When did 5G come out? Complex release date

While 2022 will likely be announced as 5G really begins to be in the mainstream, we’ve come a long, winding road to get here. Carriers began actively working on this groundbreaking cellular technology as early as 2015, but it wasn’t until the end of 2018 that the first 5G mobile towers came into operation. It also took until 2020 before 5G became much more than a curiosity. For early adopters.

Although earlier cellular technologies such as 4G/LTE also spent a great deal of time in the research and development stages, those technologies have not faced nearly the same growth pains as 5G. When 4G/LTE services began to become widespread in 2011, it was the same core technology across all the major US carriers.

Michael Benitez / Getty Images

Things are getting more complicated with 5G. As newer technology promises the kind of performance previously limited to wired broadband services, it comes with more demanding requirements and operates over a much wider range of frequencies.

This has made 5G deployment somewhat more difficult as carriers try to find more radio spectrum to carry the best 5G signals. They also need to keep 4G/LTE networks running at maximum performance while sharing airwaves with new 5G services.

Humble Beginnings of 5G

Not many people know that the first 5G deployments in the US weren’t for mobile devices at all. In 2017, carriers began experimenting with fixed wireless 5G services as an alternative to broadband wired home Internet. Closed trials of 5G home internet continued well into 2018 before becoming commercially available later that year.

The first 5G networks only rolled out in early 2019. Verizon led the way in April with a relatively small 5G footprint in core areas of Chicago and Minneapolis, beating three South Korean carriers to become the first commercial 5G smartphone service on this. planet.

A woman connected to the LINKHUB 5G CPE router.

Verizon expanded its service to several other cities throughout 2019, including Denver, Providence, St. Paul, Atlanta, Detroit, Indianapolis, Washington DC, Phoenix, Panama City, New York City, Dallas, Omaha, Houston, and Boston.

The carrier had all of these cities under its belt before competitors T-Mobile and AT&T turned the switch on their 5G networks, but there was a major problem. As a result of Verizon’s use of the extremely high frequency (EHF) — and ultra-short range — millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, 5G service in each of these cities has been limited to very small, specific areas. Move more than a block away from the 5G area, and you’ll quickly find yourself back on your carrier’s standard 4G/LTE service.

The plus side is that if you’re near one of those rare mmWave 5G towers, you can experience massive speeds. It was not uncommon to see speeds in the 500 to 1000 Mbps (1 Gbps) range.

Sprint also started dipping its toes into 5G in early 2019, using the 2.5GHz mid-band spectrum that was already carrying 4G/LTE traffic. These deployments were relatively short-lived, although a year later it would find itself folded into the new T-Mobile, which had other plans for the spectrum.

Expand the 5G network across the country

While Verizon has focused on bringing the fastest possible 5G speeds to small areas, AT&T and T-Mobile have instead been building large-scale 5G networks using lower-band frequencies that can travel much greater distances.

Both carriers switched on their larger 5G networks in December 2019, with T-Mobile claiming its network covered 200 million people out of the gate, while AT&T only promised to cover “tens of millions” of its customers. This is not to be confused with AT&T’s 5G Evolution (5GE) network, which launched in 2018 but was really just a misleading name for its 4G/LTE advanced services.

5G cell tower over the rural countryside.
wireless dish

The two companies used different pieces of low-band spectrum, with AT&T using higher-frequency signals paired to its 4G/LTE network in major cities — only about 15 during its initial launch — while T-Mobile leveraged its 600MHz spectrum already covering large swaths of the countryside. By mid-2020, T-Mobile was able to leverage this spectrum to boast 5G coverage in all 50 states, including Alaska.

Verizon didn’t join the nationwide 5G party until late 2020 when it renamed its mmWave 5G service to 5G Ultra Wideband (5G UW). It did so to make way for a new nationwide 5G offering that he said would bring 5G to an additional 200 million people in 1,800 towns and cities across the country.

The first 5G smartphones

Early 5G deployments were exciting but a bit premature — especially Verizon. When the first mmWave cells launched in Chicago, there were hardly any 5G-enabled devices at all — not to mention the mmWave flavor of 5G Verizon used.

In fact, the only compatible phone on the market at the time of the initial 5G launch was Motorola’s Moto Z3, which was sold exclusively on Verizon’s network. It also requires a separate Moto Mod to provide 5G compatibility.

z3 motorbike
Julian Chukato/Digital Trends

The Moto Z3/Moto Mod solution was an odd arrangement, but thankfully, 5G fans didn’t have to wait long for more options. The Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and LG’s V50 ThinQ came in May, followed by the Huawei Mate X, OnePlus Pro 7 5G, Xiaomi Mi Mix 3 5G, and ZTE Axon 10 Pro 5G.

Those early 5G smartphones also had another important issue. In 2019, Verizon and Sprint were offering 5G services but they do so on different frequencies. Early 5G smartphones like LG’s V50 ThinQ and OnePlus Pro 7 5G couldn’t pack all the frequencies needed for both carriers, so they were sold in two different versions on each carrier. This means that many early Verizon 5G phones won’t work on Sprint and vice versa.

OnePlus 7 Pro 5G
Andy Boxall / Digital Trends

Meanwhile, Apple released its iPhone 11 lineup in 2019 without 5G support at all. Cupertino’s message was clear: 5G hasn’t yet been a big enough deal to justify its inclusion in Apple’s flagship smartphone lineup.

