Just the other day, I was sitting on my couch in North Carolina, face-to-face with my nieces, who were cuddling on their couch hundreds of miles away. They were breathlessly recounting, in the way children of a certain age do, how they spent their snow day. The usual: sledding, screaming, making snow angels. But just as my eldest niece was about to tell me her favorite part of the day, both her face and her voice shuddered and shut down. FaceTime had frozen. Suddenly the miles between us, collapsed by technology, expanded to separate us once again. I cursed. I tapped my phone with my index finger, like a Boomer typing a letter to the editor. I dialed again and again to no avail. My 4G phone, which gives me the ability to talk to loved ones hundreds of miles away, had failed me.
It’s time, I thought. Time for 5G. No more of this nonsense timing out and taking an entire 30 seconds to download a song. No more AirDrop that doesn’t work every once in a while. I need more Gs!
Well, the Gs are coming. In fact, 5G has already arrived on some carriers in some parts of the country. Here’s everything you need to know.
So what is 5G, anyways?
First things first: the “G” in 5G. You probably really started noticing all the talk about Gs right around the time that ear-worm there’s a map for that commercial was released. So let’s make things simple: the “G” stands for “generation.” And those generations specifically refer to the different stages of wireless technology called mobile networks. For those who really want to get technical, PC Mag explains,
1G was analog cellular. 2G technologies, such as CDMA, GSM, and TDMA, were the first generation of digital cellular technologies. 3G technologies, such as EVDO, HSPA, and UMTS, brought speeds from 200kbps to a few megabits per second. 4G technologies, such as WiMAX and LTE, were the next incompatible leap forward.
In other words, if you think 1G, think Zack Morris. If you think 3G, think those extremely pixelated videos you watched on your LG enV with all your friends. 5G will be more like gigabit-level speeds. So, those same videos, but high quality, fast loading time, less lag, and on a much nicer phone.
So it’s just 4G, but slightly nicer?
Yes and no. While providers build their 5G networks across different spectra, they’ll use their 4G networks for support, especially as some high-band spectra upon which certain 5G networks (specifically: AT&T and Verizon) are being built can’t penetrate certain buildings. So, for instance, if you’re a Verizon customer who uses 5G, you’ll frequently be using their LTE network either in buildings or in certain areas of the map that don’t yet have coverage.
What does that mean for me? Why should I care?
According to Digital Trends, users with 5G can expect “exponentially faster download and upload speeds. Latency, or the time it takes devices to communicate with each other wireless networks, will also drastically decrease.”
In plain English: downloads and uploads will be 5-10 times faster, and because the 5G buildout will rely so heavily on 4G coverage, first generation 5G phones won’t experience the same battery drain as the switch from 3G to 4G about 10 years ago. In fact, at the 2018 IBM Think Conference, Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam predicted that 5G phones will eventually have month-long battery life, thanks to the lack of lag the new network will provide. I mean, I think most people would take every 2-3 days, but sure, a month works, too.
Is 5G really necessary?
Is your attitude really necessary?
All jokes aside, yes. Not only are we used to lightning internet connectivity now, thanks to the increased availability of fiber and other high-speed internet connections, there are more devices than ever that require wireless connectivity. This isn’t just about allowing you to watch HBOGo at the gym without the damn wifi password (though that is, admittedly, very important). Smart appliances also require wireless connectivity, so 5G will mean decent connectivity for the approximately 21 billion Internet of Things items predicted to be connected to the internet by 2020.
Is it available yet?
For certain places: yes.
Verizon has already made what they’re calling 5G home service (aka regular old internet) available. Their home service is what PC Mag describes as a “nonstandard” version which “offers multi-gigabit wireless speeds and will be swiftly transitioned over to the standard version.” In other words, while it’s not technically 5G, it’s still wicked fast and will eventually be true 5G. They’ve announced plans to roll out their 5G mobile network sometime this year.
AT&T’s 5G mobile service is currently available in 12 cities: Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Louisville, Ky., Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio and Waco, Texas.” Further, in “the first half of 2019” they plan on rolling out 5G mobile in “Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose.”
T-Mobile has announced plans to start building a network in 2019 with full rollout in 2020.
Phones will start rolling out shortly. Samsung’s Galaxy S10 is 5G-capable (among other capabilities) and will go to market around March. Other phones are sure to roll out in a similar time frame.
Should I go out and get a 5G phone right now? Where are my keys? WHERE ARE MY DANG KEYS??
Slow down there, speed racer. While early adopters of 5G won’t suffer as much as early adopters of 4G (first-gen 4G phones had terrible battery life, among other issues), we recommend you just chill. First of all, as the New York Times reports, the security of the network is currently dubious. And given that the Trump administration repealed existing protections against cybersecurity threats, we’d wait and see how the roll-out actually goes, in a practical sense.
Plus, as Ars Technica reports, odds are that it’ll take a while for 5G to come to your region, and we’re not quite sure what the trade-offs will be yet for early adoption. So let someone else do the frustrating work for you. And in the meantime, sit back, relax, and enjoy your current phone. Until you inevitably smash it in frustration and finally give in.