5G wireless networks promise super-fast speeds, and they will usher in the next wave of technology.
5G is here
So when will 5G get here already?
Each of the four nationwide cell phone carriers — AT&T (T), Sprint (S), T-Mobile (TMUS) and Verizon (VZ) — is developing and testing 5G network technology. AT&T (T) deployed America’s first 5G mobile network in December.
5G network availability will increase throughout 2019 and 2020. But 5G won’t be available everywhere in the United States for at least a year or two.
Ushering in the mobile 5G era, AT&T announced in December that it turned on its next-generation network in 12 cities Jacksonville, Florida, Atlanta, Indianapolis, Louisville, Kentucky New Orleans, Charlotte, North Carolina, Raleigh, North Carolina, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Waco, Texas.
This month, AT&T announced that will turn on 5G in at least nine more cities this year. AT&T’s next 5G cities including Minneapolis, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Tennessee Orlando, Florida, San Diego, San Francisco and San Jose, California.
AT&T, which owns CNN parent company WarnerMedia, says it has clocked its network at over 400 megabits per second, which is way faster than most home broadband connections and up to 100 times faster than 4G, depending on network conditions.
The company’s 5G network is currently very limited. It can only be accessed on a specific Netgear hotspot device that converts the network’s airwaves into Wi-Fi. That allows PCs, phones, and other internet-connected gadgets to take advantage of super-fast 5G speeds — but not connect to AT&T’s 5G networks themselves.
Customers with the hotspot can access 5G in city centers, but not yet throughout each city in its entirety. That’s because AT&T’s 5G network currently uses ultra-high frequency radio waves. Those “millimeter waves” allow for super-fast speeds, but they don’t travel long distances or through walls as well as lower frequency airwaves do.
AT&T says it will deploy nationwide 5G using lower frequency airwaves in early 2020.
In the meantime, AT&T has upgraded its existing 4G network and is calling it, somewhat confusingly, “5G evolution.” The carrier updated its phones’ software last month to display a “5GE” indicator when its phones access the LTE-Advanced network. Sprint has sued AT&T for false advertising.
Sprint announced Monday that its 5G service will launch this May in four cities: Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Kansas City, Missouri. By the end of June, Sprint plans on adding Houston, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix and Washington DC.
Its coverage will vary by city. For example, Sprint’s 5G network will only cover New York’s Midtown and lower Manhattan areas. But 5G coverage in the Dallas-Fort Worth area will span 230 square miles.
Sprint is taking advantage of a massive swath of high-frequency airwaves it purchased in its Clearwire acquisition, which Sprint completed in 2013. Sprint believes that with 5G, it will finally be able to take advantage of all that Clearwire spectrum, which it has struggled to build upon in recent years.
That’s why the Clearwire spectrum is a key cog in its proposed merger with T-Mobile, which has a lot of low-frequency spectrum but not much in the higher bands.
Sprint also announced Monday that it will provide 5G to Google Fi, Google’s wireless network that seamlessly switches between Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. Sprint expects Google Fi customers to be able to access 5G networks in the first half of 2019.
T-Mobile is taking a different 5G path than its rivals. Instead of slowly rolling out 5G city by city, T-Mobile plans on turning on 5G across 30 cities in the second half of the year. That could give T-Mobile the largest 5G network in 2019.
T-Mobile’s strategy comes with advantages and disadvantages. Having the largest 5G network would be a marketing advantage as customers look to buy into the exciting technology. It’s also a less-expensive approach than deploying thousands or millions of small cells on top of lamp posts and buildings across each city.
But T-Mobile’s strategy means its 5G network will probably be slower than its rivals’ because the spectrum T-Mobile plans on using for 5G is lower frequency.
Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s chief technology officer, told CNET Monday the company would launch its 5G network in the first half of the year on higher frequency — but he doesn’t expect the first 5G smartphones will work on T-Mobile’s broader, lower spectrum initially. The company will make its big 5G push later in the year.
In October, Verizon launched America’s first 5G product: a home broadband router. The “5G Home” converts Verizon’s 5G signal to into Wi-Fi. But it’s not mobile, and it doesn’t follow the internationally recognized standard for 5G.
That will come later. Verizon plans on launching its 5G mobile network in the first half of 2019.
Verizon has jumped to the early lead in 5G smartphones: It will sell the first 5G smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G, which Samsung announced last week. The Galaxy S10 5G will come to each of the other nationwide networks later in the year.
Although the Verizon-exclusive Moto z3 smartphone has a 4G radio inside, customers will be able to connect it to Verizon’s 5G network using a snap-on modular 5G radio later this year. And Verizon also announced the new LG V50 ThinQ 5G will come to Verizon’s network this summer.
Verizon says it will expand its 5G Home and mobile network to 30 markets in the second half of the year, and it will upgrade it to the technological standard used by the rest of the 5G world later in 2019.