That’s a fair assessment since Apple built its products for the masses, and 5G was available to less than 5% of American consumers in September 2019. That changed dramatically by the time the iPhone 12 was launched a year later, and 5G has become standard on every iPhone since. With support for every 5G band from T-Mobile’s low-band 600MHz to AT&T’s 39GHz mmWave in every US model offers the low-cost iPhone SE.

T-Mobile takes the lead

By November 2019, Verizon had 5G coverage in small areas of 16 US cities, and Sprint had harvested about 16 million people under the 5G umbrella.

So it’s easy to estimate the size of the deal. When T-Mobile flipped the switch on its nationwide 5G network on December 2, promising 5G service to 200 million people in more than 5,000 cities and towns across the United States in one fell swoop, the carrier had just increased 5G availability. ten times.

T-Mobile 5G network announced nationwide.
Alex Tay/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

While Verizon still offers significantly faster speeds, that didn’t matter to 99% of its customers because they were stuck in the carrier’s 4G network. In those early days, T-Mobile’s initial 5G network wasn’t much faster than 4G/LTE, but it also didn’t waste time making major improvements.

First, T-Mobile has been building a “stand-alone” 5G network — a network that doesn’t rely on airwaves to share with older 4G/LTE traffic. This allowed it to make the most of its low 600MHz 5G spectrum by allocating towers to carry only 5G traffic.

In April 2020, T-Mobile also completed its merger with Sprint and quickly began shutting down the carrier’s other 2.5 GHz towers to make way for what would become its 5G ultra-high-capacity network (5G UC). This mid-range 5G spectrum is ideally located, offering the best combination of range and speed, and by the end of 2021, T-Mobile had expanded this coverage to more than 200 million people across the country.

Sculpt on the airwaves

While T-Mobile was busy working on building its mid-range 2.5GHz network, it left its competitors at a disadvantage. Neither AT&T nor Verizon had any mid-band spectrum available to them at the time, so they had to stay on the low end.

AT&T continued to slowly roll out low-band 5G while deploying a faster 5G Plus (5G+) mmWave network in dense urban areas. While Verizon started at the other end with its 2019 mmWave deployments, in late 2020, it rolled out its low-band 5G Nationwide network to bring 5G to the majority of its customers.


Unfortunately, since extended 5G networks relied on the same frequencies used by carriers’ 4G/LTE services, customers got more than the privilege of seeing the 5G symbol appear on their smartphones. Actual download speeds were rarely better than 4G/LTE, and in some cases, slower, with 4G/LTE traffic always taking priority in those airwaves.

Band C is changing the game

T-Mobile’s 2.5GHz spectrum gave it a head start to deploying a faster 5G network, but other carriers weren’t about to be left behind. In early 2021, the FCC put a portion of its C-band spectrum up for auction in the 3.7-3.98 GHz band.

Verizon was quick to get as much of it as possible, paying a record $45.4 billion at auction. AT&T spent $23 billion to secure its segment, and T-Mobile dropped $9.3 billion for a smaller segment that will be used to augment its existing ultra-high-capacity 2.5GHz network.

However, this new spectrum was more valuable to Verizon and AT&T because it finally allowed them to play in the mid-band club. Even better, these higher frequencies will likely provide more capacity than T-Mobile’s 2.5GHz spectrum, albeit at slightly shorter ranges.

A woman holds a smartphone with speed test results on the Verizon 5G Ultra Wideband network.

After a heated debate with the FAA and the aviation industry over whether these signals would interfere with aircraft instruments, AT&T and Verizon finally got the green light to turn on their C-band spectrum in January 2022.

Customers saw noticeable performance improvements immediately. This was especially true for those using Verizon since the carrier immediately rolled out its new C-band spectrum to 100 million people in 1,700 cities. By comparison, AT&T has limited initial C-band offerings to only eight metropolitan centers, preferring to delay a broader C-band rollout until later this year when it can tap into its C-band spectrum in the less exciting 3.45 – 3.55 GHz band. controversy. Later auction.

5G scene today

While T-Mobile still holds the top spot, that’s mainly because it’s a big head start rolling out its mid-range coverage in the first place. A study comparing 5G enhanced services on an equal footing shows that T-Mobile and Verizon customers get roughly the same performance when using carriers’ top 5G networks – mid-range networks.

However, T-Mobile’s much wider coverage of ultrawide 5G means that more customers will experience faster download speeds, raising the national average compared to Verizon’s. It’s fair to say that these numbers will become more balanced as Verizon expands its 5G Ultra Wideband coverage to more cities.

Likewise, AT&T remains in last position as it takes a much more thoughtful approach to its 5G versions, but that will also change once it starts operating more 5G Plus sites later this year, and should be more of a competitor by 2023. .

The good news is that this year we have overcome most of the challenges from the early days of 5G. Today, all three carriers nationwide have mature 5G networks that take advantage of all three frequency bands — low band in rural areas, medium band in most cities, and mmWave in dense urban locations — to provide the best possible 5G service. The question is no longer whether the carrier offers better 5G service than its competitors — T-Mobile’s 5G UC, Verizon’s 5G UW, or AT&T’s 5G+ all converged for performance — but simply if faster 5G networks are available where you live and work.

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