5G initially used super high-frequency spectrum, which has shorter range but higher capacity, to deliver a massive pipe for online access. Think of it as a glorified Wi-Fi hotspot. 

How does 5G work?

But given the range and interference issues, the carriers are also using lower-frequency spectrum — the type used in today’s networks — to help ferry 5G across greater distances and through walls and other obstructions. 

Last year, Sprint (now part of T-Mobile) claimed it has the biggest 5G network because it’s using its 2.5 gigahertz band of spectrum, which offers wider coverage. But T-Mobile in December launched a nationwide network using even lower-frequency spectrum, which can spread further. T-Mobile intends to use Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum to add more speed to its network. AT&T also launched 5G with lower bands at the end of last year, and says it plans to have nationwide coverage by the end of summer. 

The result is that the insane speeds companies first promised won’t always be there, but we’ll still see a boost from what we get today with 4G LTE. 

Wait, so there are different flavors of 5G?

At the risk of complicating things further, yes. That low-band spectrum — the type used in 3G and 4G networks — is what gives carriers a wide range of coverage. But the speeds are only marginally better than 4G. In some cases, they’re almost the same. But that wide range is key for covering as many people as possible. 

Then there’s midband spectrum like Sprint’s 2.5 GHz swath. Around the world, it’s the most commonly used type of spectrum since.

Where do these carriers get the spectrum?

Some of these carriers already control small swaths of high-frequency radio airwaves, but many will have to purchase more from the government. Carriers around the world are working with their respective governments to free up the necessary spectrum. In the US, the Federal Communications Commission is holding more auctions for so-called millimeter wave spectrum, which all the carriers are participating in.

How did 5G launch?

Between the end of 2018 through the first few months of last year, the carriers were racing to claim some sort of “first.” Verizon and AT&T launched their mobile 5G networks, while KT said a robot in South Korea was its first 5G customer. Sprint turned on its network in June, followed shortly thereafter by T-Mobile. UK carrier EE was the first in its country to turn on 5G. 

How does 5G work?

Sounds great, right?

Verizon launched the first “5G” service in the world in October 2018, but it’s a bit of a technicality. The service, called 5G Home, is a fixed broadband replacement, rather than a mobile service. An installer has to put in special equipment in your house or apartment that can pick up the 5G signals and turn that into a Wi-Fi connection in the home so your other devices can access it. 

There was also some debate about whether the service even qualified as 5G: It didn’t use the standards the industry has agreed on. The company wanted to jump out ahead, and used its own proprietary technology. Verizon argued that the speeds, which range from 300 megabits per second to 1 gigabit per second, qualify the service for 5G designation. Its rivals and other mobile experts dispute that claim. 

The launch was extremely limited in select neighborhoods in Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles and Sacramento, California. (Let us know if you’re among the lucky few who got it.) In October, Verizon expanded the service to Chicago and said it had switched to using industry-standard 5G equipment. 

At the end of December 2018, AT&T turned on its mobile 5G network in a dozen cities and more specifically in “dense urban and high-traffic areas.” Take note, Verizon: AT&T boasted that it’s the “first and only company in the US to offer a mobile 5G device over a commercial, standards-based mobile 5G network.” But access to these networks were initially limited to preferred business customers, and consumers weren’t able to access this super-fast service for all of 2019.