5G is here.
Well, at least in a few places in the US. The network of the future has started rolling out in the United States and across the globe across various carriers and starting in the first half of 2019, users can get a taste of what 5G really means. And that's much, much faster download and upload speeds, lower latency, and all the benefits that come with it.
But how does the 5G network work? What bands does it use? And how do these bands affect coverage?
The underlying blocks of the 5G network are the frequency waves that the network uses to push all of that information over the air. In the case of this new network, we have what is called 5G NR, or 5G New Radio, the name for the global standard for the network interface.
5G NR bands
FR1 bands include bands not too far away from LTE bands, but FR2 is what the US has chosen
5G NR can be roughly divided in two very different types of frequency ranges. You have frequency range 1 (FR1) that includes sub-6GHz frequency bands, which are not that far from the 2-3GHz bands used by current 4G LTE networks; and then you have frequency range 2 (FR2) that uses frequency bands above the 24GHz range and further into the extremely high range often referred to as millimeter wave range (mmWave). Put simply, FR1 are bands that can travel further and can be used for wider roll-out of the 5G network. FR2 bands, on the other hand, are extremely challenging: these bands provide immense amounts of bandwidth, but cannot travel far and hardly go through obstacles like walls.
Verizon 5G bands
28GHz frequency range
Verizon's 5G network is based on the 28GHz and 39GHz bands, both high-frequency band in the millimeter wave (mmWave) range. Verizon holds 76 percent of the available 28GHz band and 46 percent of the available 39GHz band.
Verizon has also won an auction for 28GHz bands in late May 2019. The carrier topped other bidders in the auction, with winning bids of a total of $505.7 million. Keep in mind that prior to that Verizon also had a big chunk of 28GHz spectrum.
AT&T 5G bands
AT&T has done a great job at confusing users by labeling 4G technology as 5G Evolution. This is not true 5G and instead what AT&T has done is that it has upgraded its cell towers and added new small cells that use LTE Advanced with technologies such 3-way carrier aggregation, 4x4 MIMO and 256-QAM modulation. These technologies have allowed for improved speeds with theoretical peaks of up to 400Mbps. Great for users, but still not quite fast enough to qualify as true 5G.
AT&T's real 5G network is only getting started and since it uses high-frequency bands coverage will be limited to “pockets of dense areas” within cities. AT&T is currently rolling out a 5G network based on its 39GHz band (band n260).
In late May 2019, AT&T won big in an FCC auction for 24GHz spectrum. AT&T's bids amounted to a total of $982.5 million for 831 licenses in 383 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) for 24GHz spectrum. This should cover most of the US, as the FCC divides the country into 416 PEAs. AT&T will use this newly acquired spectrum for its true 5G network.
Sprint 5G bands
Sprint is using band 41 for its 5G roll-out and it is currently the only US carrier that does not use a high-frequency band, but is instead using a mid-frequency band for its 5G service.
Band 41 has a huge scope of 194MHz and it operates between 2,496MHz and 2,690MHz. The network technology that Sprint uses is TDD, short for time division duplex, which uses a single frequency band to send and receive transmissions. Contrast this with Frequency Division Duplex (FDD) used by some others where you have separate wireless channels on separate frequencies, a channel to transmit and another one to receive.
Sprint is upgrading its existing towers to support 800MHz, 1.9GHz and 2.5GHz. The lower-frequency 800MHz signal provides coverage to a wider area and is better able to penetrate walls and deliver connectivity inside buildings, while the 2.5GHz is responsible for those ultra-fast transfer speeds characteristic for 5G.
"Sprint is one of the only operators in the world with enough capacity to operate LTE and 5G simultaneously using Massive MIMO and huge channels of 100-200MHz of licensed spectrum. We can deploy this in the top markets across the country and that’s a powerful differentiator for Sprint,"according to Sprint CTO John Saw.
