FOSTER CITY, Calif. – In case you hadn’t heard yet, 5G, the next-generation cellular network technology, is here. All the major U.S. telecom carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, have announced offerings of various types. In addition, there are 5G-capable smartphones now available from several major vendors, including Samsung, LG, Motorola and more. (Unfortunately, you can’t take advantage of 5G’s benefits without a new phone. Sorry.)
Now for the obvious question: Is it time to jump in on this promising new technology, or does it make more sense to wait?
The short answer for many people is that you are probably better off waiting. But the longer answer for many others is, it depends.
To understand why, it’s important to know that not all 5G is the same. In fact, there are essentially several “flavors” of 5G, determined by the radio frequencies on which they transmit. Each of those flavors has unique characteristics. (If you want to learn a bit more about how frequencies impact 5G, see my previous column, which explains the technology behind 5G in more detail.)
What are the different flavors of 5G?
The sub-6 GHz signals, which use lower frequencies, travel farther and therefore offer a much wider range of coverage, which is critical for more rural parts of the country. The millimeter wave (mmWave) signals, on the other hand, can offer significantly faster performance but offer a significantly smaller range (think Wi-Fi hotspot size per mmWave cell).
Ideally, of course, you would want a service and a phone that would support both types, but, unfortunately, none of those exist yet in the U.S. While most carriers have what are called spectrum in each of those frequency ranges, the earliest 5G phones only support one or the other. This is a big part of the reason that some people are waiting.
Another key question to ask yourself: Are you (or the person who’s ultimately getting the phone) in an area that currently has 5G service or is expected to get it soon?
We’re still in the early days of 5G, so coverage is definitely limited. However, carriers have finally started publishing coverage maps that allow us to see where their 5G service offerings are available.
If you are in a coverage area, ready for a phone upgrade, and are considering whether or not to get a 5G-capable device, then the story starts to be more compelling. For one, 5G is going to offer you faster download speeds in a given location than you’ve been able to get with 4G. If you’re the type of person who downloads a lot of Netflix, Disney+ or Amazon Prime videos, you could see nice improvements.
However – and this is important – depending on the type of service available, those speed improvements may not be very impressive, at least for right now.
Why 5G won’t really be any faster – yet
AT&T has said that its new low-band 5G service, which uses the farther-reaching sub-6 GHz frequencies, is expected to offer speeds that are essentially comparable to their existing 4G service (which may appear on your phone now misleadingly labeled 5Ge). Thankfully, they aren’t charging more for 5G service if you have one of their unlimited plans – some carriers are – but that’s still a bit of a tough sell.
Part of the problem is that the early 5G networks aren’t yet leveraging all the potential technologies that will eventually allow 5G devices to reach much faster download speeds. However, all of the carriers are committed to making those improvements over time.
What that means is that 5G service will get faster as carriers upgrade their networks, even on the early 5G phones. To be clear, you can’t make a sub-6 GHz phone work with millimeter wave via a software upgrade or vice versa, but software and hardware updates to cellular networks will start to make these new sub-6 GHz phones and services faster next year.
For millimeter wave-based devices and services, performance can be great already – but it’s only in very limited areas (and, oh by the way, generally only outside because the signals can’t go through walls). So, the network upgrades for companies like Verizon are going to involve extending the range of their network, which, frankly, is a tougher and generally slower task.
5G phones in a 4G world
For either sub-6 GHz or mmWave, it’s important to remember that early 5G phones can also use 4G. In fact, most 5G phones currently have the most advanced version of 4G (LTE Advanced Pro) built-in, which means you’re going to get the best possible 4G experience on those phones if you do fall outside 5G coverage areas.
If you’re eager to get access to the latest technologies and can patiently wait for network upgrades that will make the service better, then jumping into 5G now does make sense. If not, there’s always next year.
USA TODAY columnist Bob O’Donnell is the president and chief analyst of TECHnalysis Research, a market research and consulting firm that provides strategic consulting and market research services to the technology industry and professional financial community. His clients are major technology firms including Microsoft, HP, Dell, Samsung and Intel. You can follow him on Twitter @bobodtech.