My 5G Explainer: There Will Be Five ‘Flavors’

on August 9, 2019
Reading Time: 4 minutes

If you’re in the telecom/wireless space, you’ve no doubt been asked by tech industry colleagues, or even by curious friends and family, about 5G: What is it, how will it be different than 4G, and when and where will it be available? It’s awfully difficult to give a clear and succinct answer. As evidence, I present AT&T’s August 6 press release announcing the availability of 5G in New York City: it serves a very limited area (which AT&T did not specify), and is only available to select enterprise customers. And, in the same announcement, AT&T said that “5G will be launched broadly over sub-6GHz in the coming months, with plans to offer nationwide 5G in the first half of 2020”. Huh?

So, dear Techpinions reader, I offer you the tech equivalent of a ‘summer beach read’ — the easiest way to understand, and then explain, what 5G will look like over the next couple of years. You can thank me now for laying it out in a way that eliminates the need to use the following terms: 5G SA/NSA, mmWave, sub-6, mid-band, 5G TF, 3GPP-based. This is also meant to help you ignore, and/or override, operators’ particular branding of their own version(s) of 5G, and (often obfuscating) marketing terms that they might use.

Put simply, there are going to be five distinct ‘flavors’ of 5G. Over time, the three main flavors will be overlapping (think Neapolitan ice cream), but for now they’re fairly distinct.

Three Main Flavors

5G+. These are 5G services that are based on the mmWave bands (above 6 GHz – today, mainly in the 28 GHz & 39 GHz bands, with additional bands coming later). This will likely be the fastest 5G service, but coverage will be very limited because a cell can only reach a few hundred meters and doesn’t do very well indoors. The best way to understand/explain: it’s like a ‘super Wi-Fi hotspot’. Expect to see this mainly in the city core, densely populated areas, and high-traffic venues (i.e. stadiums). Today, AT&T brands this service as 5G+ and Verizon as 5G Ultra Wideband.

5G. Over time, this will be the most common ‘flavor’ of 5G. The ‘vanilla’ of 5G, if you will. This is going to be the 5G we often see referred to as ‘sub-6 GHz’, combining operators’ spectrum holdings, ranging from 600 MHz up to 4.2 GHz (depending on the operator, and some future auctions). At these lower bands, speeds will not be as compelling as 5G+, but coverage will be broader. For example, Sprint’s 5G service (using its 2.5 GHz spectrum), which it has branded as ‘True Mobile 5G’ offers better coverage at launch than Verizon and AT&T’s mmWave services, but top speeds are lower.

There are a couple of nuances to understand here. First, this is the flavor of 5G that will look the most like 4G LTE, in that it will get steadily better over time. That’s because operators will be combining their spectrum bands to offer an increasingly effective combination of speed, coverage, and capacity. For example, New T-Mobile will be combining its 600 MHz spectrum (currently being built out for 5G) with Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum…and over time will be migrating some of the spectrum being used for 4G LTE (such as 700/800/1900 MHz channels) over to 5G.

Second, phones will also be able to work across multiple 5G bands. For example, we expect that at least some of the phones AT&T introduces in 2020 will work in both the sub-6 GHz and mmWave bands, though the experience at the outset might be a little rough.

5G/4G+. These are services that aren’t officially 5G, but are being branded as 5G. You can thank AT&T, which basically took what the rest of the industry was calling ‘Gigabit LTE’, and called it ‘5G Evolution’. Lest you be tempted to fire off a nasty-gram to AT&T’s marketing team, the fact is that some of the best speeds consumers are experiencing with LTE get us into 5G ‘territory’. For example, some users of gigabit LTE are experiencing speeds in the 200-400 Mbps range, which is similar to the speeds of the 5G services Sprint has launched in four cities, to date.

This is not unlike what we experienced in the transition to LTE. In the early days, some of the best 3G services (HSPA+) were as good as, or better, than some of the initial LTE services. Over time, the lines between the 3G and 4G data experience became more distinct, and we expect the same for 4G/5G.

Two Additional Flavors

Now, the above represent the main three ‘flavors’ of 5G: gold-silver-bronze, chocolate-vanilla-strawberry (and, Neapolitan over time), etc. But there are two additional, fairly distinct flavors of 5G to add to our explainer.

5G FWA. These are 5G services used specifically for fixed wireless access, aimed at the residential broadband market. The one commercial service available today is Verizon’s 5G Home, available in parts of four cities. It uses the same spectrum as other flavors of 5G (in Verizon’s case, the same mmWave spectrum as that for 5G Ultra Wideband), but requires specific CPE for the home (rather than a phone) and does not feature mobility. In some cases (such as Verizon’s 5G Home), 5G FWA is aimed to compete directly with incumbent fixed broadband suppliers such as Xfinity Broadband (Comcast), while in other cases, 5G FWA is a more technically able and cost effective way of getting broadband to homes that are un-served or under-served by broadband today.

Industrial 5G/IIoT: This is a version of 5G focused on the enterprise market and for use by machines and other connected devices. There are strong use cases for the factory floor and manufacturing. One key item to understand here is that although there are critical elements of the next iteration of the 5G standard that are needed for Industrial 5G, this ‘flavor’ of 5G will represent a combination of numerous 4G, 5G, and even Wi-Fi services, including: CBRS (3.5 GHz), private (enterprise) LTE, LAA, and even Wi-Fi 6. You’ll be hearing more about this over the next couple of years.

In the early days of 5G, there will be very visible tradeoffs between coverage and speed. That distinction will erode over time, as operators built out 5G over numerous spectrum bands, migrate 4G channels to 5G, and introduce phones that are able to nimbly move between low, medium, and high band spectrum. It will also become a clever software and network tuning game, as operators strive to deliver the best combination of speed and coverage, given economics, capacity, and users’ context.