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5G Phones Arrive, But Has the Network?

Oct. 28, 2020
You can buy a 5G phone right now. However, can you get real 5G performance? Maybe… or maybe not.

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.

About the Author

David Maliniak | Executive Editor, Microwaves & RF

I am Executive Editor of Microwaves & RF, an all-digital publication that broadly covers all aspects of wireless communications. More particularly, we're keeping a close eye on technologies in the consumer-oriented 5G, 6G, IoT, M2M, and V2X markets, in which much of the wireless market's growth will occur in this decade and beyond. I work with a great team of editors to provide engineers, developers, and technical managers with interesting and useful articles and videos on a regular basis. Check out our free newsletters to see the latest content.

You can send press releases for new products for possible coverage on the website. I am also interested in receiving contributed articles for publishing on our website. Use our contributor's packet, in which you'll find an article template and lots more useful information on how to properly prepare content for us, and send to me along with a signed release form. 

About me:

In his long career in the B2B electronics-industry media, David Maliniak has held editorial roles as both generalist and specialist. As Components Editor and, later, as Editor in Chief of EE Product News, David gained breadth of experience in covering the industry at large. In serving as EDA/Test and Measurement Technology Editor at Electronic Design, he developed deep insight into those complex areas of technology. Most recently, David worked in technical marketing communications at Teledyne LeCroy, leaving to rejoin the EOEM B2B publishing world in January 2020. David earned a B.A. in journalism at New York University.

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