real time -- assuming there's enough 5G coverage to connect those vehicles. 

We're not quite there yet with existing 5G networks, but the industry is working to trim down that latency so those hypotheticals become reality.

Are there other benefits?

A 5G network is designed to connect a far greater number of devices than a traditional cellular network does. That internet of things trend you keep hearing about? 5G can power multiple devices around you, whether it's a dog collar or a refrigerator. 

In addition, the 5G network was built to handle gear used by businesses, such as farm equipment or ATMs, and can adjust for differing needs. For example, some products like sensors for farming equipment don't need a constant connection. Those kinds of low-power scanners are intended to work on the same battery for 10 years and still be able to periodically send data.

What 5G can do for you besides fast phone downloads

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Will it cost more?

Verizon requires its customers to sign up for one of its newest plans, and to get access to the fastest flavor of 5G, you'll need to get one of its top two most expensive plans (out of a total of four).

AT&T likewise requires that you sign up for one of its premium tiers of unlimited data plans. 

"5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing," AT&T said. "We expect pricing to be at a premium to what we charge today."

But Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications, which is the wireless, broadband and subscription video services arm of the telecom and media giant, teased that more affordable 5G is coming. 

"You should not assume that 5G is an exclusive capability for the most expensive handsets and found only in the most expensive rate plans," he said in an interview in May. "The speed at which the technology is beginning to make its way into the network is unparalleled."

There's precedent for holding the line on pricing: LTE didn't cost any more when it first came out; you just needed to buy a new phone. But pricing models do change over time. Since 4G launched, carriers have both taken away unlimited plans and brought them back. 

Verizon's home broadband service costs $50 for wireless subscribers, and $70 for everyone else. Those are in line with other broadband costs. (You can find out if you're eligible for the service here.)

T-Mobile, for its part, throws 5G into all of its plans, including grandfathered Sprint plans.

(Here's a breakdown of the carrier plans you need for 5G.) 

How does it work?

In the US, 5G initially used super high-frequency spectrum, which has shorter range but higher capacity, to deliver a massive pipe for online access. Think of it as a glorified Wi-Fi hotspot. 

But given the range and interference issues, the carriers are also using lower-frequency spectrum -- the type used in today's networks -- to help ferry 5G across greater distances and through walls and other obstructions. 

At the end of 2019, launched a nationwide network using even lower-frequency spectrum, which can spread further. T-Mobile is now using Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum to add more speed to its network. AT&T also launched nationwide coverage in July. Verizon followed on in October, in time for the iPhone 12 launch. 

The result is that the insane speeds companies first promised won't always be there, but we'll still see a boost beyond what we get today with  4G LTE

Wait, so there are different flavors of 5G?

At the risk of complicating things further, yes. That low-band spectrum -- the type used in 3G and 4G networks -- is what gives carriers a wide range of coverage. But the speeds are only marginally better than 4G. In some cases, they're almost the same. But that wide range is key for covering as many people as possible. 

The opposite end of the scale is the super high-frequency band, known as millimeter-wave spectrum, that carriers like Verizon rolled out early on. You get tremendous speeds, but the range is short and it has trouble penetrating windows and walls. 

Then there's midband spectrum like Sprint's 2.5 GHz swath. Around the world, it's the most commonly used type of spectrum since it offers the best mix of speed and and range. In the US, only T-Mobile has access to this kind of spectrum for now. 

Where do these carriers get the spectrum?

Some of these carriers already control small swaths of high-frequency radio airwaves, but many will have to purchase more from the government. Carriers around the world are working with their respective governments to free up the necessary spectrum. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is holding more auctions for so-called millimeter wave and mid-band spectrum, which all the carriers are participating in.  

How did the launch go?

Between the end of 2018 through the first few months of last year, the carriers were racing to claim some sort of "first." Verizon and AT&T launched their mobile 5G networks, while KT said a robot in South Korea was its first 5G customer. Sprint turned on its network in June, followed shortly thereafter by T-Mobile. UK carrier EE was the first in its country to turn on 5G. 

Sounds great, right?

Verizon launched the first "5G" service in the world in October 2018, but it's a bit of a technicality. The service, called 5G Home, is a fixed broadband replacement, rather than a mobile service. An installer has to put in special equipment in your house or apartment that can pick up the 5G signals and turn that into a Wi-Fi connection in the home so your other devices can access it. 

There was also some debate about whether the service even qualified as 5G: It didn't use the standards the industry has agreed on. The company wanted to jump out ahead, and used its own proprietary technology. Verizon argued that the speeds, which range from 300 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, qualify the service for 5G designation. Its rivals and other mobile experts dispute that claim. 

The launch was extremely limited in select neighborhoods in Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. (Let us know if you're among the lucky few who got it.) It has since switched to industry-standard equipment. In September, Verizon expanded the home service to St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota and said it was in eight markets. Verizon Wireless CEO Ronan Dunne said he expects a big push to 5G Home in the coming months. 

At the end of December 2018, AT&T turned on its mobile 5G network in a dozen cities and more specifically in "dense urban and high-traffic areas." Take note, Verizon: AT&T boasted that it's the "first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network." But access to these networks were initially limited to preferred business customers, and consumers weren't able to access this super-fast service for all of 2019.

Where is 5G available?

This is pretty complicated question depending on your carrier, region and what specific flavor of 5G you're talking about. 

A lot of countries have been using that midband spectrum, with its nice mix of range and speed, and coverage has improved steadily since the launch -- even if there are plenty of dead spots still. But in the US, the picture is more fragmented. 

