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What is 5G? What to know about the tech upgrade that will make your phone even faster

If you find yourself using mobile data and internet a lot while on the go, there's no doubt you've heard whispers about 5G, the next big step up for mobile communication. This new technology is part of a massive upgrade to the very framework of the systems that deliver and direct data to smartphones across the globe, and it's coming to an area near you very soon. But what is 5G all about, and why should you care? How will 5G affect you, and where is it touching down first? Here's everything you need to know about the tech's impending rollout.

What is 5G?

5G stands for "fifth-generation cellular wireless." Eventually, it will replace or potentially augment the 4G LTE connection you may be using right now.

The most basic explanation is this: It's going to offer ridiculously fast speeds, for both uploads and downloads. You'll see a drastic drop in latency, or how long it takes mobile devices to ping one another, and as a result you'll likely have to start paying more for the privilege when you get your phone bill every month.

Previously, the newest technology was 4G LTE, which is being souped-up to even higher speeds than ever before. It's important to keep in mind that LTE is not a term that will carry over to the 5G switch-over. It means "Long-Term Evolution," and it is in fact just a 4G technology. It's simply a standard for wireless data transmission, as T-Mobile explains it, and it's in fact different from the next higher grade of data, which is (you guessed it) 5G.

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When this new certification is rolled out, slowly but surely everyone will be rolled over to it when we all have compatible devices. Think of when the switch was finally flipped from 3G being the new standard to 4G – this situation is similar in many ways. You probably won't notice much of a change in these preliminary stages, because the cutover time (switching from one type of network to the other) is going to be as unobtrusive as possible.

How fast is 5G?

The best answer here is, of course, "blazing fast." It's going to speed up the everyday tasks you complete on the move exponentially, to the point where trying to load a movie or TV show on your phone will feel like blinking an eye.

Of course, like with any type of mobile connectivity, the speeds you can reach with 5G will vary, based on where you live, the service you use, and when you're able to adopt it for your device or home.

"We expect download speeds to be up to 5X faster initially," says Sprint's Roni Singleton. "At 5X faster speed, an HD movie will take about 70 seconds to download on 5G vs about 6 minutes on 4G." Put it simply, you'll be seeing a massive improvement in speeds.

According to chip manufacturer Qualcomm, download speeds of 4.5 GB per second are possible, but initial speeds could be a lot slower at first – such as 1.4GB to start out with. However, as The New York Times points out, that's still about 20 times faster than any 4G LTE connectivity.

There's more to a 5G connection than simply speedy internet, however. It's going to open up the world's smartphone infrastructure in a way that helps everyone who uses the internet regularly while out and about. New 5G framework will offer additional high-bandwidth, high-frequency spectrum bands that will help "mitigate congestion," according to market analysis firm OpenSignal. This means there's more space for traffic to flow through, and less slowdown that occurs as the result of congestion.

Moreover, car manufacturers will be utilizing 5G connectivity before long so you can use internet on the go without having to purchase a separate hotspot for mobile browsing, streaming, and gaming. This is great news for cars with built-in media centers like Tesla's lineup, since you'll be able to get more out of your mobile connection center with 5G.

The internet as a whole will be a much less congested, bustling place given that there will be more bandwidth for all, with higher quality video, less lag, and a space for everyone who needs it on the next-gen network.

What will happen to 4G?

Just because you're switching over to 5G someday, that doesn't mean 4G/LTE is going away. If you happen to adopt the new tech and it drops when connected to a 5G signal, it'll just go back to LTE, just like the days of 3G. You shouldn't really notice a change. Even now, when we're two generations ahead, 3G still pops up in coverage areas from time to time. The bottom line is, you won't lose coverage if you decide not to upgrade now, or ever, really – not until years down the line.

What phones will utilize 5G?

Right now, there are a limited number of phones that support 5G networks, though manufacturers are currently working to build out a larger network of them in order to meet the demand that will eventually come out of the rollout. However, some of the larger manufacturers, like Apple, have yet to adopt the tech. That means getting a device that you prefer (or want to use) may be difficult until 5G has been more fully deployed later on down the line.

Why's it so important that you get a proper phone to handle the kind of speeds 5G can provide? The Wall Street Journal illustrates the issue quite nicely, noting that two Galaxy S10 5G phones continually overheated while using 5G and kept dropping down to 4G, when outside temperatures hit or exceeded 85 degrees. And if this is happening with phones that are supposedly built for 5G in higher temperatures, imagine how a phone that isn't equipped for it might behave.

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Technically, as of right now, there are just three devices that can handle 5G at its full speeds: the LG V50 ThinQ 5G, Moto Z3, and Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G, but if you don't live in an area where you can utilize the service, they're useless in that department.

One of these is pretty tricky when it comes to purchasing, as well. If you buy the Moto Z3 in a Verizon store, they will most likely check to make sure your account is provisioned correctly to avoid issues caused by the LTE to 5G cutover. But if you purchase the phone online or via a third-party, you may have to call into Verizon for provisioning.

