The 5G Revolution

What is 5G? Do we need it? How does it work?

The 5G Revolution

April 2019

You can’t go far in a conversation about new services and devices in the mobile/smart phone industry without hearing something about “5G. Verizon, AT&T and their counterparts across the globe are tripping over each other announcing their implementation of 5G and consumers are being led to believe that our lives will be dramatically changed forever within months.  Often the introduction of new business concepts that are billed as “disruptive” have some hype and it is possible that 5G may be a bit ahead of reality. 

What is 5G?

5G stands for Fifth Generation wireless technology. Remember flip-phones? Twenty years ago, the “cellular” networks that operated flip phones were what is now called 3G, for Third Generation. These networks were upgraded during the last decade to the 4G technology that underlies wireless networks across the U.S. today. 5G is not an upgrade to 4G, but rather it is a whole new transmission implementation using new antenna, new chips and software. It promises to give us is wireless downloads that will rival cable system speeds. 5G is an emerging technology that is being used to create emerging services. The basic standards are more or less complete, but further standards are being negotiated in 2019 and 2020. Both the technology and the services of 5G will change over time, meaning that there may be a risk that equipment will become obsolete over time, not unlike the changes in smartphones in the first several years. Initial rollouts will be limited to large swaths of smaller cities and neighborhoods of larger ones. General availability of 5G will probably not be available for more than a few years. 

Let’s look at what is real and what is not. 

First, 5G technology can deliver higher speeds. The suppliers are claiming future download speeds will be markedly increased by multiples. While this is the theory, but reality is 5G will deliver download speeds in the same range that current cable systems deliver to homes. Wireless (cellular) networks will deliver significant improvement in speed, 10 to 20 times faster than today’s wireless networks. In theory, cable networks should be able to deliver Gigabit speeds, but most households receive 50 to 250 megabits per second (Mbps). Only a decade ago cable systems were delivering between 10 to 40 Mbps, but nowhere near the “theoretical” speeds of 100Mbps that 4G wireless networks (AT&T, Verizon, Sprint or T-Mobile) deliver.  Typical wireless download speeds are really in the 8 to 10 Mbps range, about 1/10th the theoretical level. In tests, networking supplier Qualcom obtained download speed of between 100 and 390 Mbps from various configurations of 5G networks, depending on bandwidth and frequency of the underlying network. These speeds are in the zone of 1/10th the theoretical speeds, and a huge increase from current 4G speeds. These actual speeds are in the zone of capacity of many U.S. cable systems, making 5G faster than current wireless but equal to current home cable speeds.  I would expect that we will see speeds increase meaningfully over the next decade with future network evolution.

When will it be available in my area?

All the wireless companies are touting rollouts beginning last year and continuing this year, but 5G will not be available soon enough to give your new Smartphone faster speeds.  The initial rollout is not the full 5G technology but is aimed at connecting your house, not necessarily your Smartphone.


AT&T calls their offering “5G Evolution” and Verizon calls theirs “Home”. Each is a hybrid between 4G and 5G and it appears that carriers are creating different systems for selling “fixed” services (to compete for your home connection) and “mobile” services (for smartphones and mobile devices, including cars.) What 5G is and how it will evolve is different for each carrier and each has its own spin. It is not clear that mobile services and fixed services will work together.  Initially the Verizon service will work like your cable service, where it connects to a router in your home and you can connect to it via Wi-Fi. There may be a way for 5G phones to connect directly (TBA).

From site “wirelessnoise”:

“Verizon Wireless was the first to start with what they call "5G", but it's really only a step closer.  Verizon's 5G, called "Home", is actually a slowed-down version of their ultimate high-speed Internet service.  In order to win the 5G footrace, Verizon is offering fixed wireless equipment that does not use the universally-accepted technology (3GPP), and they do not yet offer the near 5G speed standards, near 20Gbs.  Verizon does plan to pick up the speed and eventually offer the latest technology, but will need to replace customer equipment when it becomes available.
Similarly, AT&T doesn't yet offer a true 5G experience, instead, they call their high-er speed data, "5G Evolution."  That means that they're getting faster in some areas on their way to eventually offering real 5G performance.  AT&T also claims they will have 5G mobile coverage, soon.  So, there are some name games going on here. “

The actual rollouts are being done in smaller cities and some neighborhoods of larger cities, but not complete metro areas. The service will not be anything like the ubiquitous coverage that we enjoy with our wireless phones. We also know that even though most of the standards for 5G are agreed upon, the different providers are using different network bandwidth and frequencies in different markets, which could make ubiquitous coverage difficult for quite a while. The new 5G services being offered by Verizon and AT&T to replace your cable connection to the Internet WILL NOT come with TV service. The price is for Internet access only. You will need to subscribe to streaming services to get TV channels and movies. In effect we will all become “cord cutters”.

