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5G service just got faster for some people. Here’s why.

One year and billions of dollars later, a crucial part of the experience is in place

Tech reporter Chris Velazco explains what you need to know to get 5G service on your smartphones. (Video: The Washington Post)
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Ever since the first 5G networks went live more than two years ago, we’ve tested them and talked to people to see if they’ve really made a difference. Too often, the answer was a clear “no.”

But after years of reality puncturing the hype, some people are starting to see a difference. That’s all because of some recent, big changes to the way some 5G networks actually function, and we’re here to break those changes down for you.

Here’s your guide to the state of 5G in early 2022, why it had airlines, government agencies and wireless carriers duking it out in public, and what this all means for you.

Why is everyone talking about 5G again right now?

After a costly multibillion-dollar FCC auction in early 2021, Verizon and AT&T walked away with the right to expand their 5G networks into new parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Trust us: It’s a lot easier to understand than it sounds. Let’s unpack things a little.

Both of these companies have had 5G service running in one form or another for well over two years, and they mainly relied on two flavors of 5G.

MmWave (pronounced “millimeter wave”) 5G is the kind flashy, hyper-fast 5G that lets you download full movies in just a few seconds. The problem is it uses super-high-frequency radio waves that can’t travel very far. On the other end is low-band 5G, which often isn’t much different fromfrom the 4G service you’re probably used to. It isn’t as fast as mmWave, but it covers much more ground — think miles, not blocks.

What Verizon and AT&T spent around $70 billion on last year was the right to deploy 5G service using the spectral space between low-band and mmWave. Naturally, the service that relies on that middle ground is called mid-band 5G. You might have heard of people calling it C-band 5G, which is technically correct, too — that name refers to the specific chunks of spectrum these carriers paid for.

These companies aren’t alone in their work: T-Mobile has been using mid-band 5G for a while, which explains why it beat the competition in some of our network tests last year.

But as of this month, Verizon and AT&T are finally using this mid-band 5G across the country — hence all the talk about it. That matters because mid-band 5G can be much faster than the low-band stuff that covers most of the United States, and it reaches a lot further than mmWave. The result: Internet access on your phone that could be faster and even more stable than what you pay your cable company for. Let’s go back to that movie example — a download that might take minutes on a low-band 5G phone could be measured in seconds over mid-band 5G.

That said, this launch hasn’t been free of controversy.

What do airplanes have to do with any of this?

U.S. airlines and the Federal Aviation Administration did their best to delay this new 5G rollout because the specific “C-band” frequencies Verizon and AT&T are using could interfere with the radio altimeters used in certain planes.

But even that situation is changing fast. On Thursday, the FAA said more than a dozen common airplane models have altimeters that have been cleared for use at airports where this new 5G has been deployed. Altogether, this accounts for more than 75 percent of the nation’s commercial fleet, but it’s important to note that some planes may never get that kind of certification.

Verizon and AT&T went ahead with their 5G launches on Wednesday but with an important caveat: They would hold off on launching their updated service near airports and runways.

What’s happening with 5G and your upcoming flights

Where can I actually get this service?

If you’re an AT&T customer with the right kind of phone, you can tap into this new flavor of 5G in “limited parts” of Austin, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Chicago, Detroit, Jacksonville, Fla., Orlando and Miami. The best way to tell if you can access the upgraded network is to look at the carrier logo on your phone’s screen — if it says “5G+”, you’re either getting mid-band or mmWave 5G service.

Things are a little trickier if you’re a Verizon customer. The company says it aims to cover 100 million people with this mid-band 5G in the coming weeks, but for now at least, Verizon’s own coverage maps don’t make it any easier to find. Your best bet: keep your eyes peeled for your phone’s on-screen carrier logo to say “5G UW” — the “UW” stands for “ultra-wideband.” Just like on AT&T, that means you’re running on mid-band or mmWave 5G.

Once you see either of those telltale logos, it should be pretty easy to tell which network your phone or tablet is cruising on.

A steady mmWave connection can give you download speeds higher than 1 gigabit per second, or gbps, fast enough to put all but the most impressive home Internet connections to shame. Mid-band 5G connections won’t be nearly as fast in most cases, but according to speed tests performed by phone enthusiasts, the results can be surprisingly close.

Will I need a new phone to use this new 5G?

That really depends when you last upgraded. The list of phones that have been certified to work with AT&T and Verizon’s mid-band 5G is still pretty small, but it includes a handful of popular models.

People who bought an iPhone 12 or 13, for example, are good to go on either carrier. The same is true if you use Samsung’s high-end Galaxy S21 phones, or its new foldables: the Galaxy Z Flip3 and Galaxy Z Fold3. Google’s new Pixel 6 and Pixel 6 Pro phones also technically support this kind of 5G, but there’s a catch.

AT&T has fully approved these phones for its latest 5G rollout, and they should benefit from better data speeds in the handful of cities where the service is live. Meanwhile, Verizon says it hasn’t completely certified those devices yet, so customers who own them won’t see any changes in network speed or performance for a little longer.

If your phone isn’t on that list, sorry: Chances are you’ll need a new one to tap into these updated 5G networks. Over time, though, most new phones will come with mid-band 5G support baked in, so you probably won’t be able to avoid these network improvements even if you wanted to.

Even with the right equipment, there’s one more thing you might need to tweak to use this improved 5G service: your phone plan.

If you’ve already signed up for a 5G-compatible plan over the past few years, you shouldn’t need to make any additional changes or pay extra. For those who haven’t looked at their plans in a while, be sure to check your carrier’s website for new options. Prices will vary depending on how many lines of service you have on your account, so be sure to compare your current bill and plan to what these companies now offer.

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