The launch of 5G smartphones this year ushers in the era of gigabit speeds, augmented and virtual reality, connected cars and smarter homes. You can shop now for the Samsung Galaxy S10 smartphone and look for devices announced by other phone makers such as LG, Huawei and ZTE. But how soon will you be able to download full-length movies in mere seconds on your shiny new 5G smartphone?
Buying a 5G-compatible phone is just the first step toward enjoying next-generation wireless services. You’ll need a carrier that’s upgraded key central switching equipment, and that won’t come until late 2019 or sometime in 2020. Only a handful of consumers will be able to use their 5G devices any time soon.
“While 5G is a huge technology leap, it’s very difficult to deploy in suburban and rural areas,” says Sina Khanifar, Repeater Store’s CEO. Repeater Store sells cellular boosters. The 5G technology can deliver extremely high speeds but has a hard time going across far distances and piercing solid surfaces like the walls of houses. That means multiple 5G small cells will be needed to cover an area currently served by a single cell tower emitting 4G LTE.
“The higher millimeter wave 5G signals mean that a tower needs to be installed every few blocks. A majority of the country is unlikely to see 5G anytime soon,” Khanifar told Forbes.
Experts say 5G networks will only be available in a select few places this year and won’t be available at all for most areas. You’ll know when to buy a 5G phone if your keep an eye on your carrier’s progress in launching a 5G wireless network.
“I wouldn’t buy a 5G phone until it supports 5G in one of the lower-frequency bands,” Michael Thelander told The New York Times. Thelander is president of Signals Research, a wireless consultancy. “For all operators but Sprint, this means at least late 2019, and more likely 2020.”
Sprint and T-Mobile plan to start their 5G networks with lower frequencies. The result may be broader range but somewhat slower initial speeds.
Verizon and AT&T are introducing their 5G phones on networks with high frequencies. Since high frequency signals don’t travel as far as low frequency signals, the two carriers are expected first to target cities with densely populated areas. AT&T and Verizon customers who live in suburbs and rural areas with get 5G services when the two carriers later add 5G networks with lower frequencies.
Apple will reportedly wait until 2020 to release a 5G smartphone. The company is said to favor waiting until 5G is more widely available and all of the kinks have been ironed out.
Buyers who purchase 5G phones and data plans in 2019 can expect to pay more than they are currently paying. Industry insiders predict prices for 5G phones and 5G data plans will come down by 2020 when 5G is widely available. But it’s not just about the phones.
“5G will be the post-smartphone era,” said Robert J. Topol, Intel’s general manager for 5G business and technology. “Phones are the first place to launch because [they’re] such an anchor in our lives from a connectivity standpoint.”