Plus, its 5G compatibility comes with a catch: it's not 5G-ready out of the box. You'll need to spend another $200 for the Moto 5G Moto Mod to enable this feature.With the 5G Moto Mod, the total for the Moto Z3 comes to a less-affordable $680. But if you have to have 5G, it’s still the best deal out there – if you want to be prepared, at least. It's likely additional phones on the market may adopt similar gimmicks during the rush to market and ensure consumers have something to use when the change happens – and not for the better. Some manufacturers, though, are taking their time.

Current rumors indicate Apple may not be trying for a 5G iPhone release until at least 2020, so even with the 2019 iPhone event on the horizon for September, it wouldn't be strange to see the monolithic company remaining slow and cautious when it comes to rolling out new phones specifically for 5G. If it's taught us anything in the past, Apple is generally slow to introduce new tech, such as a USB-C charging cable for its phones, which still doesn't look like it's coming this year, either.

As far as Google's smartphones go, the search engine giant hasn't spoken on what kind of 5G updates its Pixel phones will receive, if any. The upcoming Pixel 4 could be a contender, but it's not slated to land until October 2019. That particular model is poised to see the addition of the Snapdragon 855 processor, which could augment the phone with 5G connectivity. Of course, for the moment this is all supposition, unfortunately.

Another obvious contender is Samsung, one of the largest smartphone manufacturers in the world. The Samsung S10 5G model is the company's first attempt at bringing the tech to its Galaxy line. Samsung's Galaxy Fold will also be getting 5G support when it relaunches after having fixed its initial design kinks.

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Rumor has it, the manufacturer is also working on launching an additional 5G phone in tandem with AT&T for 2019, which could also offer 5G coverage. Samsung is still keeping mum on the situation, but given its innovations, we can't count it out when it comes to being ahead of the curve for the latest smartphone tech.

Don't count Sprint out of the mix, either, as it's yet to merge with T-Mobile and the network is seeing some impressive results already with 5G infrastructure – and it's heading into areas that have more dense populations than it previously was available in, as well.

Makers like Honor, Sony, Xiaomi, ZTE, HTC, and Motorola are also all working on their own devices to prepare for the coming 5G wave, and you can expect to hear more about what they have in store for users over the coming months. While Huawei will also be on the bandwagon and also has phones that already support 5G in the form of the Mate X and Mate 20 X 5G, dubious relations with the United States after spying allegations make it a difficult recommendation for your first 5G-capable device.

When can you start using 5G?

It really depends on where you live. Carriers have been working on 5G for around a decade now, and certain wireless providers are beginning to offer it for a select few devices in specific areas. As a result, some areas in the United States have already adopted this lightning-quick connection, while other areas are still working diligently to continue building out 5G networks so everyone can jump on board. Eventually, it will be deployed across the entire country, but that will undoubtedly end up taking a couple of years to complete.

Currently, providers such as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint have all begun allowing for the usage of 5G around the United States. AT&T has made it available in 20 cities, with wider coverage coming later this year. T-Mobile is expected to debut nationwide coverage as early as 2020. Meanwhile, Verizon has mobile and fixed 5G available in several areas, but hasn't committed to a specific date for users to look forward to using strict 5G coverage. At the time of this writing, Verizon is in the process of switching all its towers to LTE-only. But if you’re in one of the few areas that don't have LTE coverage, you'll have to hope you can roam onto a T-Mobile or AT&T tower, and you may experience issues with sending and receiving SMS and MMS messages.

But how do carriers choose which cities end up getting 5G first? It isn't as simple as just selecting a place on a map or throwing a dart, though sometimes it might feel that way. According to Singleton, the team chooses "high population cities where we have a large customer base, critical mass of 2.5 GHz cell sites, and the spectrum needed" to execute their rollout plan.

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"As with all new system rollouts, we will continue to optimize performance and add new capabilities and enhancements that increase speed and capacity," said Singleton.

Unfortunately, there is no precise period of time that we can estimate for a complete 5G rollout or when it will be fully deployed for everyone in the country. Given that most smartphones aren't yet capable of supporting the speeds 5G offers, nor is every city ready to support the infrastructures required to bring it to fruition, the current window is late 2019 and early 2020 for most carriers to begin their planned expansions throughout the U.S.

All that said, it probably isn't going to benefit you to rush out and upgrade your phone to one that supports 5G right away. It's far too early in the game at this point to worry about adopting the new tech, and things are bound to change even more over the tumultuous initial introductory period for the tech.

For now, the best advice as far as when you can expect 5G in your area is to "wait and see." Unfortunately, there isn't a schedule to rely on just yet that you can check and see to plan your possible next gadget purchase. The tech hasn't yet reached the stage where it's going to be reliable, affordable, or widely available for the whole of smartphone-toting customers across the country.