5G in North America: How Can You Access It?

Gregory Gundelfinger
Illustration: © IoT For All

The hype around 5G and its promise to offer high-speed data for your smartphone have begun with all the latest phones now being 5G enabled; this article explains the technology and what it means, with an emphasis on North America.

5G Technology and Why It Matters

5G is a giant leap forward in faster speed and lower latency. While 4G/LTE is good enough for consumers, 5G unlocks new applications to connect “things” to the mobile network previously limited to one location, such as autonomous cars, drones, and much more. These applications need wider “data highways” or cellular channels, which are not available in 4G. “Last mile” delivery of broadband is another exciting application of 5G technology.

5G has provided an opportunity for the telecom industry to redesign the cellular network architecture for high-bandwidth data. There are three types of 5G technologies, all known as 5G but have different performance features that you need to be aware of.

Millimeter-Wave or mmWaves

High Bandwidth 5G taps into the higher end of the radio spectrum. MmWaves are short in length (10 mm to 1 mm) but offer wider spectrum channels. Wider channels have more capacity to pack more devices and also aid in significant speed improvements. 5G standards make this happen with beamforming (a method to direct radio waves to a target) and massive MIMO (multiple inputs multiple outputs) antennas.

High bandwidth mmWave 5G is more suitable in densely populated urban areas and indoor arenas like stadiums. The abundance of mmWave spectrum brings disruptive performance benefits. According to a study by Ookla, commercial networks using the mmWave range have achieved 3 Gbps peak speeds and 20+ times faster than LTE speeds in many cases. This translates to downloading an HD movie on your mobile device in just seconds; mmWaves have a short-range and quickly weaken when encountering barriers like buildings and trees. As a result, it requires several small cells (approx. 10-meter radius).

mmWave 5G Services

  • Verizon: “Ultra-Wideband (MMW)” “mmWave” “UWB”
  • AT&T: “AT&T’s 5G+ network”
  • T-Mobile USA: “millimetre wave (mmWave) high-band spectrum.”

SUB-6 (Mid-Bandwidth)

Sub-6 5G can travel longer distances and do more with fewer cell towers. They can cover larger service areas without interference from walls, trees, and other obstacles. This solution is suitable for offering 5G services in the suburbs and rural areas. Mobile network operators (MNOs) can offer Sub-6 5G to provide better speed and more resilient mobile broadband services almost immediately by enhancing their existing 4G/LTE cell towers.

Sub-6 5G services are referred to as:

  • Verizon: “5G low-band network.”
  • AT&T: “AT&T’s 5G network.”
  • T-Mobile: “T-Mobile Nationwide 5G” or “T-Mobile’s 600MHz spectrum.”

Low-Bandwidth (600MHZ-900MHZ)

Low Bandwidth makes it even easier to penetrate walls and obstacles. However, low bandwidth 5G provides only marginally better speeds than 4G, making this the least popular option.

5G in the US

Verizon’s 5G deployments are focused on mmWave spectrum, reaching 4 Gbps peak speeds in some locations. Their 5G Ultra Wideband service is available in 55 cities. 

AT&T’s nationwide 5G coverage uses the Sub-6 GHz band, offering speeds slightly better than 4G, but they are expanding to several US cities using mmWave spectrum with significantly higher speeds. 

New T-Mobile offers a nationwide 5G network using sub-6 GHz bands, which isn’t as fast as the mmWave networks. Following their merger with Sprint, T-Mobile is also deploying its 5G network on Sprint’s 5G spectrum.

A study on the three major US carriers’ networks showed Verizon’s mmWave delivered a maximum download speed of 1.1 Gbps in Chicago. AT&T’s 5G+ mmWave network registered a full download speed of 669.2 Mbps in Dallas. The New T-Mobile using a sub-6 GHz spectrum has a maximum download speed of 213.1 Mbps in Atlanta and over 200.0 Mbps in Chicago and Dallas.

5G in Canada

5G has already made its way in Canada, and carriers are aggressively expanding their 5G services. 

In early 2020, Rogers Wireless went live with its first 5G New Radio (NR) network, and it quickly expanded to 130 towns and cities across Canada. Rogers’ 5G networks use the Sub-6 GHz band and the low-band 600 MHz spectrum. On 600 MHz, Rogers uses Dynamic Spectrum Sharing (DSS) to push 4G and 5G simultaneously. 

Bell Canada launched commercial 5G service in metro cities in June 2020 and subsequently expanded the services to several other markets across Canada. Like Rogers, Bell Canada’s 5G services use the Sub-6 GHz spectrum and leverage existing 4G/LTE cell towers.

Telus Mobility’s 5G network boasts better speeds. Starting with the metro markets, Telus is expanding its 5G services to communities in British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec.

Even though Canadian MNOs are mostly using the Sub-6 band to offer 5G, a study in Montreal of Rogers, Bell, and Telus 5G services recorded consistent performance in handling traffic and speed. A peak download speed of 855 Mbps was achieved in Bell’s 5G network, while Rogers excelled in offering consistent rather than extravagant speed.  

Even though cellular carriers and chip makers are yet to achieve the theoretical 5G peak speeds (20 Gbps), it still makes sense to switch from 4G to 5G now if your 4G airwaves are crowded and slow, your data usage is high. You can get 5G services at no extra cost right with most carriers’ postpaid plans with unlimited data. 

5G and Roaming

In 5G networks, cell sites with different bands will have different antenna designs and tradeoffs of download speed, distance, and service areas. Even though your 5G phone connects through the highest speed antenna within range, it needs to seamlessly roam across the various cell sites and bands with almost no noticeable service gap. This requires its chipset to support these technologies.

Since last year, phone makers have been offering 5G capable phones. Some of these 5G phones support Sub-6 bands only and can provide marginally better speeds than 4G. 

The iPhone 12 supports all 5G frequencies in the United States. In 5G mmWave, iPhone 12 offers 5x LTE speeds. In March 2020, Samsung Galaxy S20+ and Ultra launched 5G support for both mmWave and Sub-6 GHz bands. A seamless roaming experience should purchase a 5G smartphone that supports both mmWave and Sub-6 bands. 

Speed and roaming efficiencies depend on how and what technologies the MNOs implement in their 5G networks. In North America, 5G network expansion has already picked up momentum.

5G is all about terminating data as close to the device as possible, compared to LTE, where data is routed to the home network. 5G supports control and user plane separation (CUPS) architecture, which essentially splits up the control plane and user plane traffic. CUPS in 5G networks allows operators to separate the evolved packet core (EPC) into a control plane and place it in a central location. This separation means local break-out for data in 5G roaming, which will benefit roaming IoT devices. VoLTE will be made widely available as 4G/5G networks replace 3G networks.

5G is of particular interest to IoT service users because of the significant advances over incumbent technologies. These advances will play a detrimental role in impacting current IoT verticals. When choosing an end-to-end connectivity provider, it is important to ensure that their core infrastructure is 5G ready and suitable for all IoT capabilities. 

Gregory Gundelfinger
Gregory Gundelfinger - CEO, Telna
Gregory Gundelfinger is the CEO of Telna. A serial entrepreneur from South Africa and a tech-lover at heart, he led the acquisition of Telna in 2015 and developed himself into a thought leader for telecommunications.
Gregory Gundelfinger is the CEO of Telna. A serial entrepreneur from South Africa and a tech-lover at heart, he led the acquisition of Telna in 2015 and developed himself into a thought leader for telecommunications.