What is 5G Ultra Wideband? How your phone's internet may soon change

5G Ultra Wideband
(Image credit: Shutterstock)

5G doesn’t just have an availability problem (with much of the world still lacking coverage) it also has a branding problem – at least in the US, where there are several different flavors of 5G, and more than a few different names to go along with them.

One of those names is 5G Ultra Wideband, which started popping up for lots of Verizon users in January 2022, so if you’ve seen this on your phone, you might understandably be wondering what it is.

We’ll cover that below, along with explaining all the other names for 5G that are currently doing the rounds. Before we get to that though, it’s important to know what different 5G technologies are available.

Low frequency, C-band and mmWave

5G connections rely on radio waves known as spectrum, and this can operate at different frequencies. Broadly speaking, the frequencies used by 5G are split into three ranges.

First up there’s low frequency spectrum, which is generally considered to be anything under about 4GHz. This low frequency spectrum can travel a long way, and it’s also good at penetrating buildings and other obstacles, making it a convenient way to build up widespread 5G coverage.

But it doesn’t support especially high speeds, often coming in only a little faster than 4G LTE. You can expect download speeds that average over 100Mbps, but it less often passes 200Mbps.

To get a speed boost you need to move to higher frequency spectrum, such as C-band. This is basically the mid-band or mid-frequency, and officially covers frequencies in the range of 4-8GHz, though US carriers are currently considering spectrum in the 3.7-3.98GHz range to be C-band.

In any case, this supports much higher speeds, and while it’s not quite as long-range or robust at passing through obstacles as lower frequencies, it still does a reasonable job of both. TechRadar recorded a speed of 474.51Mbps using C-band 5G, which is far higher speed than is arguably even useful much of the time.

Finally, there’s mmWave (or millimeter wave), and this refers to spectrum of 24GHz and above. It’s not as widely used worldwide as the lower frequencies, and while it is used in the US, mmWave coverage is currently very limited.

That’s because providing mmWave coverage is tricky – all those benefits of low frequency spectrum are weaknesses of mmWave, as it’s short range and struggles with obstacles. That said, when you do get an mmWave signal it’s blazing fast, often offering speeds of well over 1Gbps.

What about sub-6GHz?

Sub-6GHz is often mentioned in the same breath as mmWave, and that’s because it’s a name that covers all the widely used 5G bands that don’t fall under mmWave – specifically bands of 6GHz or less.

So both C-band (or at least the C-band frequencies in current use) and low frequency 5G are considered sub-6GHz.

That said, depending on who you ask you might find spectrum of 1GHz and below isn’t considered part of the sub-6GHz range, despite being below 6GHz. In those cases you’ll likely see these very low frequencies referred to as low-band or similar.

So what’s Ultra Wideband?

Ultra Wideband isn’t an official name for any 5G technology, rather it’s a marketing name used by Verizon.

The carrier refers to both its mmWave and C-band networks as 5G Ultra Wideband, so if you’re connected to any of those, then you might see those words on your phone’s status bar (or potentially 5G UW or 5G UWB, depending on your handset).

The carrier refers to slower, low frequency 5G as Nationwide 5G – though on your handset it might simply say ‘5G’.

But the names don’t end there, as the other US carriers have their own terminology. AT&T uses the term 5GE or 5G Evolution to describe an upgraded 4G network, which is to say not actually 5G at all. Then it uses just 5G for low frequency 5G, and 5G Plus for C-band and mmWave. So 5G Plus is the equivalent of 5G Ultra Wideband.

T-Mobile meanwhile uses Extended Range 5G to describe low frequency 5G, and Ultra Capacity 5G (also known as 5G UC) for C-band and mmWave. Though it isn’t actually planning to roll C-band spectrum out until 2023, so at the time of writing you’ll only see 5G UC on your status bar if you’re lucky enough to be in an mmWave area.

An Apple AirTag in a brown leather key fob holder, attached to some keys on a wooden surface

AirTags use Ultra Wideband, but not 5G Ultra Wideband (Image credit: TechRadar)

What does all this have to do with Apple’s Ultra Wideband?

While there are now entirely too many names for 5G, the 5G Ultra Wideband one could be extra confusing, because Apple and some other companies such as Google also use Ultra Wideband technology – and this has nothing to do with 5G.

Also known as UWB, this is a technology that is used by AirTags among other devices, and enables precise location tracking.

What about other countries?

US carriers only recently (as of January 2022) started using C-band 5G, and as a result the number of commonly used 5G terms recently skyrocketed, but in many countries C-band has been used for a while, and the terminology is less confusing.

In the UK for example 5G marketing terms are kept to a minimum – in most cases it’s all just ‘5G’, yet both low frequency and C-band spectrum is in use (no mmWave though at the time of writing).

Australia meanwhile uses low frequency, C-band and mmWave spectrum for 5G, but its mmWave coverage is negligible at the time of writing.

Which handsets work with the faster forms of 5G?

Not all 5G phones support every form of 5G, so even if you’re on a network with mmWave and in an area that has mmWave coverage for example, you’ll still need a compatible handset.

For the most part, most phones sold in a country will support the various 5G frequencies used there, but they won’t always support those used abroad. In the case of the UK, that also means some handsets don’t support mmWave – which isn’t much of a problem as no mmWave 5G is offered there, but one day it might be.

And even within a country not every 5G phone will necessarily support every 5G frequency, especially in the case of C-band in the US, which because it’s only newly been offered isn’t supported by every handset.

In some cases unsupported handsets could get support down the line via a software update, but others will never be capable of accessing this spectrum.

At the time of writing, it’s only the iPhone 13 range, the iPhone 12 range, the Samsung Galaxy S21 range, the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3, Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 3, and the Samsung Galaxy A13 that support C-band 5G in the US on all relevant carriers. The Google Pixel 6 range additionally supports it on AT&T, but not yet on Verizon.

James Rogerson

James is a freelance phones, tablets and wearables writer and sub-editor at TechRadar. He has a love for everything ‘smart’, from watches to lights, and can often be found arguing with AI assistants or drowning in the latest apps. James also contributes to 3G.co.uk, 4G.co.uk and 5G.co.uk and has written for T3, Digital Camera World, Clarity Media and others, with work on the web, in print and on TV.