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Get ready for what’s next in wireless

A primer for America’s 5G era

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Everybody’s talking about 5G — and for good reason. Mobile’s evolution from 1G to 2G to 3G ensured that, as the world moved online, the online world moved to mobile. Over the past decade, the move to 4G changed how we get a lift, buy a home, find love, and just about everything in between. Each new “G” has set off seismic social and economic shifts. Now, 5G’s here — and it will eventually do the same. Only more so.

Changes happening right now in the mobile space are about to bring real change to all of us over the next few years, from radically new connected devices to entirely new companies and economies. First will come 5G’s improved reach, reliability, ever-expanding coverage, and, of course, the 5G speeds. Not long after that, we’ll start to see ubiquitous, real-time AR, AI, IoT, and a thousand game-changing applications (and acronyms) yet to be imagined. It’s all on the way.

But here’s the problem: Though everyone’s carrier is talking up their 5G plans, virtually no one’s breaking down what it is or what it all means, especially in the present. So, here’s a quick primer to help you plan for what’s next in wireless — and to lay down some knowledge the next time 5G comes up in conversation.

A spectrum primer

You probably know “5G” stands for fifth-generation wireless, which is a set of guidelines that define the workings of a wireless network — like standards for spectrum use and how hardware like modems, microchips, and antennas handle that spectrum and exchange data. These are the technical standards that ensure all the pieces and players work together seamlessly.

And then there’s the spectrum game. Spectrum, of course, is the invisible stuff that carries voice and data signals to and from your phone and the network. This is the same spectrum carrying the tunes from your favorite station to your car radio.

The next thing to know is that not all spectrums are created equal. Different spectrums have different characteristics and uses. There are basically three types of spectrum bands — high, mid, and low.

On one end, you have high-band (20 GHz and up), which provides bandwidth and speed but can’t travel far. And high-band signals are blocked by just about anything in their way. Even over short distances in cities, more often than not there’s something — a tree or a wall — standing between the nearest tower or cell site and the phone in your hand. This is one reason high-band hasn’t been used for wireless networks in the past. So, by itself, high-band is a limited solution.

On the other end of the spectrum (so to speak) is low-band (under 1 GHz). Low-band signals can travel much, much farther. The key is low-band’s lower frequency and longer wavelength. Thanks to that longer wave, one tower sending out a low-band signal can cover hundreds of square miles — as opposed to hundreds of square yards with high-band. It’s that characteristic that makes low-band ideal for broad coverage, because the signal can cover big cities, small towns, and everything in between.

But low-band does more than that. The lower the frequency, the more easily a signal passes through barriers like trees, walls, and even entire buildings. In cities, that means low-band’s got you covered whether you’re in a park surrounded by trees, standing at a street corner, or ensconced in your office. And it has the broad reach to cover rural areas, too.

No surprise, the characteristics of mid-band (1 GHz to 6GHz) lie somewhere in between. So, mid-band spectrum can provide a good mix of all key characteristics — coverage, quality, throughput, capacity, and latency.

Next thing to know is that there’s a limited supply of spectrum. This is important, because the move to a massively data-intensive 5G world is going to require more performance out of these finite resources. Finding the best possible way to use all types of spectrum will be the real challenge.

And here’s where you explain to your friends exactly how that’s got to happen.

T-Mobile

This is how 5G happens

For their early 5G deployments, AT&T and Verizon leaned heavily on high-band spectrum — and T-Mobile has put it to use too. Why? First, high-band 5G technologies were the first to be available. Also, though a high-band signal can’t travel more than about 500 yards, it does have the high bandwidth to carry a load of data — and at high speeds. So, it’s not a bad choice to cover small areas with high data usage — like, say, Manhattan (or sports stadiums). But, again, it has limits.

Obviously, longer term, limited coverage in a limited number of locations isn’t going to cut it. Of course, everyone is going to need 5G — whether we live, work, and play in big cities, small towns, remote rural locations, or all of the above. Because we are literally talking about access to our 5G future — and all that that future holds.

A closer look at T-Mobile’s strategy

You may have heard T-Mobile recently launched America’s first nationwide 5G network, covering 200 million people across the U.S. They achieved this feat by first building a 600 MHz low-band network that was 5G primed and ready. In short, T-Mobile was first with nationwide 5G, because they were first to move past high-band and mid-band and build their 5G network on a foundation of low-band.

A while back, the federal government unlocked a mother lode of low-band for auction. And this wasn’t just any low-band. This was prime 600 MHz spectrum — the lowest-frequency spectrum available for use in wireless. That means a 5G network running on their 600 MHz signal will go farther and be better in buildings, giving it an advantage over other spectrum frequencies.

T-Mobile scooped up nearly half of all 600 MHz licenses at that auction, walking away with enough to cover every inch of the U.S. and Puerto Rico — even parts of the Gulf of Mexico.

Over the past three years, T-Mobile added 25,000 new towers and cell sites, hired more than 3,400 new engineers, and invested almost $30 billion to improve nationwide coverage. All told, they added one million square miles of new LTE coverage, a massive area that’s bigger than all 26 states east of the Mississippi. And that expanded coverage is bringing connectivity (and competition) to a lot of places where there was little to none before.

Just one example is in the Gulf of Mexico. With its 600 MHz signal, T-Mobile was able to bring LTE coverage to the region for the first time, dramatically improving connectivity for offshore workers, leisure and commercial vessels, oil and gas platforms, and other critical infrastructure in the region.

Then, in early December, T-Mobile lit up 5G nationwide. The first 5G devices to make full use of T-Mobile’s 600 MHz 5G — the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren and Samsung Galaxy Note10+ 5G — were made available just a few days later.

The result is that, while some wireless customers can’t get 5G because of their carriers’ high-band strategy, T-Mobile is bringing 5G to more places for more people with its low-band strategy.

And it gets better. If T-Mobile’s planned merger with Sprint closes, T-Mobile can add Sprint’s mid-band spectrum to its 5G network. Adding these higher frequencies to T-Mobile’s low-band network will combine 5G capacity and coverage in ways that truly super-charge the network experience for customers.

Now, you’re set. The next time the conversation turns to 5G, it’s your time to shine.

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