In introducing its first 5G phones on Tuesday, Apple said it had tested them on more than 100 networks. That’s a significant achievement, because 5G operates across a confusing patchwork of frequencies, meaning Apple had to pack additional chips, radio frequency filters, and multiple antennas into the iPhone 12.
5G is “a zoo of different technologies,” says Swarun Kumar, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University, and head of its Laboratory for Emerging Wireless Technology. “There is one standard, but it can be interpreted in different ways.”
Apple did its best to sell people on the potential of 5G when unveiling its new phones, showing how it could make a smartphone behave like a game console by offloading computation. But the wireless technology remains nascent.
Apple’s support for 5G across all four of its new iPhones “is really unusual,” says Ian Fogg, VP of analysis at Opensignal, a UK company that tracks wireless network performance. He notes that only larger Android devices tend to support 5G’s high-speed flavor.
5G was probably destined to disappoint at first, given the hype around it. The standard promises data-transfer speeds reaching 10 gigabits per second—100 times faster than 4G speeds—as well as latencies of 1 millisecond compared with 50 milliseconds on 4G; it also allows far more devices to connect to a network simultaneously.
Just as 4G enabled a new generation of smartphone apps that fueled economic growth, the hope is that developers will build new services on 5G. Besides giving smartphones superpowers, the technology could eventually connect self-driving cars, industrial machinery, medical devices, and smart toasters to the cloud. 5G has also become a geopolitical football as countries jockey to take a lead in rolling it out.
As yet, though, 5G has yet to live up to the hype.
Here's everything you'll ever want to know about the spectrum, millimeter-wave technology, and why 5G could give China an edge in the AI race.
The 5G wireless standard is designed to make the most of different chunks of wireless spectrum. The standard covers multiple frequency bands, but the main chunks are low-band and mid-band frequencies below 6 gigahertz, and ultrawideband or millimeter-wave frequencies above 24 gigahertz. As a general rule, the lower frequencies offer more range but lower speeds while the higher frequencies provide super-fast speeds but only cover a few hundred meters and are highly susceptible to interference. Making the most of 5G means using a mix of all these frequencies.
So far, US network providers have only offered some 5G spectrum slices. T-Mobile and AT&T have focused on low- and mid-frequencies, providing greater coverage but speeds barely above 4G. Verizon has mostly offered ultrawideband 5G, providing download speeds of almost a gigabit per second but only in very small downtown areas. Overall, the US lags behind many other countries in terms of average data speeds for both 4G and 5G, according to an October report from Opensignal.
At Apple’s Tuesday event, Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg said the company would roll out 5G nationwide. This will run on low frequencies meaning less spectacular speed boosts but broad coverage. The company says this will involve technology that lets 4G and 5G users share the same spectrum.
The picture is complicated in the US because only a limited amount of mid-band frequency, which offers a good mix of speed and range, is available. That will change in coming years, however. The US government recently auctioned off one chunk of mid-band and announced it would make more available through another auction.
Kumar says it isn’t clear if one spectrum range will become more dominant than the others, although he expects a mix of mid-band and millimeter-wave tech to win out. “Everyone is trying to make up their minds, that’s the honest truth,” he says.
Many of the 5G phones launched so far are only designed to work with one variant of 5G. Those sold in Europe, for instance, typically do not support ultrawideband, since it is less common there. Often, customers have to pay more for phones that support different versions of 5G, like the Samsung S20 on Verizon. “Handsets are all over the place,” Kumar says. “What each manufacturer calls 5G is different—it’s a very low bar.”
All four models of the iPhone 12 are designed to use a range of frequency bands encompassing most of the low, mid, and high frequencies used for 5G around the world. This means the devices should be capable of working on multiple operators and roaming between 5G networks.
Some think the iPhone 12 may turn out to be an important moment for 5G, helping to nudge more people to try it out and pushing networks to roll out more capacity.
“It simplifies the buying process and hopefully future-proofs the device a bit, as new bands come online,” says Jason Leigh, an analyst at IDC who tracks the 5G industry. “Customers don’t need to think about what spectrum their preferred operator deploys.”
But Leigh says a key question with 5G is how it may affect battery life. Apple said Tuesday that it has developed several technologies designed to minimize battery drain, including something called smart data mode, which lets apps use 5G networks only when they really need to.
Some experts remain unconvinced, though. Kumar of CMU says he will wait to see which network providers offer the most compelling mix of speed and coverage. “Put it this way,” he says. “If I upgrade my phone right now, 5G is not going to be the reason.”