While the avalanche of announcements may have made it seem otherwise, today officially marks the first day of Mobile World Congress 2019, and aside from all the ambitious, weird, and sophisticated new handsets on display at the show, without a doubt the other big topic for the show is 5G.
By now almost all the major carriers have already started deploying 5G networks, and with the announcement of the Galaxy S10 5G, a new 5G modem from Qualcomm, and even more 5G-ready phones to follow at MWC, it sort of feels like we’re reaching a critical mass for 5G momentum.
5G is supposed to mark the 5th generation of mobile communication, and with it, tech companies have been making lofty promises about what cell networks could offer in the not-too-distant future. We’re talking about mobile data speeds potentially in excess of one Gbps, latencies of less than five or 10 milliseconds, and networks robust enough to handle the quickly growing number of IoT devices.
But before anyone goes HAM on a 5G tech spending spree this year, there are three big things that have me feeling bearish on 5G between now and 2020.
The first problem is the limited availability of 5G networks. It’s true that depending on where you live, you might be lucky enough to have 5G coverage in your area. If you look at the list of cities with 5G coverage, outside of places like New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and a handful of metro areas in Texas, there’s very little 5G signal to be found. (Just take a look at these maps for a general sense of where 5G coverage is really at.) In fact, right now Sprint doesn’t have 5G coverage of any kind and will be starting from scratch when it launches 5G in nine markets beginning as soon as May.
AT&T is doing a bit better with 12 cities that have 5G coverage of some kind. But if you read carefully, it’s important to note that even AT&T says 5G+ (which is AT&T’s nonsense term for real 5G) is only “available in select areas” within these locations. Translation: You shouldn’t anticipate reliable 5G coverage even if you’re in these places. So you’ll need to figure out if your home is covered as well as other places you frequently visit to ensure you get the full 5G experience.
Verizon started its push into 5G late last year when it introduced what are essentially 5G hotspots meant to be used in homes, while also building out its mobile infrastructure in preparation for the arrival of 5G-ready phones in 2019. Currently, Verizon’s in-home 5G is available in “limited areas” or LA, Sacramento, Houston, Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, due to T-Mobile’s disdain for Verizon and AT&T’s 5G pucks, the carrier chose to skip making 5G hotspots and instead deploy 5G on its 600 MHz spectrum in a smattering of cities. In contrast to the millimeter wave 5G installations favored by AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile’s low-band 5G offers better range and signal penetration into buildings. However, those benefits come with the downside that low-band can’t quite hit the one Gbps data speeds or super fast latency that a lot of people think of in regards to the potential benefits of 5G. And while the company has pledged to bring 5G to 30 cities by the end of the year, even T-Mobile itself admits it won’t have nationwide 5G until 2020.
The second concern for 5G is all the money you’ll need to spend upgrading your tech. Unless you are the unicorn that bought a Moto Z3 last year hoping to be the first kid on the block with a 5G mod, anyone even thinking about trying out mobile 5G will need to buy a new phone. That’s means at minimum, you’re looking at spending at least $500 on a new phone, plus whatever the cost of the Moto 5G mod will be.
Alternatively, if you’re thinking about buying a more “traditional” 5G-ready phone that doesn’t need separate attachments, consider this: Back in December, OnePlus founder Carl Pei said that he expects the company’s upcoming 5G phone to command a $200-$300 premium over a normal 4G LTE phone. That’s a lot of extra dough to spend on a phone for somewhat nebulous benefits.
Meanwhile, even though Samsung listed prices for the new $750 Galaxy S10E, $900 S10, $1,000 S10+, and the painfully expensive $2,000 Galaxy Fold, Samsung did not provide pricing for the Galaxy S10 5G. But if we do some rough math and use the S10+ $1,000 price tag as a starting point, and then factor in the S10 5G’s giant 6.7-inch screen, its two depth-of-flight cameras, and its all-important 5G modem and antennas, we’re looking at a phone that could easily cost $1,500 or more.
It’s a sort of similar situation for LG’s V50 5G because even though it was announced, neither LG nor Sprint (the V50's first 5G carrier) has announced pricing for the phone. Additionally, it seems like phone makers know these phones will be hard to move based purely on the inclusion of 5G, so both LG and Samsung added things to their 5G phones like depth-sensing cameras or a dual-screen accessory to help increase their value.
In short, anyone thinking about getting a 5G phone in 2019 will need to have more than $1,000 to burn, and that’s not even considering if 5G phone plans will likely cost more than normal, which is something carriers haven’t talked about yet.
Finally, for most people, the speed isn’t worth it. At least not yet. That’s because one of the promises of 5G is the ability to have all sort of devices like drones, cars with cell connections, TVs, and more, all connected to each other all the time so that they can communicate on a super fast wireless network. The problem is that all those various 5G-devices and 5G apps don’t really exist yet.
Right now, if you were to have a 5G phone attached to a 5G network functioning at peak speeds, what would that actually give you? You could probably download a ton of movies and music real quick, but if you’re thinking about streaming, it’s not like there’s an abundance of 4K content to watch.
At Samsung’s booth at MWC, the company demoed an S10 5G running off of what was purportedly a live 5G network that was displaying a stream of an MLB game where you could control the video feed from a number of different cameras. It’s a neat application of the massive bandwidth 5G offers, allowing you to switch from the camera behind home plate to one pointed at first base. But the app was a one-off creation, not something any baseball fan can get just by purchasing a 5G phone.
And with the possibility of sub 10ms latency on 5G, you might be able to play multiplayer games like PUBG, or Smash Bros or Apex Legends (via mobile tethering) with the same kind of lag-free experience you get on wi-fi at home. But that’s about it. The power of the so-called 5G revolution only happens when every device can tap into those kinds of speeds, not just a single device.
As far as 2019 goes, the main groups that might be able to use mobile 5G effectively are businesses that can take advantage of all that bandwidth to send massive files securely back and forth between various off-site locations.
Now all this doesn’t mean I’m down on 5G, as the tech has tons of future potential. Testing out new tech is fun, and being an early adopter gives you first-hand experience observing how new platforms ecosystems develop over time. But for 2019, it’s important to realize what mobile 5G really is: a glorified beta test. At best, it’s like pre-ordering something or funding a Kickstarter, both of which are moves fueled more by hopes and dreams than anything based in reality.
So if you’re someone with spare cash lying around, and you are curious about 5G—or are the kind of person who likes posting “First” in YouTube videos—go ahead, dive into 5G. But for everyone else, you’ll save a bunch of money by waiting, and with 5G adoption rates for phones only expected to hit 0.4 percent in 2019, you won’t miss out on much either.