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.
The best way to get to an answer is by exploring two different questions related to the network’s slow and steady rollout: 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 reducer 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.
Looked at across the four major carriers, “5G networks” are currently live in roughly 30 cities. Notably missing in that coverage map are any major metropolitan areas in the mid-Atlantic and New England regions. New York, Philly, Washington, Boston—all still waiting for 5G to reach their streets.
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.