Boston is supposed to get one of those ultra-fast 5G wireless networks before the year is up, courtesy of the cellular giant Verizon. So you’ve got a few months to think about signing on.
My advice: Take some more time — like maybe a couple of years.
That’s how long it will take for 5G to prove its worth for consumers. Maybe by then, 5G phones will be more affordable. The least costly one I’ve seen so far, from Motorola, goes for just under $700, while Samsung has an offering priced at $1,300.
But there’s another good reason to hold off: 4G, a technology that still gets around pretty well for its age.
Consider the iPhone XS, the model that came out last September. It’s compatible with a version of 4G technology called “gigabit LTE” that delivers data much faster than the 10 or 20 megabits per second you could expect from earlier 4G phones. No, you won’t get gigabit-speed downloads, but you can manage 60 or 70 megabits — and even more under ideal conditions.
Gigabit LTE isn’t new; Apple was just late to the party. The 4G upgrade began rolling out in many US cities in 2017, and quite a few high-end Android smartphones have offered it since then, including the Samsung Galaxy S8 and S9 and the LG V30.
About 18 months ago, I tested a gigabit LTE Samsung phone from T Mobile in downtown Boston and got a download speed of 116 megabits per second. That’s far less than the speeds promised by 5G, but fast enough to comfortably stream high-resolution movies or download a full-length movie in five or six minutes.
Besides, the real-world performance of early 5G systems is bound to disappoint. That’s happening in Chicago, one of the first cities to get the new Verizon service. For now, 5G is available only in the city’s downtown and parts of the north side. Even in those neighborhoods, the service can fail when a user enters a building or just turns the corner.
That’s because Verizon is using ”millimeter wave” radio frequencies that can transmit data at extremely high speeds, but don’t travel as far or penetrate solid objects as well.
“If you step behind a glass window or a glass door, you can lose the signal,” said Wayne Lam, telecom analyst for research firm IHS Markit. “It’s very, very finicky.”
Sure enough, early reports from Chicago describe wildly inconsistent results, with gigabit-speed downloads at one location and a complete loss of signal a couple of blocks away. To get more consistent performance, Verizon will need millimeter wave antennas on practically every corner. And it is working on that; plenty of the company’s antennas, disguised as lampposts, are already scattered all over downtown Boston. The same challenge faces AT&T, which is also racing to build millimeter wave 5G.
But because of the short range, covering entire cities with millimeter wave service will take time. And it’s impractical for covering large areas where relatively few people live, such as distant suburbs or rural areas.
So Sprint and T-Mobile are launching 5G networks on lower radio frequencies that cover far more territory per cell. However, the lower frequencies also mean slower data speeds. For instance, Sprint’s new service in Dallas is reportedly running at 300 megabits or more. That’s fast, all right, but not the eye-watering speeds some were hoping for.
Let’s not be too skeptical: 5G is bound to pay off in the long run. Its use of millimeter wave frequencies will shift a lot of data traffic off the current 4G frequencies. That means the nation’s cellular networks should get a lot less crowded.
Ian Fogg, an analyst at the British telecommunications research firm Opensignal, said this could mean faster data performance for all of us, even those still clinging to their old 4G phones.
There’s also the promise of lower latency; that’s the term for that annoying delay before a Netflix movie starts. A latency-free superfast 5G network should enable the development of snappy, cloud-based multiplayer video games and augmented reality systems that look like sunglasses and not space helmets. Lots of consumers will pay for stuff like that.
But for now, the 5G sales pitch is all about speed, and for mobile phone users, that’s actually not that exciting. Gigabit speeds are great for a business office, or a household full of tablets, laptops, and TVs streaming Netflix.
But who needs that much speed for one smartphone? No one — at least, not yet. One day, somebody will find a use for it — a killer app that will make 5G phones indispensable.
Till then, there’s no rush.