5G Internet in the USA
5G Facts & Technology Overview
Key Facts and Figures
- 5G is the fifth — and newest — generation of wireless standards.
- 5G allows for speeds as fast as 20 Gbps — at least in theory.
- In practice, modern 5G networks have been able to deliver average speeds of around 50 to 70 Mbps.
- 5G infrastructure varies. Rare “high-band” 5G is the fastest, but has the shortest range, meaning it requires more towers and is tougher for providers to roll out. “Low-band” and “mid-band” 5G are more common.
- More than 90 percent of Americans have 5G coverage where they live — but you’ll need a 5G-capable device and the right provider to use it.
- Deploying 5G more widely in the U.S. — including improving and expanding infrastructure in areas that already technically have access — will cost between $130 and $150 billion.
- There are expected to be more than 3.4 billion 5G users globally by 2026. China currently has the most cities (376) with 5G availability, followed by the U.S. (285) and the Philippines (95).
What is 5G?
Fifth-generation (5G) wireless is the latest generation of mobile broadband. Just as 3G allowed the introduction of smartphones and 4G LTE made streaming, mobile video calls, and services like ride-sharing possible, 5G is creating a new world of possibilities. However, we often don’t see the improvements providers promise until years after the release of new technology.
The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), a joint telecommunications standard development organization, released 5G in 2018, but it wasn’t until 2020 that we saw the first 5G-enabled iPhones and Androids. Like fiber for home internet, 5G’s introduction promises huge changes that we have yet to see on a grand scale. For now, the exciting world of 5G is limited to areas with proper 5G infrastructure.
Did You Know?
5G is widely available in the U.S., but there are a couple of catches. First, common “low-band” 5G connections are not the most powerful type of 5G. Second, networks are still scaling up their infrastructure. In other words, 90 percent of Americans could get 5G, but if all of us actually signed up, the networks would be overloaded and slow down!
The technical improvements 5G calls for are already having profound impacts on the existing networks here in the U.S. and beyond. At least 90 percent of Americans have access to “low-band” 5G, a type of 5G with average download speeds between 70-200+ Mbps (more on “low-band” 5G and other types of 5G in a moment). At those speeds, 5G is just as fast as some home internet providers — and, as a matter of fact, 5G is blurring the line between residential and mobile broadband in areas underserved by traditional wired providers. Using the same technology as mobile services, 5G home internet plans can deliver speeds like the ones mentioned above to home internet customers that lack access to cable or fiber alternatives.
How Fast Is 5G?
5G is fast, but just how fast depends on what you’re counting. Others often report 5G is 100x faster than 4G LTE — up to 10 Gbps — but that’s only part of the truth.
In reality, there are two sets of numbers to consider. First is the figure in the 5G standard itself, which says that 5G speeds should reach download speeds of up to 20 Gbps and upload speeds of up to 10 Gbps, with latency as low as 1-4 ms. But what really matters to consumers is how fast 5G will be for them — and that number can vary. Not all 5G is the same. 5G speeds vary by use case and the “type of 5G” available in a given area.
While 5G speeds can vary, one thing is for sure: 5G is generally quite fast, and it’s certainly much faster than 4G. In fact, 5G is even faster than some home internet options — which is why it’s more than just a mobile phenomenon.
Remember, 5G is a standard — a set of rules and requirements. All 5G networks have to meet the same standards in order to be considered “5G,” but that doesn’t mean they’ll all be exactly the same. Some networks will be faster and more robust than others.
5G Home Internet
Like 4G and 3G before it, 5G was developed as a mobile standard. But “mobile” just refers to how we’ve typically used these technologies, and that’s not set in stone. In fact, wireless “mobile” networks have been used as home internet solutions for longer than 5G has been around. This type of internet is called “fixed wireless,” and it is essentially just a hotspot for a home. It’s a solution that offers coverage to areas without fiber, cable, or DSL infrastructure, but the downside has always been speed. Fixed wireless is slow — or, at least, it used to be. 5G is changing that.
