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5G Explained: Why this Upcoming Celluar Standard is So Money

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AT&T announced today that it would deliver the first commercial 5G device, the Netgear Nighthawk 5G Mobile Hotspot, in three days, on December 21st.

And you’ll hear a lot more about 5G in the next few months since it’s a significant upgrade to the way mobile devices—phones and tablets with a data plan—connect to the Internet. Chances are it will change the way all devices connect in a big way.

Like the existing 4G, the new 5G standard will take a few years to fully mature. One thing is for sure: It’s fascinating and worth your attention. Before digging deeper, though, you need to know what it is not.

With 5G, your phone might just be the fastest thing to access the Internet with in the house.
With 5G, your phone might be the fastest thing to access the Internet within the house.

5G vs. 5G Wi-Fi vs. 5GHz Wi-Fi

Indeed! The way it’s named, 5G can be misunderstood for a few things. The following are a few examples.

  • 5G Wi-Fi: This is just a different name for the 802.11ac standard of Wi-Fi. Initially, I believe Broadcom coined this term with its first 802.11ac chip. It made sense at the time—5G means 5th generation. Now, it’s confusing. The good news is 802.11ac has just recently gotten a new name as Wi-Fi 5.
  • 5GHz Wi-Fi band: This has nothing to do with 5G because it’s supposed to be 5GHz, the preferred frequency band of Wi-Fi, as opposed to 2.4GHz. The 5GHz band balances range and Wi-Fi speed, whereas 2.4GHz has a slightly longer but much slower speed. Oftentimes people call this frequency band 5G for short.
  • Other 5G stuff: I’ve seen folks use G quite arbitrarily. So 5G can mean “5Gbps” (like the download speed) or “5GB” (in storage space). Of course, none of that is the 5G in question here.
Until 5G, mobile hotspot like this MiFi 8800L is the king of 4G.
Until 5G, a mobile hotspot like this MiFi 8800L is the king of 4G.

OK, so what is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of broadband cellular network technology, mostly known as the data connection of your cell phone (besides talk and text). Supposedly, G is short for Global System for Mobile communications or GSM.

In a nutshell, the data connection is what makes a smartphone smart. That said, all smartphones released in the past six or so years use 4G, with the most popular variation being 4G LTE.

(LTE and 4G are two different things, but, for the most part, you can safely think of 4G LTE as part of the 4G standard.) 

By the way, in case you need a point of reference, the iPhone 5 is one of the first smartphones that support 4G. Before that, most phones used 3G.

Officially, though, 4G was first introduced in 2009, and before this, there was 3G (2001), 2G (1991), and 1G, which dated back to 1971. A later generation has a much faster data speed than the previous one.

With 4G LTE, you can get up to 1200Mbps (1.2Gbps) theoretical download speed (3G caps at just 384Mbps). (For more on how fast 4G can be, check out my recent review of the MiFi 8800L 4G hotspot.)

5G brings the wireless speed up a huge notch with the cap of up to 10Gbps (or 10,000Mbps), and; it has other improvements. In real life, you can expect sustained speeds of a few Gbps. And that has a lot of implications.

How we connect now

There are a few ways to get to the Internet: DSL, Cable, Fiber-optic, and cellular. The first three are traditional residential broadband connections with speeds varying from 15Mbps to 250Mbps, or even 1Gbps in rare cases, with a very high (1000GB) monthly data cap or no cap at all.

The fourth option is 4G, and it’s expensive. Generally, you pay some $80/month for a pseudo unlimited plan, which only gives you a fast speed for the first 15GB of data per month. After that, the carrier will throttle down the speed for the rest of the billing cycle.

A gateway like this Netgear Orbi CBR40 will likely have a built-in 5G receiver instead of a cable modem.
Soon, there will be gateways similar to this Netgear Orbi CBR40 but with a built-in 5G receiver instead of a cable modem.

4G costs a lot because its broadcaster can handle only so many clients at a time, making it actually more expensive to operate, gigabyte per gigabyte, compared to traditional broadband.

So in terms of cost alone, 4G can’t compete with cable or DSL. That’s not to mention that 4G speeds tend to fluctuate a great deal and, therefore, are less reliable.

The new 5G standard will likely change all that.

How 5G will change the future of Internet access

Much faster speed: With 5G, you can expect speeds many times faster than 4G, up to a few gigabits per second. This kind of speed will put your traditional broadband connection to shame.

  • Lower latency: 5G is capable of delivering single-digit latency (or lag). This means not only it’s better for real-time communication such as VoIP or gaming, but it’s also suitable for critical and sensitive tasks. For reference, presently, a good cable connection has a latency of around 6 to 13 milliseconds.
  • Lower cost: A 5G broadcaster can handle more concurrent clients than a 4G counterpart. This means the data cost will be cheaper.

This, plus the ultra-fast speed, means a much higher data cap or unlimited plan will be a norm. Considering its speed, a 5G connection can blow through even the highest data caps of a 4G plan in just a few seconds.

All that will translate into the most important impact of 5G: Lower connection cost. This is because for, the first time, cellular truly becomes a competitor of the alternatives.

Now you can have fast and affordable Internet without having any wires running to your home at all. This, plus the upcoming Wi-Fi 6 standard, means maybe you will never need to run network cables (or any wires for that matter) ever again.

Come to think about it, 5G can also enable those living in a remote area without the infrastructure for traditional broadband to have fast and affordable Internet access.

What to expect

Currently, AT&T says its 5G has been live in parts of 12 cities, including Atlanta, Charlotte, N.C., Dallas, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Fla., Louisville, Ky., Oklahoma City, New Orleans, Raleigh, N.C., San Antonio, and Waco (Texas).

The company also commits to turning 5G on in seven more cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Nashville, Orlando, San Diego, San Francisco, and San Jose (California) by the first half of 2019.

Other carriers will eventually join the movement. Despite that fact, though, it will take a while to see how 5G pans out.

The first 5G Nighthawk Mobile hotspot from Netgear.
The first 5G Nighthawk Mobile hotspot from Netgear.

This is simply because there are currently no devices that support 5G yet, other than the Netgear mobile hotspot mentioned above. And this means the use of 5G will be very limited at first.

Soon enough, however, you will see more and more 5G handsets on the market. If you just got a new phone this year, chances are your next upgrade will support 5G.

Eventually, it’s safe to say that you’ll even find Wi-Fi routers with a built-in 5G receiver (instead of a built-in cable/DSL modem.) And when 5G becomes more and more popular as a residential broadband connection, traditional cable, DSL, and optic providers will need to lower their service fees to compete.

As for now, though, early adopters can expect 5G to be available with data plans slightly less expensive than those of 4G. AT&T, for example, is offering the Netgear mobile hotspot with a 15GB data plan for $70/month, no contract. Also, my guess is, initially, 5G speed will be just slightly faster than 4G.

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