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The Many Flavors of 5G

Cell phone manufacturers and carriers don’t make a big deal about it in their ads – yet – but there are several types of 5G service out there. If you’re buying a new phone and have specific needs for blazing super-hot speed, you ought to know something about the available levels of 5G service.

I first became aware of it last month while at a Corvette event in Ocean City, when I saw a strange new symbol as part of the service information on my phone – which has 5G capability. I didn’t pay much attention to it until it popped up again and decided to run a speed test. It was 1.41Gbps, not Mbps. That’s more than three times faster than normal – in Morristown, not Ocean City.

It prompted an investigation. The symbol I saw was for 5G UWB, which stands for ultra-wideband. By itself, that’s blazingly fast speed, but you get this version of it only if you happen to be a Verizon Wireless customer who’s in the right place at the right time. The 5G UWB designation is Verizon’s. AT&T and T-Mobile have other designations. Verizon calls its low-band service (their more generic, widespread version of 5G) Nationwide 5G and displays with a regular 5G symbol when connected to the network. However, you shouldn’t confuse it with Apple’s Ultra-Wideband technology in its newer iPhones. That relates to Apple’s AirTags technology used to find other similarly equipped devices.

So, when you start to look at phones and carriers for 5G networks, you need to understand that Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile have different versions. While all are accepted as 5G, each carrier offers multiple flavors for more robust networks. Each gives you different experiences.

The first flavor is known as millimeter-wave (mmWave), and it’s the service the three big carriers launched nationwide. It uses a much higher frequency to give you blazing speed, but it can’t overcome distances, buildings, or glass. Thus, coverage areas are essentially glorified Wi-Fi hotspots formed by stringing together more cellular transmitters. Low-band 5G can overcome the problems of mmWave, but speeds are not much faster than 4G networks.

Mid-band 5G networks are a compromise. They don’t have the speed of mmWave networks, but they can cover longer distances and penetrate buildings and glass. AT&T has three flavors:5GE, 5G, and 5G Plus. 5GE (Evolution) doesn’t work with iPhone 11, Galaxy S10, or Pixel 4 phones even though the icon shows up on its devices. The regular 5G is real 5G but only on the low-bands. AT&T uses 5G Plus for its mmWave networks. Verizon uses 5G UWB, and T-Mobile has Ultra Capacity 5G for its faster mid-band and mmWave networks and Extended Range 5G for its low-band network.

Whichever phone and carrier combination you choose, you’ll need a newer phone and the latest operating system for that phone to take advantage of all the 5G flavors you’ll want now and in the near future. The technology will continue to evolve. Ultimately, we believe your choice will come down to the speed you want or need right now and the strength of each carrier in the places you use your phone.

We can help you review carrier and phone specs to help you make an informed – if not less confused – decision. Call us – 973-433-6676 – or email us to discuss your needs.