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People could not be capable of take full benefit of the 5G iPhone

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Tim Cook, Apple CEO, delivers the keynote address during the 2020 Apple Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) at the Steve Jobs Theater in Cupertino, California on June 22, 2020.

Brooks Force | Apple, Inc. via Reuters

On Tuesday, Apple is expected to release its first iPhone models that support 5G networks.

These iPhones can access faster next-generation networks from Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile for faster download speeds and stronger wireless connections.

In the US, carriers are still building their 5G networks. When the 5G iPhone comes out, some consumers looking for a fundamental change in wireless speed may have to wait for their carrier to catch up on the phone's capabilities, depending on which bands it supports.

The speeds for 5G will be faster, but not necessarily fast enough to upgrade until US carriers have finished building their networks. According to data from Opensignal, a company that tracks the speed of wireless networks around the world, 5G download speeds in the US are only 1.8 times faster than 4G LTE speeds.

In other countries with 5G networks that use the so-called "mid-band frequency", the speeds are five times as high as with LTE, according to Opensignal.

5G is not a monolith. There are three different versions of 5G connections, each using different radio frequencies and with their own advantages and speeds. Ultimately, carriers want to roll out all three different types of 5G over the next two or three years, but no US carrier has yet built all three different types of 5G into their commercial networks.

"If you see millimeter waves and low-band in the US, it's not 5G, these are just two parts of 5G," said Ian Fogg, Vice President of Analysis at Opensignal. "5G will also have mid-band. What we are currently seeing in the US is version .9 or version 1.0, it will improve a lot."

That's a lot of jargon to sift through. So let's break down each 5G type to make it as simple as possible.

High band, also known as millimeter wave, mmWave, or ultra broadband

This is the fastest type of 5G, but there are limitations based on the radio frequency used. It can't travel as far as other waves, which means airlines will have to build more stations to distribute it, and it will mainly target dense urban areas. Verizon has bet a lot on millimeter waves, which it calls ultra-broadband, though it's currently only available in 36 cities, according to its website.

The advantage is that the maximum speed of a millimeter wave connection can exceed 1 gigabit per second, according to carriers like Verizon. This blows away current 4G LTE networks, potentially allowing users to download movies in seconds.

AT&T and T-Mobile are currently also building millimeter waves into their networks in large cities. So far, the millimeter wave is a US-based phenomenon, Fogg said, and other countries have not launched commercially available networks, just trials. However, that could change if the new iPhones support the millimeter wave.

Midband

Mid-band is the most widespread type of 5G in the world, but has not yet become widespread in the US as carriers need the FCC to sell rights to certain wavelengths they need to run the network. Auctions are scheduled for later this year and next year. Fogg said it is the "Goldilocks band" for 5G, making up for the distance traveled at significantly faster speeds that US consumers will notice.

In South Korea, more than 10% of mobile subscribers are currently connected to 5G, which means mid-band in the country. The medium-band speeds can be between 100 and 300 Mbit / s, which is comparable to a cable broadband connection. In the United States, T-Mobile released commercially available mid-band 5G in a number of cities and states in September, using the rights to wavelengths from the Sprint merger.

Low band

This is what ads from US airlines that boast of "nationwide 5G" coverage refer to. It's faster than 4G networks, but it's the slowest type of 5G. Its biggest advantage is that it offers the best range and that in the USA the wavelengths required for operation are already available to carriers.

AT&T and T-Mobile currently offer low-band 5G in many different regions and states. In the case of T-Mobile, it has already been announced that it will be available in all 50 states. However, users will see the slightest improvement in speed with low-band 5G and it may not be worth upgrading to a 5G phone if only low-band is available. On average, the speeds don't feel much faster than the usual 4G connection.

Ultimately, carriers will offer all three types of 5G, and smartphones will be able to connect to multiple bands for better performance.

"We are really at the beginning of the 5G era. We are seeing various US airlines taking the lead with part of the 5G service," Fogg said.

Eventually, in urban areas, airlines will offer millimeter wave services to reach very high speeds, medium band to cover most of the area with good speeds and coverage, and low band to reach large areas.

An event like the launch of the 5G iPhone could also trigger a wave of announcements from carriers around the world that they are expanding or switching on 5G networks. In countries like the US and Japan, where a large segment of the population uses iPhones, 5G iPhone sales could create a critical mass of 5G users, prompting carriers to speed up their network plans.

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Katherine Clark