5G FAQ: What is 5G and what does it mean for the iPhone?

Update 10/13/20: Apple has unveiled the iPhone 12 and iPhone 12 Pro with 5G support. Our FAQ has been updated to reflect this.

The marketing machine for 5G is now in high gear. AT&T arguably fired the first shot when it started re-labeling some of its 4G LTE service “5G Evolution,” complete with a “5G e” logo in the status bar of some phones. Now, 5G is everywhere you look. All three major carriers are spending big money hyping up “5G” and trying to convince you that, first of all, you need it, and what’s more, you need it from that carrier.

It’s all needlessly confusing, too. The carriers are trying to bamboozle us with big bandwidth numbers, misleading coverage maps, and confusing claims that have little to do with reality.

Here’s what you really need to know about 5G and how it’s going to impact you as an iPhone user.

What is 5G, anyway?

Simply put, 5G is the next major step in mobile wireless technology. A very simplified description of the mobile generations looks like this:

  • 1G was the old analog, voice-only cellular stuff from the ‘80s.
  • 2G gave us SMS texts and MMS pictures, and eventually (as a sort of interim step) some limited data transmission.
  • 3G was the birth of the mobile internet. Speeds were slow, but you could load maps and webpages and make crude video calls. The original iPhone was technically a 3G device, though it was limited to connecting to AT&T’s EDGE network, which most consider “2.5G.” It’s successor, the iPhone 3G, connected to proper 3G HSDPA networks.
  • 4G is the LTE service we have today (though some carriers tried to brand their late-stage 3G service as 4G). It has evolved and improved over the years, offering faster data speeds and better reliability. The iPhone 5 was the first to support 4G LTE, though modern iPhones support newer 4G technologies that greatly improve cellular speed and reliability.

5G is the next step, and is meant to take us through the next decade of wireless service improvements. It should offer vastly improved speed, more reliable connections, and perhaps most importantly, it’s being designed to accommodate a vastly expanded number of connected devices.

Why should I care about 5G?

In the short term, you probably shouldn’t. It’s going to take some time before 5G networks are really available everywhere and nearly any mobile device you want to use can access them.

For the most part, you can expect your first 5G phone to offer real-world download speeds ranging from a hundred megabits per second to over a gigabit per second. Depending on your location, phone, and bunch of other variables, you can realistically expect it to be between 50% and 10 times faster than LTE service.