With 5G, wireless home internet is a much more appealing idea in rural areas. It can even compete with other types of internet infrastructure in urban and suburban areas. 5G home internet is capable of broadband speeds, and (at least in theory) could one day outrace cable, DSL, and even some fiber options.
5G home internet also happens to be very affordable. T-Mobile’s 5G home plan currently costs just $50 per month. Verizon is offering similar rates. At those prices, 5G has the potential to change the world of home internet just as surely as it is changing the world of mobile networks.
The downside? For now, 5G home internet is available to a relatively small portion of the population. While nine in 10 Americans have access to some form of 5G mobile coverage, only one in 10 Americans can sign up for 5G home internet: T-Mobile, Verizon, and other providers are still in the process of rolling out their products to customers. Greater access will come with time.
5G is susceptible to network congestion in the same way cable internet is — speeds will slow down as more people get online. On top of that, 5G uses a spectrum with coverage that cannot reach as far as previous generations. Network densification, the formal term for adding new cell sites, is necessary to make 5G a reliable option for home internet and for us to see how fast 5G truly is.
Types of 5G explained
The different types of 5G are split into three distinct frequency bands, each having its own speed and coverage limitations. This is to ensure that 5G is deployable across a wide range of geographic areas.
Low-band 5G has the most extensive reach in terms of coverage area, which limits its maximum speed. Some don’t consider low-band 5G as real 5G because it is mainly an enhancement to current 4G LTE networks and only offers speeds up to 300 Mbps. AT&T’s 5GE is a perfect example.
AT&T’s initial rollout of 5G was advertised as 5GE, although it was just a symbol to show when a subscriber was in an area with an upgraded LTE network. AT&T discontinued the 5GE symbol to curb confusion but was right in calling it 5G. Low-band 5G uses the same spectrum as 4G LTE, allowing users with LTE-enabled devices to connect to networks with faster speed.
- Frequency range: 2.3-4.7 GHz
- Speed: up to 1 Gbps
- Coverage area: up to 10 miles
Mid-band 5G is by far the most common type of 5G across the globe as most mobile providers introduced their 5G services using mid-band spectrum. The band offers an effective middle ground between high speeds and a high range of services, and makes up the vast majority of 5G networks across most of the developed world.
Mid-band 5G builds on top of low-band spectrums, allowing faster speeds to more users per square foot of land area. Mid-band 5G also supports high-band spectrums by providing a foundation that ensures consistent high speeds for thousands of users and devices in densely populated areas.
The GSM Association (GSMA), an organization representing mobile network operators globally, estimates mid-band 5G expansion using 2 GHz spectrum will cost $782 million to $5.8 billion per city. Still, mid-band 5G spectrum is required to meet the goal of providing minimum 5G download speeds of 100 Mbps.
The FCC’s latest auction awarded major mobile providers AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile C-band (mid-band) spectrum with the ability to reach 250 million people by 2024. T-Mobile currently has the widest mid-band 5G coverage; its service reaches 200 million people and delivers download speeds that, according to the company, average roughly 300 Mbps. (Not all of T-Mobile’s 5G coverage is mid-band, so network-wide averages aren’t as high as this mid-band-only figure.)
Mid-band 5G has the theoretical ability to deliver speeds of up to 1 Gbps, but that speed isn’t typical right now. According to RootMetrics, T-Mobile is the only provider with average download speeds that exceed 200 Mbps.
- Frequency range: 23-47 GHz
- Speed: up to 4 Gbps
- Coverage area: less than 0.6 miles
High-band 5G utilizes extremely high-frequency waves known as millimeter waves, or mmWave. Due to its limited reach, sometimes reaching no further than one mile, and susceptibility to interference, high-band 5G has limited availability, leaving it best suited to dense urban environments with high population concentrations. AT&T’s 5G+, for example, uses mmWave in 42 cities and 26 venues, such as conventions centers, stadiums, and more, across the U.S.
Despite its limited availability, mmWave technology gives mobile broadband and fixed wireless internet users the ability to reach download speeds exceeding 1 Gbps. Currently, Verizon offers the fastest average download mmWave speed, reaching almost 700 Mbps. As with other types of 5G, the theoretical speed limit remains much higher than current commercial offerings.
