But what exactly is 5G? Why are people so excited? The following is a breakdown of why the next generation of wireless technology is more than just a boost in speed. (If you’re really interested, check out our glossary of 5G terms.)
It’s the next (fifth) generation of cellular technology, and it promises to greatly enhance the speed, coverage and responsiveness of wireless networks. How fast are we talking? Carriers like Verizon and AT&T have shown speeds surging past 1 gigabit per second.
That’s 10 to 100 times speedier than your typical cellular connection, and even faster than anything you can get with a physical fiber-optic cable going into your house. (In optimal conditions, you’ll be able to download a season’s worth of Stranger Things in seconds.)
Is it just about speed?
No! One of the key benefits is something called low latency. You’ll hear this term a lot. Latency is the response time between when you click on a link or start streaming a video on your phone, which sends the request up to the network, and when the network responds, delivering you the website or playing your video.
That lag time can last around 20 milliseconds with current networks. It doesn’t seem like much, but with 5G, that latency gets reduced to as little as 1 millisecond, or about the time it takes for a flash on a normal camera.
That responsiveness is critical for things like playing an intense video game in virtual reality or for a surgeon in New York to control a pair of robotic arms performing a procedure in San Francisco. You know that little lag when you’re on a Zoom video conference call? 5G will help eliminate some of those awkward, “Sorry, you go ahead” moments after people talk over each other. That lag time won’t completely go away, especially if you’re communicating with someone halfway around the world. The distance matters, since that info still has to travel there and back.
But a virtually lag-free connection means self-driving cars have a way to communicate with each other in real time — assuming there’s enough 5G coverage to connect those vehicles.
Are there other benefits?
The 5G network is designed to connect a far greater number of devices than a traditional cellular network does. That internet of things trend you keep hearing about? 5G can power multiple devices around you, whether it’s a dog collar or a refrigerator.
The 5G network was also specifically built to handle gear used by businesses, such as farm equipment or ATMs, and can adjust for differing needs. For example, some products like sensors for farming equipment don’t need a constant connection. Those kinds of low-power scanners are intended to work on the same battery for 10 years and still be able to periodically send data.
Will it cost more?
If you’re a Verizon customer, then yes. Verizon’s mobile 5G will cost you an extra $10 a month (the fee is waived if you’re on one of the more pricey unlimited plans). AT&T likewise requires that you sign up for one of its premium tiers of unlimited data plans.
“5G brings capabilities that are going to cause us to think different about pricing,” AT&T said. “We expect pricing to be at a premium to what we charge today.”
But Jeff McElfresh, CEO of AT&T Communications, which is the wireless, broadband and subscription video services arm of the telecom and media giant, teased that more affordable 5G was coming.
“You should not assume that 5G is an exclusive capability for the most expensive handsets and found only in the most expensive rate plans,” he said in an interview in May. “The speed at which the technology is beginning to make its way into the network is unparalleled.”
There’s precedent for holding the line on pricing: LTE didn’t cost any more when it first came out; you just needed to buy a new phone. But pricing models do change over time. Since 4G launched, carriers have both taken away unlimited plans and brought them back.
Verizon’s home broadband service costs $50 for wireless subscribers, and $70 for everyone else. Those are in line with other broadband costs. (You can find out if you’re eligible for the service here.)
T-Mobile, for its part, throws 5G into all of its plans.