For years, I’ve been writing about 5G and telling you why you shouldn’t invest in it. The bottom line has been that 5G simply hasn’t been able to deliver on its high-speed, low-latency promises. But, finally, things have changed. Today, 5G can at last deliver much better performance—sometimes—with certain versions of 5G only offered in specific places.
First things first. 5G is an awful name. It covers multiple kinds of cellular data networks. For example, Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband swears it can deliver 1Gbps speeds with less than 10 milliseconds of latency. What Verizon doesn’t tell its users is that only the mmWave version can deliver that performance, it has a range measured in yards, and it can be stopped dead in its tracks by a pane of glass. In short, its performance is more like Wi-Fi than any kind of cellular data network.
On the other hand, T-Mobile’s 5G network delivers “only” 150Mbps download speeds. But—and this is important—its 600MHz network has a range of tens of miles and can go right through buildings, cars, what-have-you. I know which one that I’d be using more often.
All-in-all, today in the U.S.—rules vary wildly from country to country—there are four major flavors of 5G, each with its own, very different performance characteristics. And to make things even more confusing, all three of the big telecoms, such as AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, and their partners offer a confusing mix of 5G services under a variety of different names.
But, and this is the important bit, at long last all three of them offer 5G services worth using throughout much of the country. Here’s the current state of 5G as I see it—and why now is the time for business to embrace its use.
The mainstay of all three networks’ is low-band 5G. When your local carrier claims they offer 5G, more often than not it’s low-band. That’s fine, except it’s not really much better than 4G LTE. Indeed, AT&T 5GE is just some technical lipstick on its existing 4G LTE. And Verizon’s 5G Nationwide actually cannibalizes its 4G LTE bandwidth. The result? Low-band 5G gives users the range they were already getting from 4G LTE with speeds of around 50Mbps. The 4G LTE most people have been using delivers around 25Mbps to 30Mbps.
Mid-range is where things get very interesting. T-Mobile has long been the winner here with its mid-band 2.5GHz spectrum. But now that AT&T and Verizon have C-Band—that’s 3.7GHz to 3.98GHz—to play with, both can offer ranges of up to a mile with speeds starting at 100MBps and moving up from there.
Now we’re talking.
But—there’s always a “but”—C-Band’s rollout has tripped over airport safety issues. I want as much bandwidth as I can get, but not at the cost of an airplane crash. The TL;DR is that 5G C-Band may interfere with airplane radar altimeters. So, while network engineers, the FAA, and FCC hash this out, AT&T has been slow with its C-Band rollout. Verizon is moving faster, but both are keeping their C-Band cellular towers well away from airports.
In the meantime, T-Mobile is starting to deploy 5G carrier aggregation (CA). Here, the name of T-Mobile’s game is to bond its 2.5 GHz spectrum with its 600MHz. The result? Decent range with speeds reaching 350Mbps. I could live with that.
Of course, to use any of this, first you need to live or work somewhere the kind of 5G you want is available. For example, AT&T is the next best thing to useless where I live in Asheville, NC, while Verizon only currently offers 5G Nationwide. T-Mobile is available, but its voice-coverage in my neck of the woods comes second to Verizon.
In addition, you can use all that bandwidth if you’re using the latest and most expensive smartphones. Even on phones like the Samsung Galaxy S21, the Galaxy 22, or iPhone 13 models, you’d better have the most recent firmware upgrade, or you’ll be out of luck.
The good news, though, is if you do live and work in the right place and have the right smartphone, 5G is better enough in the real world that it’s finally worth buying. That makes it a tempting and plausible alternative to the local cable company or wired broadband, depending on your business needs (and it’s a possible fallback if your regular network goes down).
Before you put down your credit card to pay a grand for a top-of-the-line smartphone, however, make sure your carrier delivers the service you want. This can be a pain since, more often than not, salespeople don’t know what’s what with their employer’s 5G offerings. Considering how confusing the phone companies themselves can be with their 5G services, I can’t blame them too much.
But, if you value high network speed, it’s worth the trouble.
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