Reaching top mmWave speeds requires a strong network and an advanced 5G capable device. Most cellular devices released in 2020 are mmWave-enabled thanks to Qualcomm’s Snapdragon platform, but many laptops, consoles, and smart devices we possess can only connect to sub-6 GHz (or “mid-band”) 5G. We expect to see more computers and laptops with mmWave connectivity in 2022 as Intel, which powers the connectivity for most computers and laptops, and its partner MediaTek recently introduced their first chip with mmWave support.
5G Is Advancing the Way We Use the Internet
Enhanced Mobile Broadband (eMBB)
Each type of 5G enables new ways we can use the internet. High-band 5G is required for eMBB, which we currently use to get faster service on our cell phones and fixed wireless internet.
Mobile broadband networks power fixed wireless internet; with 5G, it’s known as 5G fixed wireless access (FWA). The increase in network capacity 5G allows, which is 100x greater than LTE networks, makes it possible for fixed wireless providers to now meet the demands for a faster, more reliable internet connection in areas affected by the digital divide, like rural America, and even major cities and suburbs needing lower-priced broadband internet. Over 400 mobile providers offer 5G home internet (or fixed wireless powered by eMBB).
Ultra Reliable Low Latency Communication (URLLC)
Technological advancements we see in sci-fi movies, such as autonomous vehicles and industrial machines, are now possible with mid-band 5G powering URLLC. URLLC is dedicated to mission-critical and Internet of Things (IoT) applications requiring immediate responses, like first responders, law enforcement, and public services. The first public URLLC network, FirstNet, serves these organizations using AT&T’s mid-band 5G, by offering a cloud-based control center with faster connectivity to each device and user in their network.
Massive Machine-Type Communication (mMTC)
Low-band 5G powers mMTC, sometimes called massive machine communication (MMC). mMTC is just as the name calls, machine to machine communication, typically in cases that are not highly dependent on low latency and need wide coverage area. The idea is to use data and technology to increase efficiencies in our everyday lives. Smart cities and intelligent agriculture are common examples of mMTC in use.
Machine to machine communication is made possible by the sensors, data collection, and communication capabilities embedded in IoT solutions, or devices like smart home products and body sensors (think medical alert sensors and smartwatches). These devices transmit small amounts of data compared to eMBB and URLLC use cases.
The Future of 5G
What Is 5G Advanced?
As with each release (the 3GPP has a “release” series to outline the progress and expectations of mobile network advancements), the next 5G release, Release 18, is set to improve current networks, particularly for eMBB use cases, while allowing new capabilities.
The next step in 5G’s rollout aims to leverage artificial intelligence to improve machine learning techniques, which would improve mMTC. Imagine a more immersive virtual gaming experience capable of using body monitoring sensors to alter your experience. That’s something that 5G could soon make a reality. 5G Advanced is essential for the success of Facebook’s Metaverse and other extended reality (XR) applications.
XR is a term used to refer to the various technologies that alter our reality, such as AR, VR, and MR. Augmented reality (AR) adds digital elements to live view and is mostly seen in gaming and social media features (think Pokemon Go). Virtual reality (VR), on the other hand, means that users are fully immersed in a digital environment. Mixed reality (MR) combines elements of AR and VR, making it possible for users to interact with AR projections. For example, Microsoft’s Hololens allows medical students to not only study anatomy by projecting a body, but also gives the sense of a hands-on experience by allowing students to pull the body apart (or manipulate the projection).
Proposals for the specifications for 5G Advanced identify primarily on improving antennas systems, which is necessary to ensure 5G networks maintain consistent speeds and low latency at a higher network capacity. Previous and current deployments of 5G increase network capacity to 100x the size of 4G LTE networks. While it’s difficult to specify the exact number of devices that can connect simultaneously, 5G Advanced is expected to make services like drone delivery an everyday possibility.
Reducing network energy consumption is also a main focus with Release 18. 5G requires far more cell towers than previous generations and more processing power from our devices, causing an increase in the mobile broadband industry’s carbon footprint.