All three carriers in the US claim nationwide coverage, but they use that lower-frequency spectrum that often looks a lot like a glorified 4G signal. At launch, T-Mobile said people could expect a speed bump of about 20 percent over 4G, which for many consumers isn't fast enough to be noticeable. 

AT&T also has a low-band network. The company said in June that it covers 355 markets with its broader ranging 5G, which like T-Mobile's network, is only incrementally faster than 4G. 

Verizon said it is using spectrum from its existing 4G network to power a the more wide-ranging 5G network. It's using a technology called Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (think of rerouting the faster lanes of a freeway between 4G and 5G on the fly) to power this move. 

When it comes to that super-fast millimeter wave flavor, Verizon is the main standard bearer. The company's so-called 5G UW is in more than 60 markets. 

AT&T says its millimeter wave network is in parts of 36 cities. 

T-Mobile said it has its millimeter wave network in parts of six cities, including New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. The company also has the advantage of absorbing the midband spectrum that Sprint was using to power its own 5G network. That spectrum covers 410 cities and towns in the US

What about that home broadband service?

Verizon's 5G Home service, which initially launched using proprietary technology, is not utilizing industry-standard 5G, which has resulted in broader availability and higher speeds. But the service is still limited to six cities. In late June, Houston got an upgrade to the industry-standard 5G, resulting in better service. The company says it plans to have 10 total markets with 5G Home. 

T-Mobile, meanwhile, has talked about the opportunity to offer 5G service as a replacement for broadband, but has offered little details. 

What about this 5G E thing from AT&T?

Sorry, but that's more marketing fluff. AT&T's 5G E stands for 5G Evolution, or its upgraded 4G LTE network that has a path to real 5G. 

But the designation, which showed up on phones in early 2019, has caused some consumer confusion, with some thinking they already have 5G. To be clear, it's not, with many bashing AT&T for misleading customers. Sprint filed a lawsuit against AT&T, which, according to an AT&T spokesperson, the companies "amicably settled." The National Advertising Review Board has recommended that AT&T stopping using the term in its marketing, although the icon on your AT&T phone remains. 

AT&T has said it's "proud" that it went with the 5G E name. 

5G E does bring higher speeds, but not the kind of true benefits real 5G would bring. 

What about all the other 5G names?

Yeah, it's super confusing. Beyond the fake 5G E name, there are legit labels like Verizon's 5G UW (for Ultra Wideband), which signals the fastest flavor of 5G (using millimeter wave). AT&T is calling its super-fast next-generation network 5G Plus, while using 5G as a label for the service running on lower frequency spectrum. 

Here's a rundown of all the different marketing labels applied to 5G

Can I pick up 5G with my existing smartphone?

Sorry, no. 5G technology requires a specific set of antennas to tap into specific bands. Last year's Samsung Galaxy S10 5G is tuned for Verizon's network and its millimeter wave spectrum. This year's Samsung Galaxy S20 5G is compatible with more networks, but there's still a specific variant for Verizon that taps into its "UW" network. 

Most of the early 2019 phones used Qualcomm's X50 modem, which is designed specifically to tap into specific 5G bands. Phones launching this year will use a second-generation chip that picks up more spectrum bands. 

There have been a huge proliferation of 5G phones, even if they're largely still premium devices, and the phones are able to ride on different networks. 

From Apple to Samsung: 5G phones available right now

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Are all the phones premium devices?

Mostly, but tha'ts changing. But the industry is working hard to drive down the prices. AT&T's McElfresh said he was working to get phone prices down so they're more accessible. 

And Verizon Wireless CEO Dunne teased a $400 device by the end of 2020. That turned out to be the TCL 10 5G. In January, T-Mobile launched the OnePlus Nord N10 5G for $300. 

Here's what needs to happen before the industry can bring affordable 5G to the masses.

Anything I should worry about?

High-frequency spectrum is the key to that massive pickup in capacity and speed, but there are drawbacks. The range isn't great, especially when you have obstructions such as trees or buildings. As a result, carriers will have to deploy a lot more small cellular radios, creatively named small cells, around any areas that get a 5G signal. 

That's going to annoy anyone who doesn't want cellular radios near them. 

How will the carriers get 5G to more people?

T-Mobile and AT&T are utilizing its lower bandwidth spectrum to get 5G into more areas. Verizon lacks that lower bandwidth, so it's using a technology called Dynamic Spectrum Sharing that allows it to use its existing spectrum for its 4G networks to also power 5G. AT&T is likewise testing this

What about health risks?

There have long been lingering concerns that cellular signals may cause cancer. Unfortunately, there haven't been a lot of studies to conclusively prove or disprove a health risk. 

That opens the door to concerns about 5G. While some of those networks will run at super-high frequencies, researchers note that it still falls under the category of radiation that isn't supposed to be harmful to our cells

Critics say there isn't enough research into this issue and that the studies that have been conducted weren't adequate. The World Health Organization lists cellular signals as a potential carcinogen. But it also lists pickled vegetables and coffee as carcinogens. 

Still, it's something people are worried about. 

What does 5G have to do with COVID-19?

Nothing. There's a conspiracy theory going around, propelled by YouTube videos and articles pushing the idea that the super-high frequencies used in 5G networks are contributing to, or even causing, the coronavirus. That is categorically untrue, with scientists and doctors lining up to squash this idea. 

Keep in mind that in most of the countries where COVID-19 has hit, the networks in use don't even use that millimeter wave spectrum that people are fearful of. In the US, it's only been deployed in select areas. 

We still don't know a lot about the origin of the novel coronavirus, but it's safe to say 5G didn't play a role in it.