You don’t need to care about 5G… yet
If you’ve been watching online videos or TV recently, you might feel like you’re being left behind by not having 5G on your phone. But if you’re in the market for a new phone, don’t worry about getting 5G quite yet.
The major service providers are aggressively pushing the supposedly must-have technology through a series of commercials promoting the iPhone 12 and Samsung Galaxy S21. All three major carriers have started deploying 5G, reusing radio frequencies previously used for 2G, 3G, and even 4G.
Certainly, this is a case that you should carefully watch the messenger. Both the phone manufacturers and the service providers have a vested interest in you getting a new phone and subscribing to new, pricier service plans.
4G LTE is probably fast enough for you
So what’s so great about 5G? Well, for most people, 5G probably will not make much of a difference. 4G, also known as LTE, can already provide very fast speeds, or at least speeds more than sufficient for iMessage, WhatsApp, Signal, Facebook, Twitter, news, or watching videos.
Over the past year in Chicago, I’ve used both AT&T Prepaid service and Visible Prepaid service (on Verizon’s network). Using the Ookla Speedtest app, I’ve seen speeds on these 4G LTE services up to 100Mbps (megabits per second), but mostly in the 30–50Mbps range. This is speedier than some people’s home internet.
To put this in perspective, to watch HD videos, Netflix recommends 5Mbps. Anything above that doesn’t really matter. Sending messages and reading websites doesn’t even require 5Mbps download speeds. Sure, some additional speed will make your overall experience better, but when watching videos and reading news, you probably won’t be able to notice a difference between 10Mbps and 50Mbps.
If you have AT&T service and a phone from the past several years, your phone may even say you have 5G already. But this is only marketing. Look carefully. Your phone actually says “5G-E.” AT&T says the E stands for “evolution.” The technology behind 5G-E is simply the most advanced version of 4G. All of the major cellular networks deploy this technology, but only AT&T labels it 5G-E.
Benefits of 5G
There are multiple types of 5G, but, for phones, the benefits are limited. Regular 5G is very similar to speedy 4G. Using an iPhone 12, I’ve seen Verizon’s Visible service provide me speeds around 200Mbps, which is pretty fast, but completely unnecessary for my purposes. With lower reception bars, though, I’ve also seen 5G deliver a mere 2.5Mbps, so 5G doesn’t necessarily always mean fast.
Another type of 5G is even faster than regular 5G. Called 5G mmWave, and sometimes branded as “Ultra” 5G, it can provide speeds indistinguishable from the fastest home internet. In other words, it’s probably overkill for anything you’re doing on your phone.
Even so, 5G mmWave has some major drawbacks when used on phones. The radio frequencies it uses don’t usually pass through walls or other objects, which means a limited range. If you want that high speed, you have to basically be standing outside on the block with the tower. Additionally, current 5G mmWave cell phones currently require a lot of power. This means 5G mmWave will drain the battery on your phone quickly. In fact, on iPhone 12 models Apple disables 5G, if 4G provides similar speeds, to save battery power.
5G is good but it won’t change much for you
The real benefits to 5G aren’t necessarily for consumers using it on phones. Because the various 5G versions can be so fast, it can actually replace wired internet providers such as Comcast, Spectrum, Verizon, or AT&T. In some areas of the country, Verizon and T-Mobile are selling 5G Fixed Wireless internet. Instead of a cable, you self-install an antenna in an area of your home with the best cellular reception, and connect your home devices to the Wi-Fi provided by that system.
5G will help service providers because 5G is more efficient with allocation of radio spectrum. Basically, it means that when their 5G networks are fully built out, the same radio frequencies previously used for 3G and 4G can provide better and faster service for more people. That’s good in general, but doesn’t mean much for you right now.
You don’t need 5G right now and maybe you can’t have it anyway
The main promise, right now, of 5G is faster download speeds, for most consumers. The 4G LTE service you have right now is most likely sufficient for what you are doing–or will do for the next several years. If your current speeds are low and your phone is relatively recent, you may actually be better off changing service providers than getting a new 5G phone.
Keep in mind that most 5G networks are relatively recent. As with the rollout of 4G LTE, getting to all areas of the country will take time. Many places don’t have 5G, let alone mmWave 5G, and most won’t have it for a while.
If you are happy with your phone, there’s no need to upgrade merely to get 5G. If you’re in the market for a new phone, lack of 5G on your preferred phone isn’t a dealbreaker. If your new phone has 5G, consider it merely a bonus.
Remember, 5G is a technology, and that technology doesn’t guarantee faster speeds, but will eventually make faster speeds more likely. One day, when 3G and 4G are completely gone, you’ll absolutely need a 5G phone, but the world is a few years away from that.
At this time of great need, please consider giving to your local food bank. In the Chicago area, I recommend the Greater Chicago Food Depository.
Based in Chicago, Jerry Galvin has over 15 years of experience in data center and cybersecurity operations. He currently specializes in vulnerability management.