Fifth Generation Cellular for RVers and Boaters
Though 5G technology has been available in an early form for several years - it started to go mainstream and grow in importance in late 2020, and it will become as pervasive as 4G is in the years ahead.
As 5G continues to roll out, it will lay the foundation for the next decade of evolution in cellular speeds and capabilities.
In this guide we'll be bringing together information covering 5G and how it will impact RVers and cruisers who rely on cellular data for their mobile internet needs.
We'll be actively updating this guide, and all of our content, to keep up with this rapidly evolving technological shift - helping our audience decide when it makes sense to incorporate 5G into their mobile internet arsenals.
After all - just because 5G is available, for some it might not be "ready" enough to embrace just yet.
There can be downsides to being on the bleeding edge, after all.
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What is 5G?
Roughly every ten years, a fundamental new generation of cellular technologies comes to market.
In 2010 - the 4G/LTE era began when Verizon became the first United States carrier to embrace fourth generation cellular technologies, starting the move from the limited mobile data capabilities of the 3G era towards the data-centric speeds and capabilities enabled by 4G.
A decade has passed, 4G/LTE is everywhere, and as we head deeper into the 2020's it's time once again for a new cellular generation - laying the foundations for the next decade of technological advancement.
Why Evolve via Generations?
Cellular technology is standardized so that different device manufacturers, cellular carriers, and networking equipment suppliers from around the world can build to these standards and create interoperable gear.
If it wasn't for standards - there would be chaos on the market.
But technology constantly evolves - and standards that matched the technologies of the 1990s could never anticipate the the technological advancements and markets demands of the 2020s.
To strike a balance between interoperability and progress - the cellular industry has worked together to allow for a major change in the underlying standards just once a decade, with continual smaller (but still backwards compatible) jumps made every few years between the major generational shifts.
The changes between different generations of cellular technologies comes down to redefining the rules of how cell towers and devices communicate with each other - which then allows new gear to be developed under those new specifications.
In other words - evolving the standards to take advantage of newer technologies enables a whole new generation of more advanced devices than would have been possible before.
A Highway Analogy
Back in the 1960s the max highway length for a vehicle on most roads was 35' - limiting how long buses and motorhomes could be made that could legally operate on US roadways. These days, that max length is 45' - which means we have can have larger vehicles transporting more commercial goods across the country, buses that move more people, and motorhomes with more luxuries.
As technology advanced, the standards advanced - and the overall capability of the highway system evolved.
Cellular is evolving similarly, but at a MUCH more rapid pace!
For more on the past and to better understand the evolution of cellular technology, check out our guide looking deeper into the colorful history of cellular technologies:
Benefits of 5G
Fifth generation cellular rethinks cellular networking to allow for much faster peak speeds, more data usage, substantially lower network latency, and for cellular networks with vastly more connected devices than were possible in the 4G era.
Some examples of the capabilities that are changing thanks to the new 5G specifications:
- Faster Speeds: The largest 4G channels are 20 MHz wide (think of them as a 20 lane highway), and carrier aggregation technology allows the most advanced 4G/LTE modems to combine up to eight different channels together for more capacity. This has enabled peak theoretical LTE speeds to reach well over a gigabit per second, but this is as far as 4G technology can be pushed. 5G technology on the other hand allows for 100 MHz and even 400 MHz wide channels (imagine 100 lanes of traffic on a highway!), even more of these channels can be bonded together, and 5G radios can use these invisible airwaves more efficiently too. These technological advancements combine to open the door to peak theoretical 5G speeds of over 10 Gbps (gigabits per second) - with real world speeds substantially over 1 Gbps already being seen in some areas.
- More Data Usage: For most applications, few people can tell the difference between 50 Mbps and 500 Mbps (Megabits per second). But a faster network has the raw capability to serve more data to more people at once, meaning less overall congestion. This (hopefully!) opens the door to carriers being less stingy with the limits on their data plans once their 5G networks begin to mature.
- Lower Latency: 4G/LTE networks have a lot of built-in overhead that makes latencies (the round trip delay in the network) of less than around 30ms nearly impossible to achieve. 5G networks have been redesigned to allow latencies to eventually reach as low as 1ms, enabling cellular to match even the fastest cable and fiber networks. Low latencies will enable everything from virtual reality and augmented reality headsets, to self-driving cars that can communicate directly with each other.
- More Network Capacity: Not every device needs crazy fast speeds or low latencies, and 5G networks are being designed to also enable millions of low cost and lower performance devices too - all connected at once in a way that would have overwhelmed 4G networks. Imagine cellular devices as basic as temperature sensors in a garden, with batteries that lasts for years without a recharge.
- Better Battery Life (Eventually): Most 5G networks are currently layered on top of the legacy 4G networks, meaning that 5G cellular devices also need to keep the 4G radio powered on to keep connected. But over time 5G networks will be able to stand alone without relying on 4G, and 5G radios will be able to work in new low-power modes that have the potential to significantly improve battery life for connected devices.
Though 5G changes the networking rules in some substantial ways - it is actually a direct evolution of 4G/LTE technologies, building upon an established foundation.
In fact, most 5G networks still require 4G as an underlying backbone.
But eventually, 5G networks will evolve well beyond 4G/LTE - and 5G technology will be used for everything from home internet service to private corporate networks to enabling a whole new generation of mobile devices.
