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The 5G network of the future is not here now

Houston Chronicle logo Houston Chronicle 9/2/2020 By Dwight Silverman, Staff writer
a crane on top of a pole: The 5G wireless data service you can get now is not what it will be in the future. © Jeff Roberson, STF / Associated Press

The 5G wireless data service you can get now is not what it will be in the future.

So you think you’re finally ready to buy a 5G smartphone? They’re certainly not hard to find, but if you’re shopping for a new device, temper your expectations about the next-generation wireless data network.

A week ago I reviewed AT&T’s 5G network and found it to be inconsistent. Like T-Mobile’s 5G network, it is mostly a marginal improvement over 4G LTE. AT&T also has a faster tier using millimeter wave spectrum, but it’s in very few places in Houston. (Verizon only offers millimeter wave, and it’s also as rare a bird.)

Right now, the majority of smartphones you can buy from wireless providers still use the older and more ubiquitous LTE. In a quick check Sunday afternoon, T-Mobile had 29 devices for sale on its website, and only 10 of them were advertised as supporting 5G. On AT&T’s site, there were 42, and eight were touted as 5G. Verizon had 61 devices, and 12 were 5G.

This fall, those 5G numbers are expected to make a leap when Apple introduces its newest iPhones, as most analysts and prognosticators are confident all of them will support 5G. The rumor du jour has Apple rolling out four new devices of various sizes, all with 5G capabilities. If those predictions are correct, buyers of the next iPhone will get 5G whether they want it or not.

But do smartphone buyers truly lust for 5G? I asked my Twitter followers whether they thought it was important to have on their next phone. Surprisingly, of the 552 who responded, “don’t care” was the most common answer, followed by “Nice to have.” Together, “Critical” and “important, not critical” brought up the rear.

Of course, Twitter polls are hardly scientific. And many of my followers are techies, or at least interested in tech, but still — this should give pause to those who are marketing 5G as connectivity nirvana. They have a lot more work to do.

Even more interesting were some of the replies I got. Some responded that their 4G phone was fast enough, and they weren’t convinced that 5G’s gains would be that meaningful.

Indeed, 5G in its current form is not going to blow anyone away. But as it evolves, it will become more impressive. But buyers of current 5G phones may or may not be able to benefit from these changes when advances in the networks roll out.

Anshel Sag, an analyst who works for Moor Insights & Strategy, said the 5G you see now is not the 5G you’ll get later. Eventually, all the carriers will have a service that spans the lower, mid and upper speeds of 5G. Right now, the only carrier who does that is T-Mobile, but even then only in a few U.S. locations.

“We are still in the first 18 months of these networks being deployed,” Sag said. “The first year or two are growing pains, but 5G is rapidly expanding in ways that 4G never did at first.”

Reviews of 5G networks have been lukewarm at best, and that may be causing wariness among consumers. But it won’t always be this way.

“The reality is, every 5G network will eventually have low, mid and high frequencies, and until they do, it’s not the real 5G,” Sag said, adding that he calls this the network’s “toddler phase.”

“It’s cute and amusing now, but there’s lot of room for it to grow and get smarter,” Sag said.

So what does this mean for someone who is about to buy a new phone that they’ll expect to last for years?

Right now, Sag said, there are not a lot of smartphones that are ready for the 5G future. For example, only the higher-end Samsung phones, such as the Galaxy Note20 Ultra, will handle all of the spectrum offered by T-Mobile.

It’s possible that the 5G iPhones coming from Apple will match that, Sag added, but he expects only the larger Pro models to work with all the available spectrum. Then again, Apple being secretive Apple, we won’t know for sure until later this month or early next.

If you’re an Android owner, you have some options now for a future-proof 5G phone, but they’re limited. If you’re iPhone owner, you’ll have to wait and see.

But the smartest move now may be to wait until the “toddler” is walking with a lot more swagger.

dwight.silverman@chron.com

twitter.com/dsilverman

houstonchronicle.com/techburger

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