Tuesday Tip: What is 5G? (and why you don’t need it, for now)

Illustration of a cell phone with a wireless tower and 5G written on it

There is a lot of talk in the mobile world about 5G. You may have heard it. And if you haven’t yet, you soon will, because the telecom giants are preparing their 5G rollout – and with it will come their usual blizzard of hype. At this point, you’ll naturally be asking yourself “What is 5G?” and “Do I need to go out and buy a 5G phone?”

Good questions. We have answers.

What is 5G?

5G is the fifth generation of wireless technology and successor to 4G LTE. It promises a higher speed and capacity with less latency. When it arrives, you’ll be able to browse the internet way faster, upload and download videos much quicker, and use data-intensive apps like video calling with virtually no lag.

To do all this, you’ll need to get yourself a new 5G phone. So should you? Right now, no.

Why you don’t need a 5G phone – yet

Yes, they’re coming. Samsung, Huawei, and others have announced they will launch 5G handsets in 2019. But buying a 5G phone now is like buying a shiny new saddle without a horse – because true 5G is still years away.

This, of course, has slowed the marketing blitz not at all. Among the telecoms, AT&T fired the first shot in early January when it began promoting its mobile network as “5GE” on some of its smartphones. It replaced that little LTE icon you see in the top right corner of your screen with a 5GE icon, which AT&T said stands for “5G Evolution.”

Not so fast said Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, all of which jumped to point out that 5GE is not true 5G. What it is, really, is AT&T marketing-speak for a tech upgrade to its existing LTE cell towers. AT&T describes it this way: “These technologies serve as the runway to 5G by boosting the existing LTE network and priming it for the future of connectivity.”

5GE does provide an increase in speed for AT&T customers in the markets where it’s available. But the upgrade isn’t anything that other carriers aren’t doing themselves. 5GE is just a label that AT&T has stuck on its new, slightly improved LTE network.

So for now, AT&T is pretty much the same old AT&T: a middle-of-the-road carrier that does a lot of stuff you probably don’t agree with if you’re a progressive person, like helping the NSA spy on Americans’ internet activity and donating money to elect racist, white supremacist Steve King to Congress.

So when will true 5G arrive?

It will be at least several years. To function properly, a 5G network will need vastly more antennas and towers and a lot of other new technology, which means mobile carriers will have to invest in an entirely new infrastructure before they can offer their customers true 5G.

In other words, hold off on that expensive new 5G phone. Computerworld says that even though most or all high-end smartphones will likely support 5G by 2022, 5G’s technology challenges are so great that “five years from now your smartphone will be using 4G almost all the time, even when you’ve got a 5G phone in a 5G city.”