10 Reasons You Can Ignore 5G
5G is the Big New Thing in 2019. If you haven't been blasted with 5G hype yet, you're about to be. For the phone industry, it's essential. Phone tech can't move forward without 5G, and in fact it's probably necessary just to maintain the status quo. That's why every company in the industry is spending billions on it. And since they're spending billions on it, they want to justify that expense by getting you, the consumer, excited about it, too. But how will it actually impact you? Do you need a 5G phone? Should you care about 5G in 2019?
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No. That's the short answer and hard truth. You, the consumer, can safely ignore 5G in 2019. Even if you're a phone enthusiast who frequently upgrades to the latest high-end phone, you should probably wait until 2020 to even think about getting a 5G phone. And if you're a more average consumer, you shouldn't care about it at all. By the time you should care, most phones will include some form of 5G, so the choice will be made for you. There is one exception, which I'll go into below, but that's the bottom line for most people.
This is part two in a series. Part one was an intro to 5G, so if you're not familiar with 5G, consider reading that before continuing.
1. The first wave of 5G phones only does partial 5G
The first 5G phones have several compromises, but the biggest is that they won't support 5G in most of the mobile frequency bands currently used (for 3G and 4G). That's important because US carriers will launch 5G in those bands before the end of 2019, and eventually that will form the bulk of 5G coverage in the US.
So if you lay out cash for a first-wave 5G phone, you may find yourself with upgrade envy in very short order. Your first-wave 5G phone will only be able access part of the 5G network, denying you the best 5G speed and coverage. Most people will be better off waiting until the second wave of 5G phones in late 2019, which will support more frequency bands and more key parts of the 5G standard. Or better yet, wait for the third wave of 5G phones in early 2020, which should offer 5G with less compromise on phone size and battery life.
This is a particularly acute issue with AT&T. I strongly recommend skipping first-wave 5G phones if you're with AT&T.
It's assumed that the same issue will eventually apply to Verizon and Sprint, although the timescales for that are less clear; it may be a year or two before a first-wave 5G phone feels inadequate on those networks.
T-Mobile is avoiding this issue by waiting to launch 5G until the second wave of 5G phones is available. (They don't have a choice, though; they don't yet have access to any frequency bands that the first wave of 5G phones can use.)
2. The networks aren't up to full speed yet
The 1.0 version of the 5G NR standard includes a list of specific technologies. The thing is, some rather key technologies in that list are missing from the initial phones and networks. In the initial launches this year, everything is just the bare minimum to be called working 5G. It is real 5G (unlike AT&T's "5Ge"), but it's much slower and less capable than the more-complete 5G implementations that are coming in less than a year.
For example, the first 5G networks only support data in one direction: down. You can't yet upload a photo over 5G. (You can upload a photo, it just happens over the 4G network.)
There are other very technical things that aren't enabled yet (better MIMO, 256 QAM, beam-forming, etc.) that will eventually be switched on and deliver better speed and coverage. You could think of the first 5G networks as implementing version 0.5 of the standard.
As a result, real-world tests of the first 5G networks have, indeed, shown less-than-impressive speed and coverage. Because of the way they're phasing things in on the network side, you won't see the full benefits of 5G until the second or third wave of 5G phones are out anyway. That's all the more reason to wait.
3. 5G phones will be expensive for a while
The first 5G phones are all quite expensive, and that will remain the case for the first year or two. There are some sub-$1000 5G phones overseas, but in the US, expect to a pay a very large premium for a 5G phone in 2019.
Prices will come down a tad when Qualcomm builds the 5G modem right into the main processor chips in 2020, but even then, it will be the faster chips for pricier phones that get this capability first. It will take time for this technology to reach mid-range phones.
4. There's a size penalty for 5G
The first and second wave of 5G phones all require extra chips inside to enable 5G. That adds to size. Some also require extra cooling to keep everything from overheating. Extra chips require more power, too, affecting battery life. Not until the third wave of 5G phones in 2020 (with the 5G modem integrated into the main chip) will it even be possible to make a 5G phone without these trade-offs on size and battery life.
It's important to understand the difference between sub-6 5G and mmWave 5G. If you need to brush up, check out our previous article on the basics of 5G. Briefly, mmWave offers the fastest data speeds, but with limited coverage.
There's an additional size penalty for phones that support mmWave 5G (not all 5G phones will), because mmWave requires a whole new kind of antenna to access its super-high frequencies. And it requires two or more of these antennas. That's because your finger can block the signal completely. So there need to be multiple antennas carefully arranged around the phone so that one antenna is always exposed no matter how you hold it. These mmWave antennas are in addition to all of the other (many) antennas that modern phones require, so they make the phone a little larger. That may always be the case for phones that support mmWave 5G.
