Everybody loves new gadgets, especially those of us with a geeky, techy predisposition (and because you’re reading this, I’ll naturally assume that includes you). We’ve been hearing for years already about the new generation of wireless technology that’s going to change all our lives for the better. This publication, along with many others, has done more than its share of oohing and aahing over what 5G can and hopefully will do (see this issue’s cover story, for example). And it’s not all hype either—we believe in the dream and the microwave/RF engineering community’s resolve to make it happen.
Tantalizingly, some real, live 5G-capable handsets have arrived in the form of devices like Apple’s iPhone 12/12 Pro, Samsung’s various Galaxy products, the OnePlus 8 Pro, and Google’s Pixel 5. Now, my current smartphone is a couple of years (and product generations) old. It still looks and works like new, the battery is in good shape, and it shows no sign of failing me or even slowing down anytime soon.
So, with a new generation of technology in the offing and begging to be stuffed in my pocket, I begin pondering the notion “should I, or shouldn’t I?” What can one expect from a shiny new 5G phone? Can it really teleport me onto the U.S.S. Enterprise like Captain Picard? Or, will I end up wondering why I was in such a hurry to hand over as much as $1,999 for the 5G version of Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2?
Well, it depends. The major U.S. carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon) all tout nationwide 5G coverage. But as we all know, their networks are still in the process of being built out. And, in most of that “nationwide coverage,” what we’re talking about is the low-band flavor of 5G, which isn’t much better than 4G LTE—maybe 20% faster data rates. While the carriers attempt to mollify you with that sort of coverage, they continue to proliferate mid-band 5G in large markets. That’s a little more like it, but it’s certainly not the life-changing experience we’ve been promised.
Now, millimeter-wave 5G? THAT’s a life-changing experience. But to have it, you must bring your 5G phone to a city like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. And then, you’ll have to stand on just the right street corner to find that signal. Verizon, the current leader of the pack, has what it’s calling 5G Ultra Wideband fired up in 55 markets across the country. It’s probably not coming to my neighborhood anytime soon, and perhaps not yours either.
What it boils down to is this: 5G is very new; it’s a costly and lengthy process for the carriers to get their networks up and running in a given area; and, let’s face it, it’s still somewhat of a product of marketing. That doesn’t mean it won’t eventually give more of us a chance at that life-changing experience. But it’s a matter of time and maturation. Me, I think I’ll hang onto my good old LTE banger for now and wait until things mature just a bit more.