What Is 5G—and How Will It Improve Rural Internet?

The latest generation of cellular tech promises faster speeds, but it will take time to reach rural America

Peter Holslin
Researcher & Writer
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Published on December 11, 2020

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology. It’s faster and more responsive than 4G cellular networks, giving you the ability to hit up to gigabit download speeds on a cell phone (in some areas, at least). But it’s still emerging technology, and it comes in a few different types, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

We’ve been following every update around 5G closely, so we put together a guide to explain how it works, where you can find it, and the ways it could have a positive impact on internet in rural areas. Read on for the full report on 5G.

Why does 5G matter?

ProviderVerizonAT&TT-Mobile
Avg. 5G speeds*494.7 Mbps60.8 Mbps49.2 Mbps
5G availability (# of people covered)†200 million179 million260 million
View plans

*Speeds and availability data come from a 5G report published by Opensignal in June 2020.

†Population numbers from AT&T, T-Mobile, and news reports on Verizon.

5G promises much faster speeds and lower latency for cellular users, making it much easier to do complex tasks like online gaming or streaming movies over the phone. It will reduce network congestion in densely populated areas (like sports stadiums or hospitals) and open up a whole new range of uses for cellular data.

5G is still in the early stages of development, so it may be a while before it brings about any major changes to our daily lives. But it has a lot of potential. In rural areas, experts believe it could have a massively positive impact on farming and agriculture, since it can be used to power self-driving tractors and control wireless sensors that will manage crops and livestock.1

How does 5G work?

Like 4G and 4G LTE—the previous wireless standards that drive our cell phones—5G works by using radio frequencies and transmitters to carry data from a centralized phone network to our mobile devices.

Most 5G networks currently rely on 4G infrastructure to get the job done. But companies like T-Mobile are also building “standalone” 5G networks. Built using novel technology, these brand new networks carry much more data than what was possible with 4G and have other flexible features to manage more devices (and different types of devices) simultaneously.

Here’s a breakdown of 5G technology:

  • Millimeter-wave. The fastest version of 5G relies on a previously unused spectrum of radio frequencies, called millimeter waves, to deliver record-fast speeds over only very short ranges.
  • Beamforming. With beamforming, 5G radio transmitters use an array of antennas to shape radio signals in a way that directly targets individual devices, making data transfers more efficient.
  • Massive MIMO (multiple-input and multiple-output). Deployed alongside beamforming, massive MIMO boosts the number of antennas installed on radio towers, increasing the tower’s capacity to carry more data for a larger number of users.
  • Edge computing. Previous cellular standards relied on central networking hubs and cloud computing, but now cell carriers are building networks of local servers closer to the user to process our internet signals with greater speed and flexibility.

What types of 5G are there?

There are three basic types of 5G—millimeter-wave, mid-band, and low-band.

Millimeter-wave 5G delivers dazzling speeds, with one national speed test reporting average speeds of 494.7 Mbps from Verizon.2

Mid-band 5G has a wider range and slightly slower speeds, though it’s still really fast. Low-band 5G has the widest range. The analytics company Opensignal recently found AT&T’s mid- and low-band 5G delivering average speeds of 60.8 Mbps, while T-Mobile announced in October 2020 that its mid-band frequencies can hit up to 300 Mbps download speeds.2, 3

These different 5G flavors all have different strengths, so they each can be deployed for different purposes and use cases.

The three 5G’s and where you’ll find them:

  • Millimeter-wave 5G (28 GHz): Sports stadiums, parks, hospitals, factories
  • Mid-band 5G (2.5–3.5 GHz): Cities, towns, mid- to low-density population areas
  • Low-band 5G (600-700 MHz): Towns, rural communities, low-density population areas

You’re probably not going to find millimeter-wave 5G in a small town, but it could be an effective resource to power digital tools in that town’s hospital. And low-band 5G would be extremely useful in a rural area where the only other way to get internet access is through satellite.

Where is 5G available?

Provider
Availability (% of cell phone time user connects to 5G)

T-Mobile

22.5%

AT&T

10.3%

Verizon

0.4%

5G coverage is available only in major cities and towns right now.

Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are the three major cellular carriers launching 5G in the United States, and you can access 5G on any of their networks if it’s available in your area. Naturally, you’ll need a wireless plan with one of the providers and a 5G phone or other device to access the network.

Cellular carriers are racing to expand 5G nationwide, but it will take a few years before it’s easily accessible. T-Mobile has the largest network thus far, with a recent merger with Sprint giving it a bigger 5G footprint. It’s pledged to extend 5G access to 50% of American households by the year 2026.3

Verizon expanded its nationwide 5G network in October 2020, adding low- and mid-band versions of 5G that will eventually serve more than 200 million people.4 Up until then, Verizon focused on building out millimeter-wave 5G, which delivered much faster speeds but in isolated urban centers.

Pro tip
Light Bulb

Even if you can get 5G, it’s not likely that your phone will be tapped into a 5G network 24/7. A report in June 2020 from the analytics company Opensignal found that T-Mobile customers were able to access 5G for only about 22.5% of the time they spent on their phones. AT&T customers in areas with 5G could get it 10.3% of the time, and Verizon customers just 0.4%.4

Is 5G available in rural areas?

