You probably shouldn’t buy a 5G phone this year
Samsung's new 5G Galaxy phone is now up for pre-sale, but don't rush to purchase it.
You’ve likely been hearing plenty of news about 5G—the next-generation cell network that promises super fast connection speeds. After all, Verizon has touted the fact that it now offers 5G in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis, and AT&T has bragged about launching 5G in places like Atlanta and Houston. Both companies say that more cities are going to join their networks this year. Today, for example, Verizon said that 20 additional cities, like Boston, Denver, and San Diego would be getting on the 5G express train in 2019.
Speeds with 5G could be more than 1 gigabit per second, as AT&T recently boasted. (For comparison, a recent test of my phone’s data connection showed a download rate of about 17 megabits per second, which is about .02 gigabits per second.)
But you should temper your excitement and, most importantly, save your money. This next-gen cell network is indeed coming, but it’s not here yet—and right now, unless you fit into a very specific subset of people, the costs almost certainly outweigh the benefits.
Consider the most prominent handset on the market that can connect to 5G: the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G. It costs $1,300, will only work with Verizon at first, and is available now for preorder. That 5G compatibility adds a $400 premium over the standard Galaxy S10, which costs about $900. Once you get your hands on the 5G handset in May, you’ll only be able to take advantage of those higher speeds in certain places in specific cities. Earlier this month, a reporter for the Verge tried out the network in Chicago, reflecting that, “this feels like a premature launch, and 5G can be awfully hard to come by.” So, even if you reside in a 5G-enabled city, chances that it will work far and wide are slim.
How to connect now
Keep in mind that in order to join a 5G network, where it does exist, a smartphone needs the right antenna and modem. For example, one common type of technology powering 5G networks is called “millimeter wave,” and Qualcomm makes the little components that allow your phone to gobble up those waves. (The Samsung S10 5G, for instance, has a Qualcomm X50 modem in it.)
There are other ways to get on a 5G network now, but none of them are going to involve just the iPhone in your pocket. On Verizon, another way is to buy a Motorola moto z3 phone and then physically attach a $200 “mod” to it to allow it to slurp up the 5G signal. For AT&T, you could buy a separate device to which you’d pair your phone or laptop: a Netgear Nighthawk 5G mobile hotspot for $499, plus $70 a month for the data.
It also costs more to connect to 5G. You need to fork over $10 a month to connect to Verizon’s 5G network, and AT&T’s president, Randall Stephenson, said during an earnings call that they might charge more, too. “I will be very surprised if, as we move into wireless, the pricing regime in wireless doesn’t look something like the pricing regime you see in fixed line,” he said, according to a transcript. He also noted that businesses were “exclusively” their 5G customers now, who were using in place of a regular local network.
As for what’s going on with T-Mobile and Sprint—the two underdog carriers that are hoping to merge—Neville Ray, the CTO of T-Mobile, wrote in a recent blog item that, “5G is at the height of the hype curve right now.” He said of Verizon and AT&T: “They’re both obsessed with claiming first, but at the end of the day, it’s meaningless for consumers.” In other words, Ray is saying that they’re not going to rush into the field with big claims.
A T-Mobile spokesperson said in an email that they would offer 5G through the Samsung 5G handset “when the technology is ready for everyday customer use.” The spokesperson noted that they “plan to have 5G nationwide in 2020.”
5G currently is not widely available, and takes extra equipment or a pricier phone to access. The good news is that the future will likely be better, with more 5G coverage and more devices that can connect to it.
If Apple releases new iPhones this fall and includes hardware in them that permits them to connect to 5G networks at no extra cost, it can’t hurt to have a phone that’s built more future-forward. If it charges extra for a 5G phone, then it likely makes sense to keep waiting.