5. mmWave coverage will always be limited
mmWave uses radio frequencies so high that they have very different properties compared to the frequency bands phones have used to date. On the plus side, mmWave signals, when you can get them, should offer blistering data speeds that aren't possible with sub-6 5G.
On the down side, mmWave "towers" only reach a few hundred feet, and the signal has trouble going through walls, or even glass. (It's almost better to think of mmWave like super-charged WiFi that happens be run by your phone company.)
This means its coverage will always be limited to just the densest areas, such as downtown in major cities, stadiums, convention centers, etc. mmWave will never, ever be available out in the boonies. So if you don't frequent the central areas of major cities, mmWave may never matter to you.
All major US carriers have plans to launch 5G in mmWave, but most also plan to offer sub-6 5G (in those more traditional bands used for 4G today). Importantly, sub-6 5G should eventually offer the national coverage you're used to with 4G today. AT&T and Verizon are starting 5G in mmWave bands. AT&T plans to quickly add sub-6 5G by the end of 2019. Sprint and T-Mobile are starting with 5G in sub-6, and plan to add mmWave 5G later.
6. mmWave doesn't work well indoors
mmWave signals can't penetrate walls, nor humans, and they even have some trouble with glass. So if you rarely use your phone outdoors, mmWave might not be very relevant to you. These coverage limitations of mmWave are due to physics; there's only so much than can be done about them.
The exception will be large buildings that regularly accommodate throngs of people, like arenas, train stations, and convention centers. You can expect mmWave antennas to be deployed inside many such buildings, just as carriers have done with 4G. And where that happens, mmWave 5G should be very useful and a nice experience indeed.
Bottom line: whether you should care about mmWave 5G depends entirely on where you spend your time. There are plenty of people who will go years without ever being near a mmWave 5G signal, and plenty more who will only be able to take advantage of it for a very tiny portion of their day.
7. Sub-6 5G isn't that fast
That leaves sub-6 5G. It will offer coverage similar to 4G, and it will be faster than 4G. But the speed difference is only expected to be around 50% faster. That's nice, but not mind-blowing. Companies will likely advertise the mind-blowing speeds of mmWave 5G because it sounds impressive, but in a year or two, sub-6 5G is the 5G most people will use, most of the time.
8. 4G is still getting better
The 4G standard is called LTE, which stands for Long Term Evolution. True to its name, it has been able to evolve over a long period time, regularly adding new features that improve performance. Today's LTE networks offer data speeds up to ten times faster than the first LTE networks.
That evolution continues. 4G networks and phones continue to get faster as new capabilities are enabled on both the network and phone sides.
9. Good unlocked 5G phones are a way off
It took a few years after the launch of 4G before you could buy an unlocked 4G phone that would work on most US 4G networks. As it was with 4G, you should expect it to be with 5G as well. The first 5G phones for the US will only be sold by the US carriers, and only be capable of connecting to that one 5G network. So if you prefer your phones unlocked, you may be locked out of 5G for a while.
10. You'll benefit from 5G even when you're not using it
The good news is that you might benefit from 5G even if you ignore it completely.
mmWave frequency bands are fresh, all-new bands. That means mmWave 5G unlocks a whole bunch of new radio waves that were previously unavailable. So as people start using mmWave 5G, that takes some stress off of the 4G (and 5G) networks using the existing (sub-6 GHz) bands. In dense urban areas, the mere existence of mmWave 5G will add new network capacity that should improve the experience for everyone, regardless of what phone they have.
In areas without mmWave, 5G in the sub-6 bands is more efficient than 4G, so it will help network capacity there as well.
The catch is that some of this will be offset by growing demand. Every day, more people are using more data on their phones. So it's possible that, in some cases, 5G will merely allow networks to keep up and effectively maintain the status quo.
In other words, the most important benefit of 5G is that it will keep your network from grinding to a complete halt over the next few years. Is that important? Of course! It's vital.
There is one emerging application that may benefit from 5G more than most: streaming gaming. If you're intrigued by Google Stadia, for example, then you should pay a little more attention to 5G than most, and consider getting a second-wave 5G phone in late 2019 or early 2020. The higher sustained data rates and lower latency should provide a noticeable difference when streaming games.
That's why Sprint is going to offer the Hatch game-streaming service alongside its new 5G service. It's a good use case.
5G is great
If you've read this far and think 5G sounds awful… Don't. 5G is great. It's a wonderful thing for the networks, and ultimately for consumers, too. You'll eventually have a 5G phone, and you'll love it.
But should you actively care, as a consumer? Not really. That's simply the nature of the best products and services in our modern lives: a lot of money and effort goes into making sure you never have to think about it. No matter how much certain marketing departments want to convince you otherwise, so it goes with 5G.
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