Everyone seems to be talking about 5G, but I still see a lot of confusion about the technology and what it really means.

Things don’t help with the fact that almost all carriers are pushing the next-generation connectivity standard, even though 5G does not exist significantly in Canada.

For example, if you buy a new smartphone, it likely has ‘5G’ in the name, or at least supports the technology. Even budget, lower-cost phones like the Pixel 4a 5G sport the technology. It’s basically everywhere in Canada and surprisingly nowhere at the same time.

“Sub-6 is short for sub 6GHz or spectrum below 6,000MHz.”

The short and simple explanation for 5G is that the term stands for “fifth generation mobile network” and represents a variety of technologies that enable faster wireless networks, higher bandwidth, lower latency, and more.

Ultimately, that’s all most people need to know. As more 5G networks come online, people will start to see new technologies that take advantage of improved networks. Existing network technologies and applications will also improve (i.e. faster downloads, more stable video streaming, etc.). But, for those interested in the types of 5G out there, read on.

Make sense of Sub-6 and mmWave

5G can be divided into three main groups: low, medium and high band 5G.

Low-band 5G generally refers to the spectrum of radio waves below one gigahertz (GHz) or 1,000 megahertz (MHz). In Canada, the vast majority of currently available 5G networks use low-band 5G.

Unfortunately, 3G and 4G networks also use low-band spectrum, which means that for most people, there is no significant difference between using 4G or 5G at the moment. Plus, there’s just not much spectrum available in this range, whether you’re running 5G, 4G, or 3G.

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That’s where the midband, or Sub-6 5G, comes in. Sub-6 is short for sub 6GHz, or spectrum below 6,000MHz. This is an important area to consider for Canadians, as Sub-6 will be one of the first significant 5G we will get. The government recently auctioned 3,500MHz spectrum and when operators start rolling out networks that use it, we should start to see some real benefits.

“Most places, including Canada, have focused on Sub-6 5G, but the US started with mmWave.”

Sub-6 5G is a great middle ground, offering higher speeds and performance than low-band spectrum, but it doesn’t suffer from the same range limitations of high-band 5G, also called mmWave.

mmWave covers the spectrum in the 25-39GHz range, offering much higher speeds down to the gigabit level. Unfortunately, these radio waves cannot travel beyond a few hundred meters. They also struggle to pass through objects such as trees or walls.

Although more limited, mmWave can offer significant speed increases in scenarios where range is not an important factor. For example, urban areas allow operators to build dense millimeter wave networks.

Most places, including Canada, have focused on Sub-6 5G, but the US started with mmWave. This is why you often see blazing fast mobile speeds in US cities, but 5G coverage in general can be extremely spotty. However, that will change over time.

There has been a lot of talk about the possibilities 5G offers, the possible applications of the technology and much, much more. Although many of the prospects are exciting, we are still years away from having the 5G saturation needed to support those ideas.

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In other words, there are reasons to be excited about 5G in Canada, but for now, keep your expectations moderate.

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