Bottom line

5G is being introduced in selected cities around the country. Future roll-outs will be slow and would not be expected in smaller towns and rural areas for quite some time. First implementations will provide speeds equivalent to cable internet service and the initial thrust will to compete with cable companies for home access. Mobile 5G will also be available in some markets, but it is not clear yet how broad the coverage will be. A 5G Samsung Galaxy will be available soon, and other phone suppliers, including several Chinese phones, are available now. Apple’s 5GiPhone is not expected until next year.  

This all sounds confusing.  What is the real issue?

5G is really not a new “technology”.  It is wireless transmission that is as old as AM radio. What is new is the use of different wireless spectrum (frequencies) that have different characteristics from those used with 4G. These spectrums allow for more simultaneous transmissions and bandwidth. They give up something, though, and that is distance. And this is an important factor in the roll-out of 5G. Shortwave radio transmissions can be received over a thousand miles away, but the bandwidth is tiny. AM radios can be received over 100 miles away with a bit more bandwidth. 4G wireless transmissions are measured in miles and enable all the data transmissions we’ve become used to. 5G range is well under a mile, and if carriers are using the new higher frequencies, then maximum range maybe only 1,500 feet (1/3 mile). 

All this means that depending on the frequencies used by your carrier, the range from your phone or home could be a mile, or as little as 1/3 mile.  The more transmission bandwidth they plan to provide you, the shorter the range. Additionally, the higher frequencies do not go around corners or work their way through foliage like the current 4G frequencies do. You may have seen this in your own home if you have a router for Wi-Fi that has 2.5G and 5G frequencies on it.  The 2.5G is slower but will let you connect way at the other end of the house; the 5G is faster but may mean that your kids need to be closer to where you have your router. 

5G deployment means building a whole new network.

The short range of 5G means is that carriers can’t just slap up a new 5G transmitter to replace the “old” 4G antenna on the big tower. They need to have antenna at least every 1/3 mile, not every 4-5 miles like today’s wireless networks. If there are buildings, hills or trees in the way that will stop the transmission, then even more will be needed. In urban areas this will mean antenna on every block or two.  Each antenna will need to be connected to the “network” with a high-speed connection, too. This may be wireless or fiber. The carrier will have to put up not just hundreds, but thousands of individual transmitters to give ubiquitous coverage. This is a serious infrastructure build, not just replacement of an antenna.  For real national ubiquity we’d be talking millions of antenna.  Adding to the construction and financing challenge, carriers may run into zoning and other regulations that limit their build-outs. 

Hello, still with me?  By now you must see that this kind of infrastructure build is not going to take some time to create the level of coverage that we expect. There will be 5G, but it isn’t going to create faster smart phone downloads wherever you go. For the first several years we should expect fast coverage in some metro areas and the regular 4G coverage everywhere else.

So what are the wireless carriers doing? 

Wireless carriers are making targeted build-outs to compete with cable companies in supplying your home connection. In some areas you may spot medium-height telephone about every 1/3 mile, with a round “can” at the top of the pole, each about one foot in diameter and 20 inches high. The pole is not part of the network of telephone/cable poles going down the street.  This “first service”, is NOT to speed up your wireless cellphone but to compete with the local cable provider for the Internet/TV connection in our homes. You will have to provide the remainder of whatever TV and streaming services you want. Change is coming; it is an evolution, not a revolution.

So, should I go out and get a 5G phone tomorrow? 

If you replace your cable with a wireless carrier’s service, it is unclear where you will be able to find faster coverage than you already have… except maybe in your own home. I am a bit surprised at the lack of technical and evolution clarity in the media, but I’m sure that in a few years the place for 5G will be clear. There is no question that there will be a big change in our ability to reach services, and 5G will enable new services and capabilities over time. 

Personally, I need a bit more clarity, and I haven’t heard of an imminent 5G roll-out in my area.  I’m going to wait on the new phone.   


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