Did 5G Just Get Real?

2020-10-31  |  5 min read 

US mobile network operator Verizon has been flooding the airwaves with a new advertisement (starring Chris Rock, no less) that declares "5G just got real" in the wake of the launch of Apple's iPhone 12 and the expansion of Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband service. 

But, wait, was 5G not real before? Was it just a hallucination? Does Verizon's declaration hold water? Let’s take a closer look.

First of all, in case you have been sheltering in place in a cave, Apple rolled out its new flagship handset on October 13 with slightly less fanfare than in its pre-pandemic product launches. The iPhone 12 is gorgeous, with a new design and an edge-to-edge Super Retina XDR display that is the largest ever on an iPhone (6.1 inches). We won’t go into all of the new bells and whistles that Apple has included on the iPhone 12. If you are into that sort of thing, you are in luck. There are literally thousands of other blogs and articles available on the iPhone 12 launch that will delve into every detail of the device’s design and capabilities (it's kind of a big deal). 

For our purposes, the main point is that the iPhone 12 is the first 5G iPhone. And, in fact, Apple claims that iPhone 12 features the most 5G bands and offers the broadest 5G coverage worldwide. In other words, iPhone 12 supports both 5G Frequency Range 1 — the sub-6 GHz frequencies ­­— and 5G Frequency Range 2 ­— the millimeter wave (mmWave) frequency range. (It’s unclear if this is the case worldwide; it appears that the US model supports both but that models in other parts of the world may support only FR1).

Meanwhile, Verizon used the launch of the iPhone 12 to announce the expansion of its 5G Ultra Wideband service (which is mmWave) to an additional 19 additional US cities, 19 stadiums, and six airports. The service is now available in 55 cities, Verizon said, with plans to expand that number to more than 60 by the end of the year. Verizon also claimed double the download speeds it had previously boasted, reaching 4 Gbps peak speed in some locations.

There’s kind of a lot to unpack there. To those who work in the wireless communications industry, 5G has been real for a while now. But to US consumers, even those who consider themselves to be early adopters, 5G is still in its infancy and still kind of exotic.

To date, 5G is only available in about 25 countries, according to the GSMA. Of those, only 10 — the US, UK, Spain, Austria, Finland, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, China, and Australia ­— are categorized as “fully launched” by the GSMA. So, clearly, for most of the world, 5G has a long way to go.

But the “5G just got real” message is mainly appropriate for a couple of reasons. For one, the vast majority of 5G deployments to date are FR1. Verizon’s FR2 5G Ultra Wideband service is an outlier, and it may well have a legitimate claim to being the fastest 5G service currently available in the world. Many of the most promising and highly touted 5G applications depend on FR2.

And, of course, while there are already a number of 5G handsets available on the market, Apple’s iPhone is still king of the mountain in terms of sales. According to market research firm Omdia, in the first half of 2020, the iPhone 12’s predecessor, the iPhone 11, was the top-selling handset in the world by far, outselling its nearest competitor, the Samsung Galaxy A51 by well over three-fold (37.7 million units to 11.4 million).

Clearly, without a 5G iPhone, 5G’s reach was limited. Now that iPhone 12 is here, another constraint on 5G’s potential has been removed. And with that, 5G is very real indeed.