To make 5G easier to swallow, let’s rename the jargon into ice cream flavors:
The much-hyped, ultrafast variant of 5G is known as “millimeter wave,” but let’s call it rocky road. It lets carriers transmit data at incredibly fast speeds — the kind that would let you download an entire movie in a few seconds.
The problem with rocky road is that its signals travel shorter distances, covering a park in New York but not a broad swath of the city, for example. It also has trouble penetrating obstacles like walls. So Verizon and AT&T have focused deployment of rocky road in large spaces like sports stadiums and outdoor amphitheaters.
Because of the technical limitations of rocky road, we are unlikely to see it deployed nationwide anytime soon (if ever), meaning we won’t be getting these incredible speeds in the vast majority of places.
Instead, this year our cellular networks will broadly shift to a version of 5G that is less exciting. Let’s call this vanilla 5G.
Vanilla 5G will have speeds that are only slightly faster than current 4G networks. The main benefit will be a reduction of lag known as latency. For example, when you do a web search on your phone, the results usually won’t load immediately; the lag can often last hundreds of milliseconds. In theory, 5G technology will shave this latency down to a few milliseconds. (To be clear, rocky road offers low-latency benefits, too.)
AT&T and Verizon say their 5G networks, which will be made up of mostly vanilla 5G and small scoops of rocky road, should be activated nationwide this year. T-Mobile, which put a priority on deploying vanilla 5G over rocky road, said its 5G network was available nationwide last year.
In short, the broad shift to 5G won’t be mind blowing, but you will probably notice a marked improvement.
Will 5G be faster than Wi-Fi?
In some cases, yes. While Wi-Fi is also very fast, it pulls data from a broadband connection, which is susceptible to degraded performance when others nearby are using it. By design, 5G transmits high amounts of data more efficiently, so it is expected to significantly mitigate network congestion. There is a high likelihood that you will get a consistently strong, faster connection on 5G.
Do I need a new phone to get 5G?
Yes. You will have to buy a new phone with a 5G modem to connect with the new network technologies.
Most current 5G-compatible phones are expensive: Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G, for example, costs $1,300. But as the technology becomes more common in the next few years, prices should drop.
How much will 5G data plans cost?
The carriers are still tinkering with pricing.
Verizon’s earliest 5G plans charged an extra $10 a month for people with compatible smartphones to gain access to 5G. (It is currently waiving that fee as it builds out its 5G network.) However, Ronan Dunne, a Verizon executive, said the carrier was planning different types of packages. Some with access to both vanilla 5G and rocky road 5G could be priced higher, while plans with only vanilla 5G might be priced lower. (He declined to share specific prices.)
“Here’s a plan which says this plan comes with ultralow latency, and it’s part of a gamers’ package, or it might be part of a movie and entertainment package,” Mr. Dunne said. “Because of this ability to separate components of the network, you can see an evolution of a new type of pricing and plan model.”
AT&T’s so-called unlimited extra plan, which includes 5G access, costs $75 a month for an individual line.
T-Mobile said access to its 5G network was available to its subscribers at no additional cost.
What about 5GE?
AT&T, unfortunately, made 5G extra confusing for its customers. In late 2018, it rebranded parts of its existing 4G network as “5GE.” So AT&T customers with older 4G-compatible phones started seeing a “5GE” status icon on their screens.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s ignore 5GE altogether. It’s not real 5G.
AT&T’s vanilla version of 5G is branded 5G, and its rocky-road version is labeled 5G Plus.