As 5G Phones Roll Out, Are They Worth Buying Now?
Here’s the thing. Yes, 5G phones are slowly making their way into the consumer market—the LG V50, which launches this week at Verizon, is just the latest example. And yes, 5G networks are starting to pop up across the country. So, sure, technically the 5G network is available. But the answer to the question—are 5G phones worth the investment right now?—is a little trickier to answer than with a simple yes or no.
To get the answer that best suits the consumer, they need to ask themselves (or retailers need to help educate them around) two questions: Are you living in a city with 5G radios, and how close are you to those radios? For me personally, based on those two questions, the 5G investment isn’t worth it. 5G doesn’t exist in Philadelphia as of yet, and even with plans for the city to get 5G sometime within the next year from one or more of the major carriers, I’m far enough removed from Center City Philadelphia (where the rollout is likely to begin) for it to impact me.
If there’s one thing that we’ve learned in following and covering the early rollout of 5G it’s that, while the network is certainly living up to the speed and latency expectations, the coverage itself is incredibly spotty. Real world testers in Chicago and Minneapolis—the two towns where Verizon officially began its 5G rollout—discovered quickly that, unless they were within sightline of the 5G radios, their speeds greatly reduced or they were essentially unable to access the network. So, even in the cities where 5G is supposedly available it only actually exists in pockets of those cities—far from the blanket coverage that would make me feel comfortable investing in a device that can run on that network.
As it stands, 5G is currently “available” in roughly 30 cities, according to cellularmaps.com. And, aside from a few big-name towns out in California, you’ll find that the majority of the cities where carriers have rolled out their early-stage 5G networks are smaller metropolises.
Notably missing are major population centers in the northeast region of the country and the entire western half of the country outside of California. And, let’s not forget that availability in those cities could mean just a several-block area.
The issues with coverage go back to an earlier conversation we had here, regarding the different types of 5G that carriers can make available, and the ways in which they’ll have to roll it out. Whereas 4G towers could adequately provide coverage across the country, the type of signals that 5G produces require much smaller nodes that need to be deployed throughout a city. Radio towers won’t work for carriers looking to deploy true 5G. That’s going to present major challenges as carriers look to quickly expand the rollout of their 5G networks. That’s not saying it’ll be impossible. But it does mean that, despite all of the hype around 5G’s availability, the rollout could (and likely will) be much more gradual than consumers think—and much slower than carriers are leading them on to believe it will be.
So, circling back to the original question, as with all technology decisions, the choice to buy a 5G-ready phone is going to ultimately come down to consumer preference. Do they want to be a super early adopter, even if that means they won’t be able to realize the full benefits of a 5G network for months—or possibly years? For me, it’s not, and it won’t be until the 5G coverage map looks more like the 4G maps of today.