iPhone Life Magazine
5G Explained-When, Where & How Fast?
U nless you've been living under a rock, you will have by now heard the term 5G. You may have seen in the news that some conspiracy theorists thought it was spreading COVID-19, or perhaps you've heard of it in the context of Apple's new iPhone 12 series with 5G capabilities. Apple sure made a big deal of 5G, but why? Everybody is happier with faster downloads, but there is much more to it than just that.
Simply put, 5G is the next generation of internet and voice technology for cellphones. Every few years as technology evolves, a new standard is required. The main pressures driving the need for this are increasing demands for high-speed data and the rapidly increasing number of connected devices. 5G promises to address those two needs: faster connections with better video communication and more connected devices, including cars, thermostats, and much more.
5G VERSUS 4G: FIRST STEPS
5G isn't an acronym, but the name of a technical standard—a sort of technology treaty. The standard establishes what portion of radio bandwidth the technology will utilize and settles important decisions about how the technology must work in order for the networks to all talk to each other.
5G's first promise is speed, but how much faster is it?
Tom's Guide did a simple speed comparison between 4G and 5G networks and found that, advertising hyperbole aside, data download speeds on Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile 5G networks were roughly double what they were on 4G (about 70 megabits per second as opposed to 35 Mbps). Verizon's 5G network performed much better, delivering an average of almost fourteen times the 4G transfer speeds.
So 5G already delivers its speed increase, but these are average transfer speeds with current technology. The real benefit can't be captured by so simple a comparison. Though all 5G should be faster than 4G, how much faster will vary significantly depending on where you are. This is in part because 5G greatly expands the range of radio frequencies that a device might use to communicate. For consumers to make the best use of this and avoid frustrations, we'll need to understand a little of what the expanded radio range means.
5G SPEEDS: LOW, MEDIUM & SOMETIMES EVEN HIGH BANDS
All cellphones use radio waves to communicate, just like FM radio and your local Wi-Fi network. FM radio broadcasts at the low end of the spectrum, then up from that comes cellphones, Wi-Fi, then satellite TV. The higher frequencies can carry more data—providing higher speeds—but over shorter distances and with a harder time penetrating walls or other cover. For example, satellite TV is broadcast in the 10 GHz range, and it can transmit a tremendous amount of data very quickly—hundreds of channels of television—but the broadcast cannot penetrate the walls of your house, so you have to install a dish antenna outside your walls. Wi-Fi, which is a little lower on the spectrum, can get through walls a little better and carries less data. 3G and 4G cellphones typically transmit all the way down in the 800–2,300 MHz range depending on their carrier network. At this range, buildings and walls aren't a big barrier.
With their 5G networks, carriers are using frequencies from 600 MHz all the way up to 39 GHz—a massive increase in total range! Though this range is vast, no device uses the whole range at once. Instead, they use whatever band is available in the area: according to the legal requirements of the region and the technical implementation of the carrier. To simplify the matter, 5G is divided into three ranges, called high, medium, and low.
Low band 5G, indicated on your iPhone 12 or later by the simple 5G symbol at the top right, works in the same ranges as older cell service standards. The low band has the main advantage that it can communicate at the greatest distance from the cell tower, meaning that it can provide base-level coverage in rural areas. Low band 5G is still likely to be better than existing 3G or 4G in those regions, because the new standard requires upgraded transmission technologies. Low band 5G is already available in many cities as of this writing in December 2020.
Medium band 5G, which Apple indicates with the 5G+ symbol, has a range of a few miles from the cell tower, which means it will be available in towns and cities. Venturebeat reports that download speeds for mid-range 5G varied wildly from 100 up to 900 Mbps depending on where you live. This mid-range band is very roughly the same portion of the radio spectrum used by Wi-Fi.
The very high download speeds of 4 Gbps that Apple promises are found only when using high band 5G, and only in optimal circumstances. Think of a satellite dish with a clear view of the sky. High band 5G is also very short range—with waves reaching less than a mile from the cell tower. With such short ranges and such strong interference from buildings, the
“THOUGH ALL 5G SHOULD BE
FASTER THAN 4G, HOW MUCH FASTER WILL VARY SIGNIFICANTLY DEPENDING ON WHERE YOU ARE.”