5G Is The Future, But The Future Doesn't Arrive Overnight
It is important to keep in mind that while the 5G standards enable some incredible advancements - it will take time for all these benefits to actually make it out into the world.
The new standards pave the way for the next decade of new devices and faster and more advanced networks - just like the 4G/LTE standard paved the way for all the incredible advancements of the past decade.
Cellular evolution is a relay race. 4G is running out of steam, and it is passing the baton to 5G.
The first generation of 5G devices will look like dinosaurs compared to the 5G devices we see a decade from now.
And as the decade comes to a close - 6G will be ready to leap into the race.
5G Industry Update
In mid-2021, Chris provided an state of the industry update on 5G and an overview of new 5G equipment coming to market.
Delivering on the promise of 5G requires new radio technologies and new chunks of wireless spectrum to broadcast upon.
5G will open up new frequency bands, and also reutilize existing lower and mid-range bands currently in use for 3G and 4G/LTE.
You can think of it like a layer cake, with differently flavored layers.
Each carrier is going about their initial 5G deployments differently, depending on what spectrum holdings they have available - prioritizing different layers of their cellular cake as they build out their networks.
Verizon in particular has focused first on incredibly fast but extremely short range mmWave, but in early 2022 is starting to deploy their mid-band C-Band spectrum.
And T-Mobile has a huge lead building out low-band and mid-band 5G.
But eventually all the carriers will be taking advantage of all the flavors of 5G spectrum - it is only a matter of time.
Here is more about the layers of the 5G frequency cake:
These super high-frequency signals are great for speed, but they do NOT travel far through the air and they can be easily blocked by walls and windows. This means that mmWave 5G networks only provide 5G service within just a block or so (or even less) of the typically streetlight-mounted mmWave 5G transmitters. This mmWave technology is great for delivering 5G service in places where a lot of people congregate - like stadiums, city centers, airports and shopping malls - eliminating dreaded network congestion.
Many of the earliest 5G deployments focused on these extremely high-frequency millimeter wave (mmWave) signals. This coverage type will rarely be the type of 5G that RVers and cruisers will encounter.
With mmWave coverage, speeds can be expected to be measured in the Gbps.
This spectrum provides a good balance of speed and range - and will be the key to a truly "next generation" 5G experience. It's considered the sweet spot.
A lot of the mid-band frequencies are using new spectrum that is still being acquired and built out by the carriers - and it will take time for these newly built networks to achieve widespread coverage. T-Mobile has a head start with mid-band 5G thanks to its acquisition of Sprint - but the other carriers are racing to catch up.
With mid-band, anticipate speeds measured in the hundreds of Mbps, and coverage reaching a few miles from the towers.
This spectrum is mostly already in use by the carriers for their 4G/LTE networks today, and it is being repurposed for providing 5G over long ranges.
Low-band 5G will rapidly be able to reach everywhere that 4G/LTE is available today, providing 5G nationwide - even in rural locations. But this low-band long-range 5G technology can not defy the laws of physics - and if you are only in a low-band coverage area 5G will not be able to deliver performance much beyond "really good 4G" in many places.
For more on understanding the trade-offs of different cellular frequencies, check out our guide:
Each of the carriers is taking a different path to fully deploying their 5G networks, which we cover in more depth further in this guide. And each is treating the newer frequency bands of mmWave and mid-band differently than existing low-band spectrums, even in terms of data plans.
To help people better understand how they are connecting, the carriers have moved to displaying special indicators on smartphones, hotspots and routers to show just what type of 5G a device is receiving.
Here's how the carriers are labeling their 5G flavors:
- 5GUW - mmWave and Verizon's C-Band midband spectrum
- 5G - Low-band / "Nationwide" 5G.
- 5G+ - mmWave, and C-Band mid-band spectrum.
- 5G - Low-band / "Nationwide"
- 5Ge - LTE-Advanced (NOT real 5G, despite the label!)
- 5GUC - mmWave & mid-band 5G.
- 5G - Low-band 5G.
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Check out the Topics Covered in the Member Section:
Dynamic Spectrum Sharing
We discuss how 5G cooperates with existing 4G spectrum.
Standalone vs Non-Standalone 5G
The first wave of 5G networks are mostly running layered on top of existing 4G networks - but eventually 5G networks will be able to run standalone without needing 4G assistance.
Fixed vs Mobile 5G
Not all 5G will be intended for mobile usage - and a lot of 5G devices (and data plans) will be targeting fixed location installations to compete with cable and fiber internet.
5G Cellular Gear
5G is an upgrade on the carrier side, but will also require new gear for consumers. This section discusses 5G compatibility with modems, antennas and boosters.
How will 5G impact legacy data plans, and will 5G bring about real unlimited data?
The Race to 5G
All of the carriers are actively deploying 5G - in this section, we chronicle where Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile are in the race.
Is it Time to Embrace 5G?
When is the right time for RVers and cruisers to embrace 5G?
Unless you are desperate for geek bragging rights (and there is nothing wrong with that!), there is NO reason to rush out to invest in 5G devices just yet.
But now that the second wave of 5G devices are starting to come to market, there is also no reason to avoid 5G consumer hardware like smartphones anymore if it fits your needs.
And while the current generation of 5G cellular integrated routers may not be as future-proof as would be ideal, at the very least they are awesome 4G devices - so there is no reason to actively avoid them.
Eventually, 5G will indeed be a big deal - and a must have.
Just not quite yet.
So for now, sit back and enjoy watching the race - but don't get too caught up in it!
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