5G is not currently available in many rural areas in the United States, but some versions of 5G may appear on the horizon in the coming years.

Since building a 5G network requires a lot of new infrastructure, these days cellular companies are prioritizing areas with larger populations (and hence more paying customers). But low-band and mid-band forms of 5G will likely come into use in smaller towns and rural areas, while millimeter-wave 5G could be used in rural factories, healthcare centers, and agricultural sites to connect Wi-Fi tools.

Indeed, introducing 5G in rural areas could be a game-changer, giving users the opportunity to get faster speeds and better performance in areas that otherwise have limited Wi-Fi access.

5G Home Internet—the wave of the future?

Provider

Verizon 5G Home Internet

Starry Internet

Pricing

$50/mo. (w/ Verizon wireless account) or $70/mo. (w/out)

$50/mo.
Speeds & dataApprox. 300 Mbps speeds, 1,000 Mbps max
Unlimited data
Up to 200 Mbps speeds
Unlimited data
Plans

Data as of 12/8/2020. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.

In addition to mobile networks, 5G also has a home internet option.

5G internet works similarly to fixed-wireless internet. A 5G transmitter—usually affixed to a light post or electrical utility box—will send a signal to nearby apartment buildings and residential complexes, providing internet service to customers who live inside.

5G home internet is relatively new and not widely available, mostly limited right now to a handful of major American cities. But 5G internet could become a lot more popular over the coming years as more cellular providers build up their 5G networks. And in the meantime there’s another, much more accessible option for rural customers—4G LTE Home Internet.

4G LTE Home Internet—a great alternative

Provider

Verizon LTE Home Internet

T-Mobile Home Internet

UbiFi

Ladybug Wireless

Pricing$40.00–$60.00/mo.$50.00/mo.$99.99/mo.$94.99/mo.
Speeds & dataApprox. 25 Mbps speeds
Unlimited data
Approx. 25 Mbps speeds
Unlimited data
Approx. 2—25 Mbps*
Unlimited data
Top speeds of 60 Mbps
400 GB monthly data
Plans

*Based on customer reviews. Speeds vary based on network availability, according to the UbiFi website.

Data as of 12/8/2020. Offers and availability may vary by location and are subject to change.

Though it may take some years before 5G is widely available in rural America, 4G LTE home internet is a great option right now for rural internet customers.

Verizon, T-Mobile, and several other providers offer well-priced 4G LTE home internet options. Although speeds vary depending on where you are in the provider’s service area, most plans fall in the range of 10–25 Mbps. And you get more monthly data than you would get from a satellite plan—usually unlimited data. Slam dunk!

Sure, it may not be 5G. But four Gs are better than none.

5G devices

The iPhone 12 is arguably the most popular 5G phone available right now. But lots of 5G phones and other devices are coming out on the market, and it’s only a matter of time before every standard cell phone comes with 5G compatibility.

Here’s a breakdown of some of our favorite 5G phones and devices so far:

Best for...Best overallBest featuresBest cameraBest budget pick
PhoneSamsung Galaxy S20 PlusiPhone 12OnePlus 8 ProSamsung Galaxy A71 5G
Price$949.99 (128 GB)$829.00 (64 GB)$799.99 (256 GB)$499.99 (128 GB)
Display6.7" AMOLED6.1" OLED6.78" AMOLED6.7" AMOLED
Link

Amazon.com Price (as of 12/8/2020 3:06 p.m. MST). See full disclaimer.

FAQ about 5G

How do you define 5G?

5G is a wireless communication standard that delivers faster speeds and lower latency to phones, devices, and applications connected over a cellular network. It follows on 4G wireless standards and incorporates new technology to deliver better performance.

What does “5G” stand for?

5G stands for the “fifth generation” of cellular technology. It follows in the footsteps of 4G, 3G, 2G, and 1G cellular standards.

What is a 5G network?

A 5G network is a wireless cellular network that delivers internet data to cell phones, mobile devices, and computers. Most 5G networks right now build on 4G radio towers and other infrastructure, but in the coming years 5G providers will be building standalone networks featuring entirely new tech that makes 5G faster and more responsive.

Sources

  1. Don Reisinger, Fortune, “How 5g Promises to Revolutionize Farming,” February 28, 2020. Accessed December 7, 2020. 
  2. Ian Fogg, Opensignal, “5G User Experience Report,” June 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020. 
  3. T-Mobile, “T‑Mobile Nearly Doubles its Supercharged Mid‑Band 5G in Just One Month,” October 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020.
  4. Chaim Gartenberg, The Verge, “Verizon Announces Its Nationwide 5G Network,” October 2020. Accessed November 20, 2020.  

Disclaimer

Product prices and availability are accurate as of the date/time indicated and are subject to change. Any price and availability information displayed on Amazon.com at the time of purchase will apply to the purchase of this product. HighSpeedInternet.com utilizes paid Amazon links.

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Peter Holslin
Written by
Peter Holslin