T-Mobile 5G bands
Coverage comes first
Don't forget that T-Mobile and Sprint are in the process of a merger, which defines the 5G plans for both companies.
T-Mobile is different from other carriers in the US as it aims to provide 5G wireless connectivity across the nation and not just in a few spots in the major cities.For this, T-Mobile is using its 600MHz spectrum on LTE Band 71, which was formerly used by channels 38 to 51 on UHF-based TVs. These are low-frequency signals that easily travel far and wide, unlike mmWave.
T-Mobile is also planning to use higher-frequency bands similar to what AT&T and Verizon use. Magenta plans to use the 28GHz and 39GHz bands for high-speed 5G transmissions.
USA vs World
As you can see, there is one big difference between the big four US carriers and carriers everywhere outside the United States: three of the four major US carriers (all except Sprint) use FR2 bands, the higher frequency 5G NR bands that deliver amazing speeds, but only to a very small area.
In stark contrast, European countries have all placed their bets on FR1 bands. This has allowed many of those countries to have meaningful coverage far exceeding that in the US from the very launch of the service in the first half of 2019. Using FR1 bands will also allow some European countries like Switzerland and Austria to have a full, nation-wide 5G coverage by the end of 2019, something that will be simply impossible to achieve if US carriers stick to FR2 bands only.
What is particularly interesting about the US situation is that 5G frequency auctions have just finished and we have seen Verizon and AT&T gobble up huge amounts of capacity, but all of them in high-frequency segment and non in the FR1 spectrum. This shows that there is no sustainable plan for wide 5G coverage yet as carriers would need those FR1 bands to get coverage bigger than a couple of blocks downtown.
US Coverage Problems
mmWave bands that Verizon and AT&T use are a recipe for poor coverage disasters
To further expand upon the scant coverage of the current 5G network, you should just ask people who have actually used the network.
Philip Michaels of Tom's Guide flew to Chicago to test the network and here is what he found out:
US carriers' choice to use high-frequency bands is the reason. We have already seen countries that have chosen to go with FR1 bands that travel further distances have much wider 5G coverage and some like Switzerland and Austria for example plan to have a nationwide 5G coverage by the end of 2019.
T-Mobile chief technology officer Neville Ray said that millimeter-wave spectrum "doesn't penetrate walls [and] windows very well" and that it won't work well when you're "more than 500, 600 feet away from a small cell. It's way, way more economic to deploy mid-band 5G spectrum on the existing cell grid than it is to try and deploy literally hundreds and hundreds of thousands of millimeter-wave small cells to give you some form of contiguous coverage and experience."
Phones with 5G support
The first 5G phones started arriving in the first half of 2019, and while we have quite a few models even now, most of these phones cost $200 to $300 more than already expensive, $1,000 flagship phones.
The very first and actually the most affordable phone to support the new technology was the Moto Z3 that was launched on August 16th. The phone itself does not hava 5G modem, but you can add 5G connectivity via a Moto Mod, a bulky, $350 snap-on piece that works with Verizon's 5G network only.
Phones that come with 5G without the need for any additional mods include the following:
-Samsung Galaxy S10 5G
-LG V50 ThinQ
-OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
-Oppo Reno 5G
Benefits of 5G over previous technologies
5G is not just a slight evolution, it offers significantly faster speeds for both uploads and downloads, theoretically as much as 20 times faster.
Right now, with very few users on the 5G networks, you can get some truly mind-boggling speeds: Verizon's network in Chicago can return download speeds of 1.3Gbps, faster than the nearly 500Mbps peak download speeds you get on Sprint (but Sprint has a wider and more stable coverage).
The other advantage of 5G would be the better management of voice traffic, which means more devices will be able to connect with every single tower, no call drops and significantly higher call quality.
As 5G becomes ubiquitous it will usher the advent of connected gadgets now that you have sufficient bandwidth and lower latencies. 5G is also often quoted as one of the key technology required for connected cars where every millisecond of lag matters.