The marketing machine for 5G is just getting warmed up. AT&T arguably fired the first shot when it started re-labeling some of its 4G LTE service “5G Evolution,” complete with a “5G e” logo in the status bar of some phones. Soon, 5G will be everywhere you look. All four major carriers are going to spend billions of dollars hyping up “5G” and trying to convince you that, one, you need it, and two, their carrier has the best 5G.
It’s all going to be needlessly confusing, too. The carriers will bamboozle us with big bandwidth numbers, coverage maps, and confusing claims that have little to do with reality.
Here’s what you really need to know about 5G and how it’s going to impact you as an iPhone user.
What is 5G, anyway?
Simply put, 5G is the next major step in mobile wireless technology.
1G was the old analog, voice-only cellular stuff from the ‘80s.
2G gave us SMS texts and MMS pictures, and eventually (as a sort of interim step) some limited data transmission.
3G was the birth of the mobile internet. Speeds were slow, but you could load maps and webpages and make crude video calls. The original iPhone was technically a 3G device.
4G is the LTE service we have today (though some carriers tried to brand their late-stage 3G service as 4G). It has evolved and improved over the years, offering faster data speeds and better reliability. The iPhone 5 was the first to support 4G LTE, though modern iPhones support newer 4G technologies that greatly improve cellular speed and reliability.
5G is the next step, and is meant to take us through the next decade of wireless service improvements. It should offer vastly improved speed, more reliable connections, and perhaps most importantly, it’s being designed to accommodate a vastly expanded number of connected devices.
Why should I care about 5G?
In the short term, you probably shouldn’t. It’s going to take some time before 5G networks are really available everywhere and nearly any mobile device you want to use can access them.
For the most part, you can expect your first 5G phone to offer real-world download speeds ranging from a few hundred megabits per second to over a gigabit per second. Depending on your location, phone, and bunch of other variables, you can realistically expect it to be between 2 and 10 times faster than LTE service.
Over the years, as 5G networks and devices improve and include more parts of the complicated 5G specification, those speeds will go way up. Ultimately, we’ll see multi-gigabit download speeds and upload speeds over one gigabit.
5G networks also promise better management of congestion and much lower latencies (the gap in time between data leaving your device and reaching its destination). It should feel a lot more like being on Wi-Fi than on a cell network.
5G speeds are going to be fast enough, with low enough latency, to serve as your home internet connection, and some providers have plans to do just that. You’d have a fixed antenna on your house or apartment and receive your home internet data transmission over the air.
That’s why 5G is important: It will eventually make it feel like being connected to a very fast Wi-Fi connection everywhere you go, and could provide some much-needed competition in residential internet access.
Isn’t 5G already available?
Yes, but not in a practical sense. All four major carriers offer mobile 5G service in a handful of cities, but that comes with a big asterisk. Even in cities where 5G is offered, it is only available in very limited areas. In some cases, it’s just a few city blocks here and there, scattered around a single downtown location.
To use the 5G network even in these very limited locations, you need a 5G phone. There are really only two on offer right now: the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, and the LG V50 THINQ. Both are extremely expensive ($1,000 or more). More phones will come over the next year or so.
It would be very generous to say that early tests of 5G networks and phones have been “a mixed bag.” Phones overheat and drop back to a 4G connection. Battery life is not as good as you’d expect from phones with such huge batteries. Service, even in the limited locations where 5G is supposed to be live, is spotty.
When will 5G really be available?
Carriers are rushing to build out 5G networks as fast as possible, and T-Mobile is desperate to merge with Sprint so they can combine their networks for better 5G coverage. But there are lots of complications getting in the way.
The really fast 5G speeds come from using high-frequency radio waves called millimeter wave, which are being used for the first time in cellular networks with 5G. Higher radio frequencies give faster speeds but also much smaller coverage from the cell transmitter. A single cell tower can cover dozens of square miles in the 700MHz radio spectrum, but will barely cover a city bock up in the millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum (above 24GHz). What’s more, higher-frequency radio waves do not easily penetrate materials: mmWave is easily blocked by trees, walls, windows, etc.
Mobile networks have to build out many thousands of new towers to give us those super-fast mmWave speeds. And all the towers, existing and new, need a lot more “backhaul” (their connection to the internet). After all, they will need to support many more devices all transferring many times more data.
All that stuff takes a lot of time. It’s a lot of construction work and tearing up streets, and that’s after dealing with local permits, easements, access rights, and so on.
Realistically, urban users won’t have reliable 5G coverage until sometime late in 2020, and it will be 2021 before coverage is really good in cities and pretty good in suburban areas. Expect it to take 3 to 4 years before 5G coverage is on par with today’s 4G coverage (and some would say that’s a very optimistic view).
The dismal selection of 5G phones will rapidly expand in 2020 and 5G will be in most high-end phones in 2021, and even more affordable models by 2022.
When will I be able to buy a 5G iPhone?
Nobody ever really knows anything about a new iPhone until Apple gets on stage in September to tell us all about it. That said, the company’s recent settlement with Qualcomm puts it back on track to have a 5G iPhone ready for the fall of 2020.
That should put it on shelves right around the time 5G network coverage gets widespread enough to make a meaningful difference in many parts of the world, including here in the U.S.
5G connectivity may be only available in Apple’s most expensive iPhone model in 2020, or may even be an optional variant of it. It will likely use Qualcomm’s X55 modem, which hasn’t been seen yet in a shipping product but will feature in a lot of Android phones throughout 2020.
If you want to buy a more affordable iPhone with 5G, you’ll probably have to wait until the fall of 2021 or even 2022.