What is 5G, how fast is it, and when is it coming?

Talk about “5G” has been circulating for years now, but it’s only recently that the next-generation, super-fast wireless technology has become a real, tangible thing that people can actually use.

Right now, only a tiny number of people across a very limited spread of locations have access to 5G. For most of us, 5G is still a mystery, full of tantalizing promise but few details.

But that’s going to change as more carriers and device-makers start rolling out 5G products and service that can deliver blazing internet speeds to your smartphone and to your home. And we’re likely to learn a lot more about what 5G technology can do during the Consumer Electronics Show – one of the largest tech conferences in the world – that kicks off in a few days.

Here’s everything you need to know about 5G, the wireless technology that will be in the spotlight at CES 2019:


What is 5G?

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Shutterstock

5G is the “evolution” of 4G LTE, which is what currently lets us stream videos, music, browse the web and social media, and use data-intensive apps on our mobile devices.

As an evolution of something that already exists, 5G is set to be better than 4G LTE. It promises incredibly fast wireless communication for mobile devices, and the ability to handle heavier loads of traffic. That means less of the dreaded network overload that slows your phone’s data to a crawl in highly congested areas.

In addition to mobile networks, 5G will be used to bring faster internet services directly into your home.

5G is fast enough that it could also become an alternative to cables for transmitting all sorts of data. It won’t replace cables entirely, but for some applications and industries, it could replace the need for them. It’s also suited for new and experimental innovations, such as providing a continuous stream of speed-sensitive data that’s required for many self-driving-car systems.


How fast will 5G be and how much will it cost?

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A demonstration of 5G wireless speeds
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Troy Wolverton/Business Insider

We have an idea of what kind of speeds to expect with 5G home internet based on Verizon’s 5G home internet service, called Verizon 5G Home, that rolled out in October 2018.

The company promises internet speeds of up to 300 megabits-per-second for a price of $50 per month for existing Verizon customers, or $70 per month for non-existing Verizon customers. That’s actually slower than Verizon’s top-tier landline internet service Fios – which provides gigabit (1,000 mbps) speeds – and it’s not that much cheaper. On top of that, Verizon’s 5G Home service is only available to a very limited number of cities.

Still, not everyone uses Verizon’s Fios gigabit internet service. The average internet speed in the US as of 2018 was 96.25 mega bits per second – essentially a third of what Verizon’s 5G Home internet speeds can deliver.

As for mobile wireless, the verdict is still out, but the general message from the telecommunications industry is that it’s much faster and more responsive than the current 4G LTE networks.

AT&T has rolled out its 5G network in 12 cities so far, with a cost of $75 per month for a 15GB data plan. The only issue right now is that no one can really use AT&T’s mobile 5G network, as no commercially available mobile devices actually support 5G as of yet. Only in the spring of this year will AT&T customers be able to buy a $500 5G mobile hotspot, to which customers will have to connect their smartphones to use AT&T’s 5G network.


How does it work?

For mobile devices like smartphones, 5G service will be transmitted much like 4G LTE is today – with antennas dotted throughout a city (rooftops, utility poles, etc).

For home internet, you’ll be able to get 5G service through an antenna installed outside of one of your home’s windows, that’s connected to a WiFi router inside your home. That antenna will pick up one of 5G’s “millimeter wave” wireless signals transmitted from millimeter-wave cell towers.

Starry Point


Hurry up and wait.

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Reuters/Charles Platiau

As I mentioned earlier earlier, access to 5G networks in the US is pretty limited.

Only a few cities are getting either mobile 5G networks or home internet 5G service to start off with, and the technology hasn’t exactly matched the promised speeds and performance the industry has been hyping over the years.

Either way, 5G as it exists today is in its earliest of early stages. It’s sure to develop over the years with even better speeds, with more and more devices supporting the new network. As recently as December 2018, four major players in the telecoms industry including Qualcomm, Verizon, AT&T, and Samsung have promised more 5G-compatible devices in “early 2019.”

While 5G is technically “here,” most of us still have to hurry up and wait for the next big thing for our data-connected world.